Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I first read Brave New World in high school back in the sixties. Rereading it again in 2020 reveals that it was entirely over my teenage head. I doubt I got even 5-10% of Aldous Huxley’s satire. Although I expect high school and college students of today have both the education and pop-culture savvy to understand it better than I did, it’s really a novel to read after acquiring a lifetime of experience. When I first read Brave New World I was already mass consuming science fiction so it was competing with shiny gosh-wow sense-of-wonder science fiction. I remember liking Brave New World in places, especially the free sex and Soma, but I thought the story somewhat boring and clunky.

This time I discovered why it’s a masterpiece. Listening to Michael York’s wonderful audiobook narration also revealed innovative prose that I would have missed with my tone-deaf inner voice. I can’t recommend the audiobook edition highly enough. York also revealed places where Huxley was experimenting with quick scene cuts, maybe influenced by the recent talkies when he was writing in 1931.

There’s no reason to summarize Brave New World because Wikipedia has done a superb job. What we need to explore is why this literary science fiction story is still worth reading after 88-years, when nearly every other science fiction novel from the 1930s is almost forgotten today. Looking at the Classics of Science Fiction list shows only five books from the 1930s making our list, and all five were from England:

  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1932 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • 1935 – Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1937 – Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1938 – Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

Of course, damn few science fiction books had hardback editions in the 1930s. Brave New World had 30 citations we considered assembling the list:

  1. 1949 – The Seventeen Basic SF Titles – Arkham Sampler
  2. 1952 – Astounding Magazine, the Twenty-Eight All-Time Best SF Books
  3. 1956 – Astounding Magazine, The Twenty-Six All-Time Best SF Books
  4. 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  5. 1976 – The World of Science Fiction by Lester Del Rey
  6. 1976 – Anatomy of Wonder, 1st Edition by Neil Barron
  7. 1977 – “A Basic Science-Fiction Library” from The Road to Science Fiction by James Gunn
  8. 1984 – The Science Fiction Source Book edited by David Wingrove
  9. 1987 – Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 3rd Edition by Neil Barron
  10. 1994 – The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction by David Pringle
  11. 1996 – “North American College Courses in Science Fiction, Utopian Literature, and Fantasy” edited by Arthur B. Evans
  12. 2002 – Strictly Science Fiction: A Guide to Reading Interests by Diana Tixier Herald and Bonnie Kunzel
  13. 2003 – The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn
  14. 2004 – Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 5th Edition by Neil Barron
  15. 2009 – 1000 novels everyone must read (science fiction section)
  16. 2011 – NPR Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
  17. 2011 – Internet Top 100 SF/Fantasy List
  18. 2012 – Locus Poll Best 20th Century Science Fiction Novels
  19. 2012 – AbeBooks: 50 Essential Science Fiction Books
  20. 2016 – Radium Age Sci-Fi: 100 Best Novels of 1904-1933 by Josh Glenn
  21. 2016 – Goodreads Best Science Fiction 100
  22. 2016 – Ranker: The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of All Time
  23. 2016 – Amazon: 100 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime
  24. 2016 – Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: A Basic Science Fiction Library
  25. 2016 – Goodreads Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 200
  26. 2016 – Best-Sci-Fi-Books: 31 Best Literary Science Fiction Books
  27. 2016 – Sci-Fi Lists Top 200 – the novel
  28. 2019 – Worlds Without End: Most Read Books of All-Time
  29. 2019 – The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Penguin Random House
  30. 2019 – 100 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Reedsydiscovery

Brave New World is also considered among the top literary novels of the 20th-century. The Greatest Books site calculates it’s the 67th greatest book of all-time from using these lists:

  1. 5th on The Modern Library | 100 Best Novels (Modern Library)
  2. – 15th on Waterstone’s Books of the Century (LibraryThing)
  3. – 16th on Radcliffe’s 100 Best Novels (Radcliffe Publishing Course)
  4. – 21st on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century (Le Monde)
  5. – 24th on Koen Book Distributors Top 100 Books of the Past Century (themodernnovel.com)
  6. – 31st on 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Complex)
  7. – 32nd on 100 Essential Books (Bravo! Magazine)
  8. – 44th on 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction (Larry McCaffery)
  9. – 53rd on The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time: The List (The Observer)
  10. – The 100 Best Books in the World (AbeBooks.de (in German))
  11. – 100 Best Novels Written in English (The Guardian)
  12. – 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Barnes and Noble)
  13. – The College Board: 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers (http://www.uhlibrary.net/pdf/college_board_recommended_books.pdf)
  14. – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (The Book)
  15. – 100 Novels That Shaped Our World (BBC)
  16. – The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (New York Public Library)
  17. – 110 Best Books: The Perfect Library (The Telegraph)
  18. – The New Lifetime Reading Plan (The New Lifetime Reading Plan)
  19. – The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics (Book)
  20. – From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books (Jeff O’Neal at Bookriot.com)
  21. – The Graphic Canon (Book)
  22. – 50 Books That Changed the World (Open Education Database)
  23. – The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written (Easton Press)
  24. – Select 100 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Okay, so it’s made it to a lot of best-books lists, why is it great? Brave New World is still very readable, very relevant, and a classic example of a dystopian (anti-utopian) novel. But it’s tricky. Where Nineteen Eighty-Four is about a world where people are cruelly treated by the government, in Huxley’s story the government tries to do everything possible to make people happy.

Brave New World is about three men who aren’t happy, Benard Marx, Helmholtz Watson, and John, also called “the Savage.” They should be happy because what they want is offered, they just won’t accept it. In the World State of 2540AD (632AF – after Ford) everyone is either given what they want or conditioned to want what they have. Huxley takes the free love movement of the early 20th-century and has people conditioned from birth to have lots of sex without feeling guilty or the need to be possessive. Every class is eugenically conditioned to like their job. Any kind of unhappiness, anxiety, or depression is quickly fixed. Regular participation in orgies and encounter groups is expected for normal mental health. And a recreational drug with no side-effects is socially acceptable and encouraged. Each class is rewarded with all kinds of stimulating activities and vacations. Work hours are short but long enough to give people purpose, and free time is generous.

In other words, it’s easy to be deceived while reading this book. It’s like in The Matrix when you have the choice between the blue and red pill. The steak tastes just as juicy and delicious in the delusional reality, so why not take the blue pill?

The ending of the novel is horrifyingly tragic but I’m guessing most readers will think that wouldn’t happen to them. But here’s the kicker, it should. Huxley felt we were all being seduced by the technological world and scientific success. In the late 1950s, he wrote Brave New World Revisited where he said the future he feared was arriving much quicker than he expected. I can only imagine his reaction to 2020.

Aldous Huxley and Brave New World are hard to decode. If Huxley was defending traditional values he certainly didn’t live them. Regarding sex and drugs, he lived like his characters in Brave New World. The World State in this story has solved all the political problems we face today, so it’s weird to read it as a dystopia. And Mustapha Mond sounds like a wise and compassionate leader. We have to worry that Brave New World is a Siren’s call.

I remember thinking when I first read this book as a teenager that it was too clinical and antiseptic. Babies were born in bottles, and everyone wore matching clothes to identify their class. And people learned pop jingles that taught them social values. It was scary to think everyone was brainwashed to be happy. But the actual story is much more subtle and sophisticated.

The $64,000 question is why is this old science fiction novel so successful, respected, and remembered when the 1930s science fiction of Edmond Hamilton, “Doc” Smith, John W. Campbell, Jack Williamson faded away? Their space operas spoke to a very tiny readership. Huxley’s book is about universal human problems, the same problems we face today. When I was young space fantasies were important to me, but they mean little today. Now I worry about climate change and Donald Trump and try to imagine a government that will save us from conservative selfishness. How we live, and how we’re governed will always be a universal interest to readers.

Reading Brave New World, or any of the books considered the Top 100 Books of All Time should be of special interest to would-be writers. What percentage of the population does your story speak to?

James Wallace Harris, 1/10/2020

 

 

“Centaurus II” by A. E. van Vogt

Centaurus II by A. E. van Vogt - cover Astounding June 1947

Let’s try to imagine what the average person thought about space travel in 1947 when “Centaurus II” first appeared in the June issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s author, A. E. van Vogt was one of the top science fiction writers of that day. The term science fiction wasn’t wildly known in the 1940s, and only a microscopic portion of the population read it. Science fiction had a small place in the funny papers, comics, radio, and movie serials, but the average American thought of space travel as that “Crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” And if you’ve ever seen a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial you’d know most people would have thought it pretty damn silly. Science fiction was not taken seriously, and older fans talked about hiding their science fiction magazines so no one would see them.

By 1947, most people knew about the V-2 rockets launched against London during the war. A few might have known about the American rocket scientist Robert Goddard and the captured German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. It was still years before popular magazines in the 1950s would present plans to travel to the Moon and Mars for the general public to consider, and another decade before Sputnik and the creation of NASA.

For the most part, it was only the Astounding Science Fiction readers who really believed in the final frontier. The other science fiction magazines of the 1940s published mostly space fantasies for teenage males, on par with Buck Rogers and the comics. They were 100% fantasy and 0% scientific. John W. Campbell Jr. and some of his writers were true believers in space exploration. Campbell wanted his writers to imagine realistic possibilities, and in that sense, “Centaurus II” is a worthy consideration.

