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

Do We Still Need Science Fiction?

Spaceflight pioneers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard, and Hermann Oberth all claimed their careers were inspired by reading Jules Verne. If you read interviews or memoirs from almost any space scientist they will say they were inspired by science fiction. I imagine if you asked scientists working with robotics and artificial intelligence the same kind of questions, they would also say they were inspired by science fiction too. Millions of people work in fields that were once considered science fictional. Do we still need science fiction to inspire students to study these endeavors? In fact, isn’t science fiction now a distraction?

Are there new theoretical ideas in science fiction stories being written about today that would inspire young people to grow up and make them real? Science fiction has always served two purposes. First, it speculated about reality. Second, it was escapist entertainment that helped us escape reality. Of the new science fiction produced today, how much of it helps us speculate about reality and how much helps us escape?

If you really cared about space exploration aren’t there enough nonfiction books to study to fill lifetimes? More than that, you can major in space sciences and actually work in the space industry. Why read about robots when you can build them? Why read about AI minds when you can be programming them? Why read stories about life extension and cyborg enhancements when you can be working to make them happen?

Science fiction has always helped us imagine tomorrow, either to inspire us to create better futures from our dreams, or avoid the nightmares by extrapolating on our sinful ways. Yet, how much science fiction is written today that is actually useful? Is science fiction best use today to let us pretend we aren’t here? The world has a lot of problems, peoples’ lives are filled with stress. So escapism is a needed commodity.

Hasn’t fantasy supplanted science fiction? Star Wars is immensely popular, but has it ever speculated about anything real? Isn’t it just a spaced theme Disneyland? And doesn’t most hard science fiction speculate about futures so far ahead that they are fantasies too? How often do we get books like The Windup Girl or Aurora that make us think hard about the future? Books like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale are still incredibly useful but how often do we get genuine warnings like them? All too often modern dystopian novels are just escapist adventures for teenagers.

Do we need any more novels advocating space travel when the world is full of public and private space programs? Do we need any more novels about conscious machines when we’re speeding ever faster towards building them? Has the only value of science fiction become another opiate of the masses?

Where are the modern science fiction visionaries who are imagining things we haven’t imagine but need to build? What books being written today will be mentioned by future scientists as their inspiration for creating new technologies and social systems? Or has science fiction imagined all the possibilities already?

I hope readers can provide me with long lists of relevant stories and novels. Can you think of any SF story about something you want to see created in the real world that people aren’t already working on today?

James Wallace Harris. 10/1/19

[I got the idea for this essay while watching Last Call For Titan! on Prime Video last night. I realized while listening to the interviews with the scientists who built the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft as well as the authors of Beyond Earth who advocate human missions to Titan that we don’t need science fiction anymore. Not when real people can accomplish what they did with the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and plan future missions to Titan.]

 

 

Should I Review Stories I Don’t Like?

Anthologies - 2 shelves

Whenever I read a story I want to write about it. The impulse is not to review but to crystallize my thoughts. If I publish what I write, it will be considered a review. If I don’t like aspects of a story, my readers will think I’m telling them to avoid the story. In actuality, I’m only describing my personal reactions. It doesn’t mean other people reading the story won’t enjoy it or have different reactions altogether.

I’ve been disturbed lately by reading essays by young people dismissing older books and authors because those books and writers don’t meet their modern moral standards. I recently wrote an essay about this, “The Uneducated Unkindness of Youth Censoring the Past.” I’ve been thinking about why they do this, and why critics write about fiction they don’t like. At one level its a kind of censorship. The young are saying don’t read these stories because the author is morally suspect, or the characters express repugnant beliefs, or that the theme of the story is objectionable. Ordinary critics when they pan a story are merely helping their readers save money, or helping the writer by pointing out flaws that need fixing. These good intentions have the same censorship effect.