Centaurus II - p32-33

Van Vogt assumed faster-than-light travel was not possible for “Centaurus II,” so he used the idea of a generation ship to get to the stars. Nor did he consider suspended animation. Actually, he had already written the classic “Far Centaurus” in 1944 which imagined slower-than-light travel using suspended animation, with the kicker of faster-than-light spaceships being invented after the slower-than-light ship left for Centaurus so that when it arrived it met a colony of evolved humans.

“Centaurus II” is much more realistic and I wonder why? Did the atomic bombs and V-2s sober van Vogt up to consider interstellar travel without the fantastic super-science of older science fiction? Every story has to have conflict and most of the conflicts in the generation ship stories we’ve been discussing involve fantastic plot twists. “Centaurus II” stays down-to-Earth all the way to the stars.

Here’s our reading list with links to the stories we’ve read so far:

There have been seven decades and four generations since the 1940s, and science fiction seems to have changed in every decade, and the expectations of the future have changed with each new generation. Readers reading “Centaurus II” today will probably feel it as silly as an old Buck Rogers serial, but if you squint at this story just right, you’ll realize that van Vogt took his speculative fiction deadly seriously.

Centaurus II - p11

One of the benefits of focusing our reading on a single theme is discovering how a science-fictional theme evolves and changes. “Universe” from Robert A. Heinlein in 1941, which we haven’t read yet, is probably the most famous generation ship story. In it, the crew forgets the mission and believes the entire universe is the ship. Van Vogt has his crew always remember the mission, and the plot conflict is about how the captaincy is passed on.

Van Vogt does something else that’s very realistic. His ship arrives at star after star only to discover their planets are either uninhabitable or occupied. Each captain must ruthlessly push on against mutineers who want to return to Earth. In nearly all the generation ship stories we’ve read, those born in transit often rebel against their predefined role in life. They can’t understand why they weren’t born on Earth, an obvious place for humans, and they resent their crew assignments.

Generation ship stories written in the last decade would have crews knowing their planetary conditions because of our growing knowledge of exoplanets. Science fiction writers in the 2020s will probably imagine a future where all the nearby planets are well studied, maybe even by early robotic probes, before sending a generation ship to visit them. When I was growing up in the 1960s we never imagined we could detect exoplanets, so science fiction still pictured space explorers only learning about distant solar systems after they arrived.

In “Centaurus II” van Vogt has crew work positions handed down from father to son, this creates several of the story’s conflicts. Sadly, van Vogt wasn’t visionary enough to imagine women having significant roles in a starship. I didn’t understand why the jobs weren’t shared. Wouldn’t it be wise if everyone knew something about every shipboard task in case something happens to any of the crew? Plus, they had all the time in the world to learn stuff. By the 1950s John Brunner imagined a woman in command of the generation ship, and women crew members having equal opportunity. It’s a shame van Vogt couldn’t imagine generation ships with more enlightened gender roles and class structures.

What I really liked about “Centaurus II” are the first contacts. Van Vogt imagines alien aliens, with the human explorers barely comprehending their close encounters. In system after system, the crew finds exotic planetary environments unsuitable for human habitation, and sometimes those unearthly worlds produce weird aliens. But their captains don’t make first contacts like Kirk or Picard who open a channel and immediately converses with strange new life forms. Van Vogt has his humans meet up aliens only at a distance without using language. This made me imagine European explorers dealing with Native Americans for the first time.

Another interesting aspect of van Vogt’s story is it doesn’t involve a Prime Directive. But in all the cases the humans worried the aliens were the British and they were the Australian aborigines. In the 1940s van Vogt, Heinlein, and other science fiction writers often feared running into advanced aliens. In Heinlein’s first interstellar novel, Methuselah’s Children, he has his humans encountering aliens so advanced that meeting them in person drove men insane. His ship turned around to run back to Earth with its tail tuck between its fins. Editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of superior aliens, so by the 1950s humans were running all over the galaxy and winning all their king-of-the-hill fights. Heinlein started claiming Homo sapiens were the toughest species in the galaxy, but just a decade earlier he wasn’t so cocky.

It’s interesting how for a while in the 1940s science fiction writers did consider we’d meet aliens that outclassed us intellectually. It’s also interesting that the UFO fad started in the late 1940s. The public, for the most part, wasn’t thinking about humans going to the stars, but a growing number of Earthlings feared being invaded from space. And quite often they thought the aliens would have godlike powers.

Science fiction has always been an inconsequential form of entertainment that sometimes took itself seriously. Would we have ever gone to the Moon if science fiction had not existed? That’s hard to say. The concept of generation spaceships was invented by scientists in the 1920s who read Jules Verne. So which came first, science fiction or science?

For most of my life, I believed we could build a generation ship if we tried. Obviously, van Vogt and all the later science fiction writers believed that too. With every science fiction story, a different consideration about generation ships was considered. However, in 2020 I’m having my doubts. Collectively, we lack the will to get to Mars. No one wants to pony up the money. Sure, Elon Musk claims he will, and I hope he succeeds, but I have my doubts. And I’m not sure going to Mars is the right next step.

How many rockets did it take to build the International Space Station? Certainly, a generation ship would have to be at least a 1,000 times more complex, maybe even a 1,000,000 times. Launching all those rockets from Earth won’t be practical. To me, the only practical solution for building a space-faring economy is to create a self-sustaining colony on the Moon. The Moon should become the shipyards for spaceships.

All the generation ship stories we read so far suggest that Earth built them. In 2020, I’m trying to think ahead like van Vogt did in 1947. I assume in the next 30 years we’ll have Earth and spaced based telescopes that will discover all the nearby planets, and we’ll be able to analyze their atmospheres. Any generation ship we send out will know a whole lot about its destination before it even launches. That solves half the fictional problems van Vogt imagines. I also assume we’ll send probes ahead of human crewed missions. It’s funny, but science fiction never spent much time speculating on unmanned probes and satellites.

In 2020 I assume future interplanetary and interstellar probes would contain AI minds or AI robots. Because of such speculation, the need for generation ships dwindles. We’re now seeing science fiction stories that imagine robotic probes that build humans from DNA printers when they reach a suitable destination. That would also invalidate the need for generation ships. However, I don’t know if such DNA printers are really possible. Science fiction has a habit of inventing super-science technology that turns out to be fantasy, like FTL spaceships.

Anyone writing science fiction in the 2020s should consider the fate of van Vogt’s story in light of seventy years of real science. Why didn’t science fiction writers in the 1940s imagine giant telescopes? Or women’s equality? Or the breakdown of social classes. In all the generation ship stories we’ve read so far, none of them stay in communication with Earth. Why?

“Centaurus II” has two sequels and all three were combined to create the fix-up novel, Rogue Ship.

I’m looking forward to reading generation ship stories from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. I’m hoping for some real surprises. To read our past reviews see Generation Ships in Science Fiction.

Centaurus II - p18

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/2020

 

Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov

I wanted to “read” The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov but it wasn’t available on audio (my preferred format for consuming old science fiction). However, Audible.com had three anthologies of Asimov’s stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. So I wrote out a list of all the stories in The Complete Robot and marked which stories were available on audio in these three audiobooks. After listening to Robot Dreams I had a new appreciation for Isaac Asimov. Now that I’ve finished Robot Visions I have even more appreciation. But boy, I sure am sick of hearing the Three Laws of Robotics being restated.

Robot Visions (1990) has 18 short stories about robots and computers, and 17 essays about writing about robots and computers. Listening to these two volumes you realize just how much of Asimov’s life was devoted to thinking about robots. These stories cover 48 years – from “Robbie” (1940) to “Christmas With Rodney” (1988). Asimov died in 1992, so that’s pretty much his entire writing life.

I read I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy back in the 1960s when I was a kid, and for most of my life, I’ve pigeon-holed Asimov by this experience. I thought of Asimov as a so-so writer of sentimental tales about robots and a creator of a galactic empire epic I didn’t really buy into. During those other decades, I read a lot of Asimov’s nonfiction, and I thought of him as a great explainer. Giving Asimov’s fiction another try this year has made me realize just how wrong I was about his fiction. He’s a very good storyteller. Sure, he’s not literary or stylistic, but he can tell an entertaining story with engaging characters with drama and humor.

I do believe I’m now seeing the best in Asimov because I’m listening to his stories read by professional narrators. Susan Calvin, the famous robopsychologist of his stories revealed many complex dimensions of her personality when I listened to the stories, including murderous rage (“Liar!”) and cold-blood killer (“Robot Dreams” in the previous collection). And I could tell Asimov loved his robot creations, especially in “The Bicentennial Man” and “Robot Visions.”

Of course, what Asimov loved most was creating the Three Laws of Robotics. That gave him a lifetime of plot challenges. Most of these stories involved Susan Calvin or Mike Donovan solving a mystery by using the unerring logic of the three laws. These stories are fun, and often clever, but they usually didn’t have the sentimental charm of stories like “Robbie” or “Sally” which don’t involve the logic of the laws. Robot Dreams also had several of Asimov’s classic short stories not involving robots. So the two volumes make nice Best of Asimov set.

Reading the 17 essays about writing robot stories, you can tell Asimov was quite proud of coining the term robotics and inventing the three laws. And I got the feeling Asimov believes robots will eventually have the three laws incorporated into their programming. I don’t.

Here’s the thing, as much as I enjoy Asimov’s robot stories I believe he failed to imagine what real intelligent robots will be like or how we’ll coexist with them. I got the feeling from his essays that Asimov felt his writing legacy has a lock on robot science fiction. Thirty years after his last robot story I feel that legacy is fading away.

Asimov felt he conquered the robot tale because previous writers mainly used the robot as a threat, and he imagined them as friends and faithful servants. Since then writers have created even more beloved robot characters, even robots humans have sex with. Personally, I don’t think science fiction has come anywhere near what the reality of intelligent robots will be or anticipated our future relationships. I wish I had the energy and skills to write fiction because I see this as a wide-open theme.

I believe intelligent machines won’t be programmed by us but will evolve through techniques like machine learning. This means coding the three laws of robotics will probably be impossible. As AI evolves it will become part of its own evolution in a recursive way that we will never understand.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this collection of stories and essays. They perfectly encapsulate an era of science fiction. I think of science fiction written before real space travel as pre-NASA SF. I believe this book will be a classic of pre-Singularity SF one day.

One last note. I found it interesting that the short stories held up better than the essays. The essays are still worth reading, but they seemed more dated. I wished the publisher had interspersed the essays with the stories instead of leaving them as a clump at the end. I believe Asimov wrote almost 500 books, mostly nonfiction, but eventually, I predict he will be remembered for just The Foundation Trilogy and maybe for the robot stories.

James Wallace Harris, 12/29/19

 

“Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard

Thirteen to Cenaurus by J. G. Ballard

“Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard is the fifth story in the Generation Ships in Science Fiction discussion originated by Joachim Boaz. You can read the story online here. I consider “Thirteen to Centaurus” a superior story. However, none of the generation ship stories we’ve read so far have been popularly anthologized, so they aren’t classics. Maybe it’s time to reconsider that.

I don’t want to say much about “Thirteen to Centaurus” since I don’t want to spoil any of its several plot twists and turns. However, in my previous reviews in this series, I mentioned an idea I had for a generation ship story, and it turns out Ballard already used it back in 1962. Of course, I wouldn’t have developed the idea the same way Ballard did. It does make me wonder if science fiction writers should read all the major stories from a theme before trying to take on a theme? On the other hand, if the average reader isn’t well-read in a theme, does it matter?

I want to believe that J. G. Ballard had read “Lungfish” by John Brunner when writing “Thirteen to Centaurus” because there is a certain synergy between them. The two stand out of the five stories we’ve read. Ballard and Brunner began their science fiction careers in Great Britain in the 1950s. Ballard was being published in New Worlds around the time of “Lungfish” so he probably read Science Fantasy too. I’m not so sure Ballard would have read the Judith Merril, Chad Oliver, or Clifford Simak stories in the American SF magazines, but “Thirteen to Centaurus” seems to reply to them. I have to assume there is a progression of logic when thinking about the consequences of humans living on a generation ship and all the writers are reaching the same or similar conclusions.

So far these SF writers believe humans can’t handle a generation ship mission psychologically. Is that why we mostly read about FTL travel? Several writers have suggested we’ll need to condition or even brainwash the generation ship crew. And all the stories have had an element of conspiracy in them, that for one reason or another the crews don’t know everything. More than one story worries that the ship born generations, the ones who didn’t volunteer for the mission will feel resentment or rebel against the mission. Would you be pissed in such a situation?

I’m hoping to see in future reads a sense of progression past these fears. I’d like to see positive stories about how humans adapt and even create new philosophies, perspectives, and hopes while living on a generation ship mission.

We’ve seen two kinds of story problems so far. First, the writers imagine the kinds of problems crews might encounter on real generation ship missions. Second, writers have imagined problems for the crews to make interesting plots. Before reading these stories I never considered the psychological problems generation ship crew would face. Now that I have, I can see a whole array of further speculation along those lines. Has Philip K. Dick ever written a generation ship story? PKD could have done some weird shit with this idea.

And there are all kinds of considerations the writers haven’t explored. The other day while brushing my teeth I wondered how many toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste must be stored on a generation ship for a mission that will last a hundred years. If a ship has 1,000 passengers, that’s a lot of toothbrushes. Or do they send along a factory that can make them? It’s certainly helped that we’ve developed 3D printers since these stories were written. But really, how do you equip a voyage for a century or millennia?

If the voyage begins with 1,000 crew members and they start having kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, how many sleeping births will be needed? It sounds like a kind of algebra problem, doesn’t it?

None of the stories we’ve read so far had the ship stay in communication with Earth. Is it possible to have radio contact with Earth on a spaceship moving at one-tenth the speed of light? If a one-minute radio message is sent from Earth, how long does it take to record it at relativistic speeds on the ship? Heinlein created a wonderful setup in Time for the Stars with telepathic twins, one staying home and one leaving. If telepathy was possible, how does relativity effect it?

If a generation ship had a large telescope could it be networked with those on Earth or in the solar system to create a really large interferometer? If so, how much detail will we be able to observe in destination solar systems? In these early generation ship stories, the crews travel blindly to other systems hoping to find habitable planets. Knowing what we do about exoplanets and with telescope development, would that ever be true of real generation ship missions? Haven’t we passed the point where the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s story problems wouldn’t exist? I’m really looking forward to generation ship stories from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and so on.

Can we create a generation ship that won’t bring along most of the diseases that plague us on Earth? And if the crew does carry on colds or strains of flu, will they die out because the passengers all develop immunity, or will they mutate in such a small population? What happens to a generation ship crew if they encounter diseases at their destination?

I wonder what shipboard novelists would write about. What if they try to write about life on Earth without ever living on Earth. Can the ship born ever develop a realistic picture of life on a planet from movies and books? What kind of myths will they have about us?

Once we start thinking about the possibilities they are endless. So far, I think the stories we’ve read have been very good but limited in their speculation and imaginations. I’m looking forward to reading more.

I’m surprised that we don’t see more generation ship stories. I guess writers want FTL travel because they want a bunch of interstellar action. In Star Wars they can obviously travel between star systems faster than needing to pee because some of the Star Wars spaceships aren’t large enough for bathrooms. Basically, modern science fiction has made FTL spaceships the new fantasy portal, but they are no more realistic than the wardrobe in the C. S. Lewis stories.

Interstellar travel is probably impossible, but our best chance will be generation ships. I’m surprised we don’t see more of them in science fiction.

Remember, here’s the list of the posts in this discussion so far. Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations leads the group. He will announce the next story.

James Wallace Harris, 12/18/19

 

“Lungfish” by John Brunner

Science Fantasy 26 1957

This is part 3 [Part 1, Part 2] of a group discussion reviewing science fiction stories about generation ships in science fiction. “Lungfish” by John Brunner is the fourth story we’ve discussed and probably the most realistic so far. Reading these stories one after another is both delightful and enlightening. They are an education in writing science fiction. Not only are we learning about a sub-genre, but we see how one writer after the next sets up their version of a generation ship society and contrives a plot. It feels like each story is a reply to previous stories where writers are communicating across time with one another.

The Generation Starship in Science Fiction A Critical History 1934–2001While researching “Lungfish” I found The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934–2001 by Simone Caroti, a whole book analyzing this theme. I’ve gotten so intrigued by generation ship stories that I sprang for the $9.99 Kindle edition. Even though this work started out as an academic paper it’s very readable, and I’m learning a lot. It makes a great companion to our reading group. Caroti brings realistic considerations to topic. For example, it will probably be too expensive to ever build a generation ship.

I wonder if I’m developing an obsession on this theme. But the generation ship has always been one of my favorite sense-of-wonder ideas I found in science fiction. Of course, much of that sense-of-wonder came from reading Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein and it’s particular plot surprise.

If asked before starting this group discussion, how many generation ship stories I’ve read, I would have replied “A bunch.” But thinking about it since then, I realize it hasn’t been that many. I recall reading three novels, Orphans of the Sky, Non-Stop by Brian Aldis, and The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, but only one short story came to mind, “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” by Don Wilcox. When I saw Joachim Boaz’s list of generation ship stories it showed I wasn’t really that well-read after all, having read just eleven of the dozens of titles. Joining this group discussion has added four more. I don’t know how long Joachim will keep this project going, but I’m in for the long haul.

John Brunner uses his title “Lungfish” as a metaphor for comparing humans leaving Earth to live on other worlds to when fish first came out of the ocean to live on dry land. He also compares it to the pain of giving birth and being born. As a life-long science fiction fan, I always assumed going to another planet would be a thrill, but after reading these four stories I see that I haven’t thought things through. I’m an introvert with a touch of agoraphobia and would probably adapt well to shipboard life, but for most people, it would be mentally damaging. And if I’m honest with myself, starting life over on another planet would be terrifying and traumatic.

Heinlein, Simak, Oliver, Merril, and now Brunner show that leaving Earth won’t be easy. And there are two deeply psychological issues here that have taken me five stories to even start to see. One, folks growing up on a generation ship will not want to leave. And two, landing on another planet will not be as easy as Star Trek/Star Wars leads us to believe. I wonder if these early stories reveal anxieties about space travel before the time of real space travel? I’m curious to see if modern SF writers still consider such fears valid.

How many science fiction fans would enjoy living their science fictional fantasies?