Stories need readers and the best way to get readers is by positive reviews and word-of-mouth praise. Protests by young writers often feel like they are implying, don’t read old stories, read our new stories. However, they seldom offer substitutes for the stories they protest against. Reviewers might think by warning their readers against poor stories their readers will find superior stories to buy instead, but again, they usually don’t offer superior alternatives. Of course, offering substitutes is hard. If you protest a 1950s novel, you should suggest another 1950s novel covering the same thematic territory that does meet your standards. If your review rips up a new novel, you might suggest another contemporary novel that tackles the same subject without those faults.

I’m wondering if I should only write about stories I believe worthy of reading. The real goal should be to promote stories I love, and not gossip about stories I hate. I realize now in popular culture there are two kinds of people out there – promoters and protesters. But it gets very complicated. Take climate change. I’m against it, and I’m all for the protesters who are also against it. But the problem isn’t pro v. anti regarding climate change. It’s really capitalism v. stable weather, a healthy environment, preserving species. It’s positive v. positive. This is why the issue of climate change is so divisive, it’s a fight over two positives. If fixing climate change didn’t involve dismantling capitalism, most people would be for fixing the problem.

We all have limited reading time. We don’t want to waste it on bad books. The real choice should be between all the great stories we could be reading. This makes me think when I mention a book it should be a book worthy of recommending. There are thousands of science fiction novels and short stories published each year. Reading about bad stories is only wasting your reading time – time you could be actually be reading good stories. It also wastes my writing time.

I don’t know if I can break my habit of writing about stories I don’t like. I think there is a strong drive in everyone to criticize what annoys them. I read a story yesterday that annoyed the crap out of me. I kept waiting for it to get to its point thinking the author would redeem a bad beginning with a good ending. He didn’t. I then wanted to write about my feelings of reading outrage. But why should you care about my reading meltdown? Other than people who think, “If Harris hates it, I’ll love it” there are no upsides.

There are still problems with only writing about stories I love. Stories aren’t always good or bad. Sometimes they are almost excellent except for a few flaws. Should I promote those books? I recently read an award-winning novel that I thought extremely creative. Yet, it left me emotionally empty in the end because it never developed a heart. It was a fireworks display of ideas and dazzling writing, but the characters were blah. Of course, other readers might have felt more for those characters and the book would be 100% satisfying for them. However, should I review it and say take a risk of steering you wrong? Ultimately, I decided if I can’t completely back a story I shouldn’t mention it.

Finally, there’s the problem of me loving a story but it fails to be loved by my readers. I can’t guarantee you’ll love the stories I do. I believe I have two choices. When dealing with fiction I can either write about what I love and hope you love it too, or I can give up writing about fiction and try to write fiction instead. I’d rather do the latter, but I can’t right now. But if I did get my fiction published how would I feel about people writing about it?

I’ve taken a lot of writing classics and workshops and criticism is very important. Critiques are a kind of marketing data for writers. Pure praise is useless, other than encouraging the ego. Complete criticism makes you want to stop writing. What is helpful are critiques that say these parts made me want to keep reading, and these parts made me want to stop reading. I wonder if this approach would also work for reviewing stories? It might be helpful to writers, but I don’t know if potential readers care.

Of the two approaches, which do you prefer? Only read reviews of stories worthy of reading, or read reviews which lists the highs and lows? Do you really want to run out and read a flawed book?

James Wallace Harris, 9/28/19

 

 

Untying a Knotted Plot

Yali on the Bosporus

I hope you have read “The Ocean Between the Leaves” by Ray Nayler from the July-August issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’ve read this story four times trying to follow all the plot twists so I’ll be giving away spoilers describing my thoughts from each reading. If you’ve read the story, it will be more fun to follow my bumbling efforts to figure things out. “The Ocean Between the Leaves” is not free to read online, but it was made into a free podcast read by the author. The story is about a young woman who works at a yali on the Bosphorus, maybe like the one pictured above. Ray Nayler has lived all over the world, so this tale is full of exotic details.