I’ve reached an age where I hate to leave my house. I’ve made my home very comfortable and secure. Going places is uncomfortable and insecure. I completely understand why people raised on a generation ship would refuse to exit at end-of-voyage.

“Lungfish” feels the most realistic of the generation ship stories we’ve read so far, but even it has another conspiracy that I find unrealistic. Thirty-seven years isn’t that long, so we don’t have the problem of people forgetting their mission. But we again have the resentment of the second generation against the original crew. Brunner imagines the ship run like a corporation with a board of directors and a chairman. For 1957, Brunner is farsighted enough to make the chairman a woman, and many of the officers are women. But the original crew have retained their positions in the upper ranks of management to the resentment of their children born on the ship. Brunner recognizes the same kind of resentment between generations we see if the world today.

We readers can’t imagine what life outside the environment of Earth would be like. People raised inside a spaceship will have different mental perspectives on reality. “Lungfish” brings new insights to the generation ship theme. Overall, this story is top-notch, but I didn’t like the resolution of the problem. Reading these stories together I get the feeling that writers want a trick conclusion to their stories to entertain their readers and avoid a realistic solution that could be boring.

Anthology of Generation Ship SF Stories

I’ve been poking around and can find no evidence for an anthology of generation ship science fiction stories. I think our reading discussion should at least create a virtual anthology. It would be great to see a theme anthology like The Time Traveler’s Almanac by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer for generation ship stories. Here are the stories I’d recommend so far:

I’m hoping to find many more.

Visit Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations to join the discussion.

JWH – 12/11/19

 

“Wish Upon A Star” by Judith Merril

1958-12 The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“Wish Upon A Star” by Judith Merril is the third story for Joachim Boaz’s discussion about generation ships in science fiction. See my original post for more details. Here are the reviews so far:

  • Science Fiction and Other Ruminations – Joachim Boaz gives the story a 4.25/5 (Good) rating and says: A radical story but a quiet one—a slice-of-life rumination where the action stays in the distance, in the board rooms and classrooms of the female crew, the places where men cannot go. Recommended.
  • MPorcius Fiction Log – MPorcius says: This story is successful–entertaining and interesting enough–but no big deal.  I have to admit I was expecting a more hardcore feminist or leftist story which trumpeted the benign rule of women and/or argued that gender roles are socially constructed and could easily be changed for the better by an enlightened elite.
  • Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud – Richard said: I gave this story three and a half stars because it’s not the revelation that it would’ve been sixty-one years ago to have women in charge. There’s a decent chance that’ll happen in the USA in 2020, or so I hope. It’s also a very small story, a slice of adolescent life; that’s not all that interesting to me personally. It’s fine as a story, it has good things to say about equality and the arbitrary nature of society and the fairness doctrine is far fleshier for its 1958 readers than it would’ve begun by being.
  • Also, there are some interesting comments at Young People Read Old SFF.
  • I’d rate it 4 out 5 stars. Not a classic, but a better-than-average story for the time. It’s worth reading for the generation ship angle, and for the feminist poke at male readers in 1958.

You can read “Wish Upon A Star” at the Internet Archive, or in these anthologies. It’s currently in print in Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963).

Update: After writing this essay I discovered an earlier story that describes the launch of the mission in "Wish Upon A Star." I strongly recommend reading it first.  It's called "Survival Ship" and you can read it here. It's a quick read and answers some of my questions I had with "Wish Upon A Star."

What I enjoy about reading generation ship science fiction is how each writer imagines a society adapting to the long voyage. What’s funny is none of the stories I’ve read have things working out like I imagine. I assume generation ships will have carefully planned societies, even utopian. The Simak story tells us at the end that the planners intended what happened, and I get the feeling Merril’s matriarchal society was carefully planned as well but neither writer talks about the planning details and the whys.

To build a ship and society that will voyage for a century or a millennium implies a kind of planned perfection. You’d think the designers of such a ship would build an experimental community on Earth to test out their ideas. That would make an interesting novel too. (And DAW just announced they are open to submissions from writers without agents.) Of course, Biosphere 2 failed rather spectacularly. Space colonies, in general, might be very difficult to pull off.

Setup for “Wish Upon A Star”

A generation ship named Survival, propelled by ion drives is approaching its destination after just one generation. The ship traveled at a good fraction of lightspeed. None of the original crew are older than 45. Some of their children have reached adulthood, while most are still teens and younger. In this ship, the command crew is female, while men work the gardens, take care of the children, and do other support work. The original crew consisted of twenty women and four men. As the ship approaches a time of landfall the men wonder if their roles will change. There is resentment among the males because the females have all the opportunity.

Merril’s story came out in January 1958, well before the second wave of feminism began in the 1960s. At this time job ads in the newspapers were divided between Men – Wanted and Women – Wanted, with nearly ever job type going to men.

Characters

  • Toshiko (Sheik) – 13-year-old boy protagonist
  • Sarah – the girl that Sheik wants for his girlfriend but resents her crew training
  • Naomi – 12-year-old girl Sheik resents because she’s in advance crew training and he’s not
  • Harendra (Hari) – 3-year-old boy in Sheik’s care
  • Abdur (Ab) – one of the four original male crew members in charge of plants, and fatherly mentor to Sheik
  • Bob – Sheik’s father and one of the four original male crew members
  • Lieutenant Johnson – an older second-generation woman in charge of Sheik and Sarah, who might have an eye out for young Sheik.

Story

The story begins with Sheik thinking “I WISH, I WISH, I WISH . . . .” Sheik, a young teen hiding in the shady shrubs, shirking work and daydreaming. We know he’s a passenger on a generation starship because of how we came to the story. Plus the editor tells us when introducing Judith Merril, “Here she turns her compassionate eye on the problems and inner conflicts of an adolescent boy who has lived his life on a starship commanded by women.” (Doesn’t that sound bias?)

I wish I had read this story dead cold. How soon would readers know the story is set on a starship? And when would they know what Sheik was wishing for. Sheik is upset, crying even, because Naomi, a girl younger than him had just left for “Special Sessions” getting to learn something he’s not allowed to study. We learn Sheik is destined to replace Abdur who runs the botanical room. He will have to take orders from Naomi, as Abdur now takes orders from Lieutenant Johnson – another woman.

We hear him think: “It just wasn’t fair! I wish I wish I was …”

Was he about to say he wish he was a girl? Then Sheik starts thinking about Sarah, a girl he wishes would ask him something. (Ask him out?) Sheik longs to have Sarah under the bushes, the shady escape he loves. But since he’s thirteen we have to assume he needs more than some company in his hide-out.

We slowly learn about the generation ship. Merril is more creative with the details than the previous stories. Evidently, it’s a large cylinder that spins along its axis to create artificial gravity. Too bad these stories don’t come with diagrams of the ship, because each writer has an image in mind, but I’m not sure they are good at conveying their ship’s design with words.

The ship’s farm is on the inside of the outside wall. There are artificial lights on the outside wall of an inner cylinder that provides their sky and quarters. Children are expected to spend a certain amount of time under these artificial lights for health reasons. This area of the ship belongs to the men who raise the crops. We quickly learn that men also raise the ship’s children. Sheik has two and three-year-olds under his charge, both girls and boys. The younger girls seem precocious, learning faster than the boys.

Merril provides gender role reversals for 1958. The story isn’t blatantly feminist. And this might be showing my ignorance, but I can’t recall any famous feminist books from the 1950s. Wikipedia only lists two books and an article. I do know from reading the outstanding When Everything Changed (2009) by Gail Collins that women had very few job choices in the 1950s. Plus Merril knew that most of the readers of F&SF then were teenage boys. There were some female readers and writers, but not many. It’s interesting in this story that the men never claim the women can’t pilot and navigate the ship. They just want better jobs too.

I really would have loved to know the readers’ reactions to this story when it came out in 1958. F&SF didn’t have a letter column. I wonder if any fanzines from the time discuss it? Fanac.org does have a chronological list of fanzines. (A few random reads tell me it will be quite a job to find any reaction to the story. Someone needs to build an index to fanzines.)

As “Wish Upon A Star” develops we learn the starship is nearing its destination. Its goal is a colony scoutship. They are looking for worlds to help depopulate an overcrowded Earth.  The men hope after they land they can have more involvement in decision making and diversity of work. They fear the women are secretly plotting to hold onto their power, or even choose not to land. We don’t know if this is true or not, or just a conspiracy theory of Bob’s.

Merril imagines more details of shipboard life than Simak and Oliver did for the two previous stories we discussed. Shiek is part of the second generation. Only half the crew quarters are used in the ship because they assumed they might need to travel longer, producing a third and fourth generation.

Merril sets up a very interesting situation in this story. She tells us: “This much was common knowledge and one further fact: that the original crew of twenty-four had included twenty women and four men for obvious biological race-survival reasons.”

Merril doesn’t go into the genetic diversity needed to start a colony, but we can read a lot into these numbers. We know that Sheik’s father is Bob, but we don’t know if Bob has four other wives. Why didn’t Merril go into these details? Sheik never mentions a sibling or having half-siblings. He does list several girls who he doesn’t want to mate with and calls them nasty. Could they be siblings? There’s a hint that he might have to mate with more than one girl and even considers Lieutenant Johnson.

The first generation is way out of whack when it comes to the female-male balance, but the second generation will have a 50-50 ratio. Sheik realizes this will bring change. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I wonder if starting with one-fourth of crew capacity on a generation ship saves on reaction mass? (The ship doesn’t gain mass with larger generations.)

Was Merril suggesting the colony will have more genetic diversity if the first generation had more mothers? She could have increased the diversity if the first 20 women were pregnant by men not from the ship, or got pregnant the first time by sperm donors from back on Earth. If that was true, did they need any men in the original crew? Maybe for “men’s” work, and then only four were needed. Did Merril ever write about writing this story? I’d love to know what she was thinking.

Because the men resent the women for their status and jobs we assume Merril meant this story to be a role-reversal story, and it is. But it might be more. Maybe the women run the ship because Merril thinks they would be better. Merril doesn’t go into that, though. I need to reread it and read between the lines. When you have twenty Eves and four Adams, that seems to imply the men’s roles are less important. Was Merril criticizing traditional women’s roles in the 1950s? I’m surprised Merril didn’t imagine an all-female crew in the first generation. That would have been radical. Maybe too much even for her.

I also wondered if Merril had an idea that more women on a generation starship are more practical. But she didn’t make her case.

Before the story is over, things get more complicated. I’ll leave that for readers to discover. But we learn that Sheik wishes for more than Sarah even though Sarah is the main thing on his mind. I can’t help but wonder if Merril is making additional comments about men’s role in space colonies, or of science fiction fans.

On the other hand, Merril might not have thought a lot about her setup. It might have been a quick inspiration and she didn’t think through the implications. The story is mainly about Sheik wanting to hook up with Sarah and the complications he encounters. Those complications hint at what the society on the ship is like. I wish this had been a whole novel.

I do like the fact that the Clifford Simak story, like the Merril, considered the idea that the crew might prefer living on the ship living on a planet. Merril’s story is a little different. The men worry that the women might prefer it.

JWH – 12/8/19

Would Generation Ship Crews Ever Forget Their Mission?

Generation ships 1
Generation ships 2

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations is running a series of reviews on generation ship stories. He even compiled a list of such SF tales. I’ve decided to read along. So far he’s covered “The Wind Blows Free” by Chad Oliver and “Spacebred Generations” by Clifford D. Simak (later renamed “Target Generations”). Joachim plans to do “Wish Upon a Star” by Judith Merril next. Science fiction has explored this theme often. Imagining a self-contained society that spends hundreds or thousands of years between the stars presents a wonderful challenge to writers.

I’ve loved the concept of generation ships since 1965 when I was 13 and read Orphans of the Sky (1963) by Robert A. Heinlein. This book was assembled from two magazine stories, “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in 1941. At the time I thought Heinlein and science fiction must have invented the idea of generation ships, but I was wrong.  I highly recommend reading Wikipedia’s entry on the topic. Both the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, and the space explorer theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the idea in America and Russia. And it was also described by J. D. Bernal in a 1929 nonfiction book speculating about the future, The World, The Flesh, & the Devil.

Because I’m going to discuss the ideas in the stories this essay will have spoilers.

Quite often in the early science fiction stories about generation ships, the crews forget they are on an interstellar mission. This makes for a sense-of-wonder climax based on characters experiencing what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls a conceptual breakthrough. That’s an exciting plot device for the reader but would any generation ship crew ever forget their mission? Right from the beginning of the idea of generation ships in science fiction with “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (1940) by Don Wilcox writers have been intrigued by the idea that the passengers would forget.

The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox 1940

A generation ship is a spaceship that travels slower-than-light and takes many generations to reach its destination. Heinlein hit one into orbit by imagining the crew forgetting their mission. Their society collapses to the point where they believe the ship is their entire universe. Because the crew can’t see outside the ship they don’t know about the stars and the cosmos. This is such a delicious idea that Brian Aldiss reexamines it in his novel Starship (1958) (first called Non-Stop in the U.S.).

Now that I’m much older I find it very hard to believe the crew would forget they were on a generation ship. Such forgetting makes for a bang-up plot, but if you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. To forget their mission would require a complete collapse of the ship’s society. Is that even possible? How could the ship continue to function? Writers tell us the ship is fully automatic, but I can’t believe that either.

Evidently, science fiction writers assume such forgetting is a powerful McGuffin to wow their readers. And I loved these plots when I first encountered them. However, I now believe such situations to be too contrived to be realistic. Such tricks by the writer are much like an O’Henry ending. The reader is set up from the get-go. Not that such storytelling shenanigans are bad, but I do think it gives readers the wrong impression about generation ships.

Of course, I haven’t read all science fiction stories about generation ships. Now that Joachim Boaz is systematically reading them for his blog, I’m wondering if any science fiction writer imagined a realistic generation ship. It’s fun discussing this at his site.

Slower-than-Light Travel

Even though Einstein has been validated time and again, science fiction writers have us zipping around the galaxy at several thousand times the speed of light (300,000 kph). The spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2, our only efforts to leave the solar system, poke along at 1/18,000th that speed. Some engineers have theorized we might achieve 1/10th to 1/5th lightspeed with our present and expected knowledge, however, even their ideas are extremely theoretical.

If we could travel at ten percent of the speed of light it would take a whole lifetime to get to the nearest star. Since it will probably take hundreds or thousands of years to travel the nearby stellar neighborhood we’d need the crew using suspended animation or build a ship where humans could live out several generations.

Suspended animation is probably no more realistic than faster-than-light travel.

Building an artificial world that is completely self-contained, self-sufficient, and can travel a significant fraction of the speed of life is not impossible but probably so. Still, it’s a very exciting idea to contemplate. Can we build a machine that works perfectly for 1,000 years? What is the optimal crew size? How do you design a society that can thrive in such a limited environment? How will this civilization get its energy? Will water and air leak out? Will the passengers find meaning in their lives? How would successive generations react when learning they have been forced into a limited role by their ancestors? What if you don’t like where you’re going?

The generation ship would have to contain a minimum viable population (MVP). We must assume it will be a colony ship. Any scientific exploration should be done by intelligent machines – why waste all those lives on just information? In my reading, I’ve seen MVP numbers ranging from 160-5,000. We often see stories now about sending frozen embryos or building machines that can sequence DNA from raw material but I’m going to assume frozen embryos can’t last 1,000 years, and building people from digital blueprints is a fantasy. If we could, it would invalidate the need for a generation ship. By the way, raising artificial children at the end of a long space voyage is a new theme science fiction writers are exploring.

Orphans in the Sky imagines a generation ship where the ship’s civilization collapses and the inhabitants forget they are on a spaceship. I love that idea as a science fiction story, but doubt it would happen. Crews on a generation ship would have lots of time on their hands and education would have a significant appeal. They would have a library of our entire history. They would be in contact with Earth. They would know everything about astronomy and cosmology. For Heinlein’s story to work the original passengers would have to be clueless dumbasses who didn’t care about anything intellectual and refused to teach their children. The original crew would be brilliant with a passionate hope for the mission. They would pass that on. For Heinlein and Wilcox to be right, their descendants would have de-evolve. How that could happen would make a great SF story. I wish Heinlein had written it before writing “Universe” and “Common Sense.”

Clifford Simak came up with a different idea in “Target Generations.” He tells us the original mission designers feared the crew would not psychologically survive knowing why they were on the ship, so hid the knowledge from them. That’s absolutely ridiculous if we think about it, but at least Simak’s realized Heinlein’s idea had problems. That’s what’s wonderful about science fiction, it evolves. It’s a dialog by writers over time.

Chad Oliver offers another twist in “The Wind Blows Free.” The passengers know they are on a spaceship but they haven’t been told it landed hundreds of years earlier. Selective crew members decide the generation ship’s inhabitants are too adapted to shipboard life to leave it. That’s a very compelling idea, but still not realistic. I don’t see how they could hide landing a ship, but more than that, it’s based on maintaining an absurd conspiracy theory. The practical solution to such a problem would be to land the ship and let people slowly migrate to the new world. I do buy that generation ship passengers might not want to leave the ship. I’m an old guy who has become very attached to my house. I wouldn’t want to start over either.

Too often science fiction ignores Occam’s razor to create a compelling plot. I’m hoping we’ll be reading stories where generation ships succeed, or if they fail, fail for realistic reasons. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was an outstanding example of a space exploration failure that made sense.

Children of Time (2015) by Adrian Tchaikovsky did come up with a very real generation ship problem. Successive crew generations became resentful for having their lives committed to a project they didn’t choose. Some even want to abort the mission and return to Earth. This is the kind of realistic challenges I hope science fiction writers will imagine. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a plot that wows the readers but ultimately makes no sense. A story is a story. But I like science fiction that imagines something that might be possible.

I like to think it’s science fiction’s job to consider all the possibilities before we actually build a generation ship. From early science fiction, we know not to create a society that will forget the mission. I also like the idea we have to worry about the resentment of the later generations. And we do have to worry about getting people comfortable living on a ship to living on a planet again.

We science fiction fans daydream of traveling in space. But can you imagine a future where children born in space wished they lived on Earth like us?

James Wallace Harris, 12/2/19

Ever Wonder Why You Read Science Fiction?

Angel's Egg by Edgar Pangborn

Ever psychoanalyze your own reading choices? Ever wonder about the unique appeal of science fiction? Ever wonder if your personal daydreams overlap with the authors’ own fantasies? Are stories just stories or do they the trigger synapses storing your hidden desires?