I hope Nayler doesn’t mind that I dissect his story. I’m doing it for several reasons. First, my friend Piet asked me to read the story to see what I thought about the plot. He was confused but got some help from Greg Hullender’s review at Rocket Stack Rank. Piet wondered if I would get the story in one reading. I didn’t. I also looked at Greg’s review, and then read it again. After two readings, I thought I got it. But there were many lingering plot questions that kept popping into my head. I then found the audio version and listened to it. Okay, I thought when I finished it this time, I’d gotten everything for sure now and laid down to take a nap. I woke up with more questions. (That pesky subconscious.) That’s when I thought about writing down my convoluted journey through this story.

I’m going to explain all my reading reactions to the story while I still remember them. I hope I don’t hurt Ray Nayler’s feelings. I’m trying not to criticize his story because I don’t know if the problems are with me the reader or with him the writer. The plot of the story is both simple and complicated. It’s simple in that not a whole lot happens, but it’s complicated by how the story is told. It’s intended as a mystery, one meant to make the reader keep guessing. By the way, the story is full of colorful details that make the story enjoyable on other levels, but ones I won’t comment on.

First Reading

Read it the first time on my iPhone 6s Plus while lying on a couch. To be honest, I read it somewhat fast and I just missed the whole issue of mindswapping. That’s a huge plot point to pass over. In my defense though, it wasn’t ever explicit. It was hidden to create a mystery.

I liked how “The Ocean Between the Leaves” started out about a young woman gardener, Feride, on a rich person’s estate. She pricks her finger and it gets infected. Three months later she’s still in intensive care. Nayler describes the infection in gruesome detail.

We’re now introduced to the doctor Melek and Feride’s brother Fahri. Fahri visits his sister every day and flirts with the doctor each time with a 5-minute date. On this day Fahri has a cut that the doctor fixes. Then he goes out to work. We learn that he isn’t rich and his sister’s bills are high. We learn that he makes money tagging skips. I assume this is attaching some kind of signaling device to people who are skipping out on something. His boss Tarik is shady and wears VR glasses. We also learn that Tarik is shaking Fahri down for a lot of money.

Fahri tries to catch three slips in one day to get ahead on the bills but is knocked out by the third slip.

Then the story jumps back in time. Feride is told she is going to die, but the state is going to transfer her mind to another body so she can wrap up her life and say goodbyes. I thought that was rather odd. She/we are told she will be an experiment. At the time, I thought it was an uncommon procedure.

Feride goes back to the yali where she worked but tells people she is her brother. The first time I read this I didn’t realize we had jumped back in time and didn’t realize this Fahri was the same as the Fahri we had already met. Feride/Fahri hears a story from the old head gardener Suat about fighting the system. The first time I read this, I didn’t understand how the story changed Feride into Fahri. I was confused by the pronouns of describing her in his body. I focused on Fahri’s effort to make money and the action surrounding him. I wondered if Feride had died and had been transferred to another becoming Fahri. I was totally confused by the plot. The two similar names Feride and Fahri kept tripping me up, and I didn’t understand why they were the same person. At first, they seemed to be two separate people, and then they were the same person. Probably all of this confusion was due to me reading too fast. But I think some of the confusion was due to information behind withheld from the reader. But I also considered I’m getting old and I’m not sure if I can keep enough of the story in my head to make all the puzzle pieces reveal the overall picture.

Second Reading

This time I read the story on my iPad mini while in my reading chair. I was more determined to read slowly, understand the story, and concentrate on the details. This time around I noticed several references to Fahri being a prince. I also admired the rich background details more in the story.

On my second reading, I paid more attention to the first line, “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” With this reading, I only figured this line linked Feride pricking her finger and getting infected. I didn’t try to imagine what it might mean for the whole story.

I also noticed this time we’re told Feride means “the only one.” Now that’s an obvious clue, but only in hindsight. But we’re also told Feride believes it means “the lonely one.”

I had read Greg Hullender’s review with spoilers. The keyword he gave was androids. I remembered from the first reading there had been androids, but I assumed they looked artificial and were just slave workers on the docks. I didn’t realize that androids could look just like people. I realized I was reading a story much like Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where technology allowed people to easily swap minds between bodies. In the first reading, I thought Feride was being put into a clone body. Nor did I realize that the skippers Fahri chased were minds in rented bodies trying to run away with them.