Every science fiction story has at least one weird idea in it. Some stories are subtle with one slight bit of strangeness. Others are overflowing with the fantastic. Each bit of added weirdness is like an ingredient in a recipe. Most of the ingredients are common off the science fiction spice rack. I’m developing a new theory. I’m realizing each writer brings their own special flavor of weirdness to the genre. Think about all your favorite science fiction writers, don’t their collective work leave a unique aftertaste in your mind? Just recall Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin as examples.

To be completely holistic, we should consider our own weird interests and how we resonate with the pet themes of the writers. Most sense-of-wonder aspects of science fiction are not part of our everyday reality. What science fiction fans love are far-out concepts presented as mundane. We want reality to include our pet fantastic, weird, strange, and unbelievable concepts. If asked, we might say we’re only pretending, but I can’t help but believe that deep down we all want science fiction to come alive. And all of us are psychically drawn to our own hidden daydreams reflected in the fiction we read.

Maybe all readers are Walter Mittys, leaving writers to the hard work of generating fantasies. Books are VR machines powered by our own CPU-brains. If you start thinking about fiction this way, you become a connoisseur of hidden emotions.

I used to assume it was the science fictional tropes that shaped science fiction stories, the spaceship, the robot, the alien, but I’m now wondering if authors’ own inner obsessions and philosophies sculpt SF stories more, and the stories we love most are the ones that resonate with our own emotions. I’m even wondering if writers don’t go into science fiction because it offers the tools to promote their own weird hopes, desires, and fears better than any other literary form.

The story I’m going to discuss as my example is “Angel’s Egg” by Edgar Pangborn. Not because it’s special, but simply because it’s the last story I read and it’s stuck in my mind. “Angel’s Egg” was Pangborn’s first published science fiction story, appearing in the June 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Since Galaxy began publishing in October 1950, Pangborn was essentially a new SF writer for a new SF magazine, and “Angel’s Egg” is different from the SF norm Astounding Science-Fiction had established. Times were changing. Although, I do wonder if Pangborn had submitted “Angel’s Egg” to John W. Campbell first? Was it a reject, or had Pangborn been inspired by the new magazine H. L. Gold was publishing? It actually feels more like an F&SF story, a magazine that launched in 1949.

Another part of the flavor of science fiction is where and when it’s published. “Angel’s Egg” presents a kind of weirdness for America in 1951. People were still freaking out over atomic bombs, plus the flying saucer craze was stirring up the crazies in the late 1940s. The early 1950s were a boom time for science fiction with dozens of magazines, new hardback publishers, TV shows and movies. America and the world feared total annihilation. Earthlings dreaded invasion by superior beings. We thought the human race was being judged and we all knew we weren’t going to pass the test.

Edgar Pangborn (1909-1976) got his first novel published in 1930, a mystery. His father and sister were also authors, and they all often wrote about the supernatural. All that went into the weird flavor of “Angel’s Egg.” If you follow the link you can read the story at Project Gutenberg. You can also read the story at the Internet Archive, in digital editions of the original June 1951 Galaxy Science Fiction magazine.

I wonder if H. L. Gold’s lead-in is how Gold really saw Pangborn’s story:

When adopting a pet, choose the species that
is most intelligent, obedient, loyal, fun to
play with, yet a shrewd, fearless protector.
For the best in pets—choose a human being!

If I had been Pangborn, I would have been pissed and insulted. Actually, I think it’s also insulting to the science fiction reader. Maybe “Angel’s Egg” was too weird for H. L. Gold, or maybe Gold just had a non-serious attitude towards science fiction. His mag was often filled with satire and humor. Yet, in some ways, it is hard to take Pangborn’s story seriously. “Angel’s Egg” is really about a savior from another world who asks one human to sacrifice life to save our species. That’s heavy. Pangborn is actually telling a spiritual story using the language of science fiction.

How serious should we take Pangborn? Is he inventing a weird story just to make a few bucks? How Freudian or Jungian is this story? Is “Angel’s Egg” a message from Pangborn’s unconscious mind about the state of humanity in 1951? If you haven’t read the story you have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ll try to include enough quotes to make sense, but you might want to read it first.

The story starts with a frame. A letter from an FBI agent to a local police captain who had asked the agency to investigate the death of a person named Dr. David Bannerman who died in 1951. Attached to the letter is a note from a librarian who found the letter in 1994. Included with the letter is Dr. Bannerman’s journal dated from June 1, 1951, to July 31, 1951.

The story is Bannerman’s journal extract. Writers use this kind of framework to give their tale a greater feel of authenticity. It’s also a trick to allow a first-person narrator to die in the story. Pangborn also wanted to use the first-person narrative to make the story feel as real as possible. But such techniques were also common in older, especially 19th-century science fiction. We know Pangborn came to science fiction rather late, so he might not have known the conventions of the genre.

How “Angel’s Egg” is told has a kind of archaic flavor that I enjoy. Pangborn leans toward the sentimental, more like Bradbury and Simak, his contemporaries. Here’s how the story begins and where the egg comes from in the title.

It must have been at least three weeks ago when we had that flying saucer flurry. Observers the other side of Katahdin saw it come down this side; observers this side saw it come down the other. Size anywhere from six inches to sixty feet in diameter (or was it cigar-shaped?) and speed whatever you please. Seem to recall that witnesses agreed on a rosy-pink light. There was the inevitable gobbledegookery of official explanation designed to leave everyone impressed, soothed and disappointed.

I paid scant attention to the excitement and less to the explanations—naturally, I thought it was just a flying saucer. But now Camilla has hatched out an angel.

I have eight hens, all yearlings except Camilla; this is her third spring. I boarded her two winters at my neighbor Steele's farm when I closed this shack and shuffled my chilly bones off to Florida, because even as a pullet she had a manner which overbore me. I could never have eaten Camilla. If she had looked at the ax with that same expression of rancid disapproval (and she would) I should have felt I was beheading a favorite aunt. Her only concession to sentiment is the annual rush of maternity to the brain—normal, for a case-hardened White Plymouth Rock.

This year she stole a nest successfully, in a tangle of blackberry. By the time I located it, I estimated I was about two weeks too late. I had to outwit her by watching from a window; she is far too acute to be openly trailed from feeding ground to nest. When I had bled and pruned my way to her hideout, she was sitting on nine eggs and hating my guts. They could not be fertile, since I keep no rooster, and I was about to rob her when I saw the ninth egg was not hers, nor any other chicken's.

Doesn’t this seem like a very strange way to begin a science fiction story? A mysterious ninth egg? Then Pangborn tells us:

That was ten days ago. I know I ought to have kept a record; I examined the blue egg every day, watching how some nameless life grew within it, until finally the angel chipped the shell deftly in two parts. This was evidently done with the aid of small horny out-growths on her elbows; these growths were sloughed off on the second day.

I wish I had seen her break the shell, but when I visited the blackberry tangle three days ago she was already out. She poked her exquisite head through Camilla's neck feather, smiled sleepily, and snuggled back into darkness to finish drying off. So what could I do, more than save the broken shell and wriggle my clumsy self out of there?

I had removed Camilla's own eggs the day before—Camilla was only moderately annoyed. I was nervous about disposing of them even though they were obviously Camilla's, but no harm was done. I cracked each one to be sure. Very frankly rotten eggs and nothing more.

In the evening of that day I thought of rats and weasels, as I should have earlier. I hastily prepared a box in the kitchen and brought the two in, the angel quiet in my closed hand. They are there now. I think they are comfortable.

Three days after hatching, the angel is the length of my fore-finger, say three inches tall, with about the relative proportions of a six-year-old girl. Except for head, hands, and probably the soles of her feet, she is clothed in feathery down the color of ivory. What can be seen of her skin is a glowing pink—I do mean glowing, like the inside of certain seashells. Just above the small of her back are two stubs which I take to be infantile wings. They do not suggest an extra pair of specialized forelimbs. I think they are wholly differentiated organs; perhaps they will be like the wings of an insect. Somehow I never thought of angels buzzing. Maybe she won't. I know very little about angels.

Angels? Really, in a science fiction story? Are we reading a tall tale, or is this science fiction? Where are the rockets and robots? Why does Pangborn couch his alien in religious garb?

I made no entry last night. The angel was talking to me, and when that was finished I drowsed off immediately on a cot which I have moved into the kitchen to be near them.

I had never been strongly impressed by the evidence for extrasensory perception. It is fortunate that my mind was able to accept the novelty, since to the angel it is clearly a matter of course. Her tiny mouth is most expressive, but moves only for that reason and for eating—not for speech. Probably she could speak to her own kind if she wished, but I dare say the sound would be above the range of my hearing as well as my understanding.

Last night after I brought the cot in and was about to finish my puttering bachelor supper, she climbed to the edge of the box and pointed, first at herself and then at the top of the kitchen table. Afraid to let my vast hand take hold of her, I held it out flat and she sat in my palm. Camilla was inclined to fuss, but the angel looked over her shoulder and Camilla subsided, watchful but no longer alarmed.

Now we have an angel that’s telepathic. What we quickly learn is the angel is really an alien from a very advanced civilization. But its physical form is more like Disney’s Tinkerbell than modern angels. In Biblical times angels were a non-human species that came from another realm to visit Earth. In modern times, angels are people who have died and gone to heaven. Why is Pangborn recasting a Biblical image?