In the second reading, I realized that Feride was given a three-day rental body to wrap up her life, and she decided to keep it and work to pay her medical bills to save herself. I still didn’t understand some things. Did she skip out with the three-day body, or got a third body on the black market.

However, the story simplified into one of a person saving themselves. That’s a pretty neat idea of paying for your own medical bills by working in another body while your sick body remained in a coma. Pretty cool. Happy ending.

However, more questions kept popping into my mind.

Third Reading

This time I listened to the podcast version. I love listening to science fiction stories. I would have made my second reading a listen if I had known about the podcast. This time I just “read” the story to enjoy it. I thought I had all the plot twists down. However, after the podcast was over, I put the story out of my mind. But once again new questions started bubbling up.

When we see Dr. Melek talking to Fahri in a man’s body the first time we don’t know that Feride is inside, but she would — wouldn’t she? The reader thinks the brother and doctor are flirting with each other. Doesn’t the doctor know that it’s her patient? But did she talk to Fahri like Feride was inside? Was this the same three-day body the Institute bought for Feride? If Fahri had been working for Tarik for a third of a year as a skip chaser, was Feride in a different rented body, or had she skipped out with the three-day body, or had she merely taken up the payments on the three-day body?

Why was Feride given a male body to close out her life? That seemed rather insensitive. And why didn’t Feride tell Suat that it was her? Why did she make up the story about her brother? Obviously, swapping bodies was common in this time period, so Suat shouldn’t have been shocked. Feride was given a chance to say goodbye to the only people she knew and loved. But she didn’t, why? Obviously, Nayler liked the idea of a sister and brother because it diverts the reader’s attention so they will think they are two different people in the story. But that confused me and almost ruined the story.

What happened to Fahri, or his body?

We are told it’s three months later when Melek and Fahri agree to go on daily 5-minute dates. But we also know Fahri has been using the body for a while as a skip tracer. We are told later he’s been doing it for months. Is it the same three months? When did Feride almost die and Melek buy her three days to wrap up her affairs? At the beginning of the three months. Why would a doctor spend so much money on a patient she didn’t know? Or had she gotten to know Feride well enough to fall in love with her? And like Greg Hullender asked, how did the hospital keep a nearly dead woman without her mind in stasis for months?

Fourth Reading

This time I read my physical copy of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’m currently buying both the Kindle and paper copies. I’m trying to decide which I prefer. I still don’t know, each has their pluses and minuses. However, I’m annoyed as hell that the Kindle version doesn’t display on my Kindle for the PC. That sure would make reviewing stories so much easier. There are times when I’m tempted to buy an OCR program so I can grab quotes without retyping.

With this fourth reading, I’m starting to feel like Phil Conners from Groundhog Day. Opening line: “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” This time around I remember the fairy tales Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and read about them at Wikipedia. But both involved pricked fingers and women who sleep in a spell. However, in Snow White, it’s the evil witch that pricks her finger, so I guess we’re talking Sleeping Beauty here. That means Fahri is going to be her own Prince or is it, Dr. Melek? Melek saves her from permanent sleep but only intending it to be for three days. Feride saves her own life, so is Feride her own Prince Charming? If Melek is in love with Feride and not Fahri, is she the rescuing Prince of this story?

Here’s the thing, Ray Nayler knew what he wanted to do with this story and then contrived to make it happen. Readers don’t know that intention, so they read the story guessing as they go what might be happening. I now wonder at the sequence of inspirations Nayler got for this story. Did he first intend for it to be about a woman who gets a three-day chance to close out her life with a mindswap and then gets the idea of Feride saving herself? Or was that the plan all along? Was the love story an afterthought, and the three-day mindswap added in to make a better ending?