Angel's Egg 2 by Edgar Pangborn

There is also a slight undercurrent of sexuality to Bannerman’s angel even though there is no possibility of sex. Bannerman is a lonely man, who is crippled from the war, living away from other people out in the country. The angel saves him.

I don’t know why Pangborn made his tiny alien into an angel. Maybe he considered an ordinary alien cruising around in a flying saucer too common and ugly. I’m also wondering if Pangborn has the same theory as I do, that science fiction is a modern replacement for religion? Instead of dying and going to heaven we build a rocket and fly up into the heavens to other planets and stars. Instead of God(s), we imagine super-intelligent aliens. Instead of being saved and given everlasting life, we develop scientific ways to achieve immortality. Instead of the power of prayer, we evolve telepathy.

Pangborn’s little alien with wings is really a wise being from an ancient civilization that wants to save humans from self-destruction. Her father and nine siblings came to Earth to uplift us. And she asks Bannerman to sacrifice himself to save all of us. This is a very Christian story. Pangborn’s second SF novel, A Mirror for Observers (1954) has pretty much the same theme. It won the International Fantasy Award in 1955. Pangborn isn’t well-remembered today, but he had a certain level of success in the 1950s and 1960s.

Reading “Angel’s Egg” and A Mirror for Observers are my only experiences with Edgar Pangborn’s work. I own three more of his novels, but they are unread. Yet, from this small sample, I detect a rather unique mind using science fiction for its philosophical purposes. I feel Pangborn yearning for humanity to be saved from itself, and that was a very common hope in science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s.

If you think about it, there are two ways to be saved. One is to be rescued, the other is to overcome. Christianity is all about being saved by a higher power. And it’s rather strange that so many science fiction stories in the 1940s and 1950s had humanity being rescued by a higher power, not God(s) but aliens. The most famous example is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke. But that story is really a retelling and refinement of his 1953 novel Childhood’s End.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of humanity being rescued by outsiders. I’m a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of guy. But after Hiroshima, many people felt humans were children with a dangerous toy they couldn’t handle. Remember the old film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)? It was saying we needed guardian robots. I admire the Prime Directive from Star Trek.

Pangborn imagines his aliens as gentle guiders of the uncivilized. But isn’t that still being uplifted? If we’re reshaped by an outside force are we really ourselves? I never understood the basic tenet of Christianity, that we should be forgiven of our sins. I believe we should overcome our sinful ways, not be saved.

You’d think I’d dislike this story because it conflicts with my personal philosophy. But I still loved “Angel’s Egg” even though it’s rather clunky with religious imaginary and I’m an atheist. Although I kept thinking of the little angel as a more sophisticated Tinkerbell. What I loved were Pangborn’s emotions. What I loved was Bannerman’s sacrifice and how it was made. But then memory is a pet theme of mine.

The angel offered him two choices.

I made plain that I would never willingly part company with her, which I am sure she already knew, and she gave me to understand that there are two alternatives for the remainder of my life. The choice, she says, is altogether mine, and I must take time to be sure of my decision.

I can live out my natural span, whatever it proves to be, and she will not leave me for long at any time. She will be there to advise, teach, help me in anything good I care to undertake. She says she would enjoy this; for some reason she is, as we'd say in our language, fond of me.

Lord, the books I could write! I fumble for words now, in the usual human way. Whatever I put on paper is a miserable fraction, of the potential; the words themselves are rarely the right ones. But under her guidance—

I could take a fair part in shaking the world. With words alone. I could preach to my own people. Before long, I would be heard.

I could study and explore. What small nibblings we have made at the sum of available knowledge! Suppose I brought in one leaf from outdoors, or one common little bug—in a few hours of studying it with her, I'd know more of my own specialty than a flood of the best textbooks could tell me.

She has also let me know that when she and those who came with her have learned a little more about humanity, it should be possible to improve my health greatly, and probably my life expectancy. I don't imagine my back could ever straighten, but she thinks the pain might be cleared away, entirely without drugs. I could have a clearer mind, in a body that would neither fail nor torment me.

I think this is the choice we’d all jump at. But Pangborn wants to give us a science-fictional Christ. I might need to remind you that Camilla was the hen who sat on the angel egg.

Then there is the other alternative.

It seems they have developed a technique by means of which any unresisting living subject, whose brain is capable of memory at all, can experience total recall. It is a by-product, I understand, of their silent speech, and a very recent one. They have practiced it for only a few thousand years, and since their own understanding of the phenomenon is very incomplete, they classify it among their experimental techniques.

In a general way, it may somewhat resemble that reliving of the past which psychoanalysis can sometimes bring about in a limited way for therapeutic purposes. But you must imagine that sort of thing tremendously magnified and clarified, capable of including every detail which has ever registered on the subject's brain.

The purpose is not therapeutic, as we would understand it; quite the opposite. The end result is—death.

Whatever is recalled, by this process is transmitted to the receiving mind, which can retain it, and record any or all of it, if such a record is desired; but to the subject who recalls, it is a flowing away, without return. Thus it is not a true "remembering," but a giving. The mind is swept clear, naked of all its past, and, along with memory, life withdraws also. Very quietly.

At the end, I suppose it must be like standing without resistance in the engulfment of a flood tide, until finally the waters close over.

That, it seems, is how Camilla's life was "saved." When I finally grasped that, I laughed, and the angel of course caught the reason. I was thinking about my neighbor Steele, who boarded Camilla for me in his henhouse for a couple of winters.

Somewhere safe in the angelic records there must be a hen's-eye image of the patch in the seat of Steele's pants. And naturally Camilla's view of me too; not too unkind, I hope. She couldn't help the expression on her rigid little face, and I don't believe it ever meant anything.

At the other end of the scale is the saved life of my angel's father. Recall can be a long process, she says, depending on the intricacy and richness of the mind recalling; and in all but the last stages it can be halted at will. Her father's recall was begun when they were still far out in space and he knew that he could not long survive the journey.

When that journey ended, the recall had progressed so far that very little actual memory remained to him of his life on that other planet. He had what must be called a deductive memory—from the material of the years not yet given away, he could reconstruct what must have been, and I assume the other adult who survived the passage must have been able to shelter him from errors that loss of memory might involve. This, I infer, is why he could not show me a two-moon night.

I forgot to ask her whether the images he did send me were from actual or deductive memory. Deductive, I think, for there was a certain dimness about them not present when my angel gives me a picture of something seen with her own eyes.

Jade-green eyes, by the way. Were you wondering?

In the same fashion, my own life could be saved. Every aspect of existence that I ever touched, that ever touched me, could be transmitted to some perfect record—the nature of the written record is beyond me, but I have no doubt of its relative perfection. Nothing important, good or bad, would be lost. And they need a knowledge of humanity, if they are to carry out whatever it is they have in mind.

It would be difficult, she tells me, and sometimes painful. Most of the effort would be hers, but some of it would have to be mine. In her period of infantile education, she elected what we should call zoology as her life work; for that reason she was given intensive theoretical training in this technique. Right now I guess she knows more than anyone else on this planet not only about what makes a hen tick, but how it feels to be a hen.

Though a beginner, she is in all essentials already an expert. She can help me, she thinks, if I choose this alternative. At any rate, she could ease me over the toughest spots, keep my courage from flagging.

For it seems that this process of recall is painful to an advanced intellect—without condescension, she calls us very advanced—because, while all pretense and self-delusion are stripped away, there remains conscience, still functioning by whatever standards of good and bad the individual has developed in his lifetime. Our present knowledge of our own motives is such a pathetically small beginning! Hardly stronger than an infant's first effort to focus his eyes.

Of course, we know which one Bannerman chooses.  The rest of his journal is about forgetting as his memories are peeled away. In some ways, this part of the story reminds me of Charlie Gorden from Flowers for Algernon when Charlie was on his decline.

I have read science fiction my whole life. Often just for escapism and entertainment, but I must admit I wished reality was different and sometimes science fiction reflected an alternate reality I preferred. Pangborn’s dream isn’t mine, but I feel great sympathy for him. His story draws me back to how some people felt during the year I was born.

Galaxy June 1951

[The above illustrations are the ones that first appeared with the story in Galaxy Science Fiction.]

James Wallace Harris, 11/26/19

Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?

 

1940-03 Astounding p122 bw

Norman Spinrad’s latest “On Books” column has caused some minor controversy, although I’m not sure why since everything in the column seems reasonable to me. Although I tend to like modern short science fiction more than he does. I do agree that the science fiction genre has been diluted with too much fantasy. I wish there were two completely separate genres. I’m also bothered by the fact that many younger readers don’t seem to distinguish between real science fiction and fantasy science fiction.

I found this statement by Spinrad the most interesting:

It tells us that fantasy has long since come to dominate SF. It tells us that many or perhaps even a majority of these SF writers do not have the education or indeed the inclination to learn the difference between science fiction and fantasy and to dish the result out to a populace that has more than enough confusion about the difference between reality and magic already.

It got me to thinking about the meaning of science fiction. To be able to distinguish science fiction from fantasy requires a precise definition of each. Too many have tried that for me to consider jumping into the fray. But I have thought of another angle of attack. What is the purpose of each?

Right now science fiction and fantasy seem to be fairy tales for older readers. And for these readers fantasy has a flavor of the past and science fiction has a flavor of the future. And if this is their sole purpose then it hardly matters if writers distinguish between the two. Especially if editors and readers are only looking for entertaining stories.

Since Spinrad is criticizing writers for not knowing the difference between science fiction and fantasy I must assume he believes there is a difference. I know I do, but are we deluding ourselves if no one else does?

There is an interesting aspect of this problem. The SF/F genre is the only genre where short fiction is thriving, still being bought by editors and read by readers. Would-be writers are attracted to its paying markets. What could be happening is hordes of writers looking to get published see this and have decided to its easier to get acceptance letters in our genre, and even get paid. They feel this market requires fantasy and science fiction elements in their stories so they add them. I’m guessing Spinrad feels these new writers don’t know the genre or its history and thus are just making stuff up that they believe is science fiction. Spinrad also feels they don’t know traditional storytelling techniques.

I’m an MFA dropout. Twenty years ago I took many creative writing courses and workshops but didn’t finish my degree. At the time my professors tried to steer us away from writing genre stories. The emphasis was on getting published in literary magazines. The MFA was a terminal degree for teaching in higher education, so the focus was on getting a job at a university. Being published in literary magazines counted towards an academic job. My courses promoted literary writing techniques, and these are different from genre story writing. I believe many SF/F writers in recent generations have taken MFA courses and that has influenced their writing style, and changed the genre.

There are practically no jobs for creative writing majors, even though the degree is promoted as a pathway into teaching. I’m guessing that’s why we’re seeing an influx of these writers into our genres. And for the most part, they didn’t grow up reading science fiction and fantasy magazines. However, that’s not their fault. Nor do I have any problem with them using our genre as an outlet for their creative hopes.

However, should science fiction be anything people want to write and call science fiction, or should it have a purpose? In 2004 DARPA created the Grand Challenge offering a million-dollar prize for the first autonomous vehicle to travel its predefined course. That was a very definite purpose. Science fiction doesn’t have such a highly focused purpose like DARPA’s, but does it at least have a vague purpose? One that goes beyond fairy tales for grown-ups.

I believe H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein felt it did. Yet, describing that purpose is as difficult as defining science fiction. Science has the job of describing reality. But the term “science fiction” isn’t storytelling about describing reality. Ironically, that job belongs to literary fiction. Science fiction has taken on the job of trying to describe what science cannot yet describe but should eventually. To confuse the issue science fiction often speculates about possibilities that turn out to be impossible. Science fiction’s apparent purpose to explore territory science hasn’t but hopefully will. Fantasy doesn’t even go near this territory, nor does it try.

Good science fiction should be a cognitive tool for philosophically guessing what we might find in reality. Science fiction is fictionalized thought experiments. Whether science fiction is told using old-fashioned storytelling structures, or in newer MFA literary styles doesn’t matter. The real purpose of science fiction is to present philosophical insights into the event horizon between what is known and what is not.

The trouble is most “science fiction” writers, past or present, have taken these speculations and created fun fantasies. Star Wars is the perfect example. Star Wars has no extrapolation or speculation. Basically, Star Wars borrowed most of its themes and icons from Isaac Asimov, ones Asimov first created for speculative SF. Star Wars turned real science fiction into Disneyland fun science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It has a different purpose.

Part of the problem Spinrad complains about regarding not distinguishing science fiction from fantasy is most science fiction readers who read only fiction marketed as science fiction can’t distinguish serious science fiction from fun science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Anything that calls itself fantasy isn’t even part of this discussion. I am not worried that fantasy sells more than science fiction. It does bother me a little that fantasy is shelved with science fiction, but that’s only an inconvenience. It is more annoying that some magazines and anthologies want to package them together, so half the content I purchase isn’t wanted. But my real problem, and I think Spinrads’s too, is serious science fiction is being rejected by society totally embracing fun science fiction.

For most of its history, science fiction has had the reputation of being that silly Buck Rogers stuff. There were a few writers and editors that wanted science fiction to have more validity. Even today there are writers that use both science fiction and fantasy to express serious philosophical insights and worries. What’s even more ironic, is real serious science fiction often gets stripped of its label science fiction and reclassified at literature, such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison escaped the whole problem of defining science fiction by rejecting the label completely.

Like I said earlier, Spinrad and I might be suffering from a delusion, and so were Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, and Heinlein. That’s one reason why I’m reading and researching old science fiction. Were these guys on to something, or were they crazy, or boosting their egos with fantasies of self-importance? Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding suggests they were egomaniacs using science fiction to make their lives significant. But I don’t know. In all those old pulp stories there’s a glint of gold. Was it fools gold or the real gold?

James Wallace Harris, 11/6/19

 

I Guess Every Generation Needs An End-of-Civilization Novel

After finishing The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison it occurred to me that every generation might need its own end of civilization novel. One of my favorite books growing up was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, about a disease that kills off most of humanity. It’s a great novel, so why does anyone need to write another novel about a disease that kills off most of humanity? Meg Elison’s novel is just as gripping as Earth Abides and leaves the same psychological taste in the mind, so in some ways, they are almost identical. But not quite.

Elison’s main character is a woman, and Elison gives a feminist view to the collapse of civilization that George R. Stewart could never have imagined back in 1949. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a last-woman-on-Earth novel for the #MeToo generation. (By the way, these books start off with the main character feeling they are the last person on Earth, but eventually find other people. I’d like to read one where the main character is really the last person on Earth.)

Science fiction has a set of standard concepts that every child eventually encounters. Space travel, aliens, time travel, and robots are the biggest science-fictional concepts kids learn about first, usually from television. The end of civilization and the post-apocalyptic new world does appear now and then in movies and television, but I believe many people don’t really grasp the idea fully until they read about it in a book. And I’m not sure how many people have read any end of civilization novels.

Everyone learns about Frankenstein but few people ever read Mary Shelley’s novel, which is a shame because the novel is so superior to the films. Fewer still know she wrote The Last Man, one of the earliest end of civilization novels. Ever since then such novels have come out infrequently but consistently. I’m wondering if every generation has one. When I was growing up in the 1950s we were afraid of The Bomb and WWIII, and read On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. At the movies, we saw The World, The Flesh, and The Devil where Harry Belafonte was the last man on Earth until Inger Stevens showed up. I think it’s hard to convey the depth of loneliness in a film of believing you’re all alone in the world. A first-person novel is required.

Meg Elison trilogy

Like I said, science fiction has a set of defining concepts that the genre owns, and some are so popular that most people can’t remember when they first encountered them. Post-apocalyptic stories have become almost as common as space travel, but not quite. I don’t remember when I first encountered the idea. I can’t say if it was a book or movie, but I feel it was Earth Abides, which I read in my late teens. I’m wondering to fully get into the concept you have to read a book and be old enough to appreciate the idea. To grok the existential crisis of the collapse of society we need to understand civilization and imagine what it would be without it.

Meg Elison imagines being a woman without all the protections of law and order. In her story, women and children die off at a rate greater than men. Women are hidden or enslaved. Strong men take women away from weak men. They are raped and put on leashes, they are captured for group marriages, or they are aligned with men who are willing to kill and die for them. The unnamed midwife of this story is a woman who dresses as a man and hides from people. She is a loner traveling across the western states trying to survive while encountering many horrors. She feels the safest living alone but suffers from soul-crushing loneliness and boredom.

Elison’s story is not exactly a first-person point-of-view narrative. Her novel has a frame. It begins in the future, supposedly after civilization starts developing again, where boys are taught to copy the journals of the unnamed midwife. Part of Elison’s tale comes from journals, partly first-person, and part is an omniscient narrator. I wasn’t bothered by this mish-mash of techniques, but some reviewers have complained about it. It allows Elison to let us inside the head of the unnamed midwife – she actually goes by many aliases. But we also get to read the stories of other characters in their first-person voices, plus we get to hear what happens to people that the unnamed midwife never gets to know.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife has some similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. I assume the boys are made to copy these journals so future men will be sensitive to women’s point of view. Elison also deals with patriarchal religions. And the framework suggests a new religion, which might be revealed in the later novels.

In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the population is killed off by a mysterious flu-like illness. During the cold war era, nuclear holocaust and biological weapons were usually the cause of leaving few people alive. A couple decades later it was nuclear winter or comet impact. Writers have come up with all kinds of ways of reducing the population down to near zero. These end of the world stories have humans almost becoming extinct, but not quite. Their stories are always about how a few people start over.

I’ve read a lot of these stories. They nearly all follow the same basic plot. A protagonist discovers they are alone. They wander about wondering what happened. Eventually, the protagonist encounters a few other people, but they quickly learn that other people can be dangerous. The stories continue with the search for food and shelter in the ruins, and after a lot of violence, people start finding a way to rebuild. The point of these stories is to tell us what life without civilization would be like. They also get into the foundation of right and wrong, and why people bond. It’s a good sub-genre for being philosophical. It’s a way to criticize the existing civilization and theorized about a better one.

Meg Elison covers all the bases. Her book has two sequels that are set in the same universe, but The Book of the Unnamed Midwife can stand alone just fine. I recommend it to any connoisseurs of end of civilization novels, or to any male that doesn’t fully comprehend the importance of the #MeToo movement. However, I should warn readers who like light and uplifting tales that this one is heavy and painful. I admire these kinds of books because they really make me think hard about existence, but I finish them psychologically worn out.

James Wallace Harris, October 8, 2019