Ah-ha! When we’re first told about Fahri and Dr. Melek, Melek asks, “How is your sister?” The POV is following closely to Fahri and it says, “They had met the first night Fahri came in to see his sister. Melek had sat across from him the same way, nearly three months ago now, when they first met.” This is all very definite, and probably why I was so confused in the first reading. At the beginning of the story, we were told that Feride had a brother she never had met. It’s three months after she falls ill. But Fahri has been visiting her for three months. This leads the reader to believe that Fahri is a real person, found out right away about Feride’s illness and came to see his sister.

In the first scene with Fahri and Melek, there is no foreshadowing of things to come. And there’s an indication that Fahri has been a skip chaser for some time because he’s worn out. Knowing what we know from previous readings for this story to work Feride nearly died immediately after entering the hospital and Dr. Melek bought her a three-day rental on a body right after she arrived. We are told that the Institute did this as an experiment, but the very ending of the story suggests that Melek spent her own money. Why?

This also suggests that Melek never saw the rental body, or Feride got a third body. But this now brings up another interesting question. Did Melek ever know that Fahri was really Feride? The last two paragraphs are:

     "But the expense. It must have been ... I remember struggling to pay ... it's thousands of lire a day ... you can't possibly afford ..."

     "Hush." Melek presses a finger to Feride's lips. "It's my choice to make, Fahri. And where else would I find such a hero? And who would I go on my five-minute dates with? Are you trying to make me drink my coffee alone?"

Notice Melek touches Feride but addresses her as Fahri. I assume, and that’s dangerous with this story, that Feride survives and Feride/Fahri is back in her original body. But when did Melek realize that Fahri was Feride? If Feride had stolen the three-day body, didn’t Melek know? When Feride is visiting Suat she’s already thinking of the body as Fahri. Wouldn’t Melek have seen this rental body? Feride in her new body awakes with Dr. Solmaz Haznader explaining things. But there’s another clue on page 105. Feride/Fahri asks Tarik about the Institute who rented the three-day body when Tarik offered him a job chasing skips. (I don’t know why it says Tahir in this paragraph and not Tarik. Is it another person, or a name change not corrected?)

"I'll deal with the institute," Tahir said, "That's what you'll be paying me for. That' and your nice new body not full of poisonous bacteria. And your other body, drifting on the edge of death. And the price for all three together is going to be very, very high."

He’s paying off the Institute, the rental on the new body, and the medical care of the original body. But we don’t know if he keeps the three-day rental or gets a new body.

Because of Tarik/Tahir conversation with Dr. Haznader I think the Institute story is real, and wonder about Melek’s involvement. Then why does Feride think at the end of the story that Melek paid for everything? But the lengthy discussion of the Institute’s research suggests that they planned all along for Feride to use the rental body for an extended period. So Feride/Fahri stayed in the same body.

But now I have a whole new theory. Feride thanks Melek for the three additional days. Maybe Melek didn’t pay for mindswap, but just three more days of healthcare. And that all the story about mindswapping was in Feride’s feverous mind. Oh no, do I need to read this story again? But wait, Melek thinks about Fahri and mentions their 5-minute dates, so that can’t be right either.

This could go on forever, but it stops here.

(I hope.)

Asimovs Science Fiction July-August 2019

James Wallace Harris, 9/1/19

p.s. – To further explain how hard it was to read this story and write this essay I wrote: “Quantifying My Cognitive Decline.” I believe aging is affecting my reading ability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Were the Other Best SF Novels of 2018?

2018 SF books

After winning the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo awards, we know that The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal was the standout SF novel of 2018. But which 2018 SF novels were nipping at Kowal’s heels? Keep an eye out for these read-worthy 2018 SF novels, they are showing up in ebook and audiobook sales.

2018 is long gone, but throughout 2019 awards are given to the best novel of last year. Novels must compete for readers like animals in nature to survive. At first, they just want an editor to accept them, then they compete for reviewers, and then for readers to buy them. In their second year of life, they compete for awards. By that second year, most of the books from the previous year have lost the fight to survive, disappearing from the bookshelves and readers memories. Winning an award is huge advantage for long-term survival.

There is a period towards the end of the year where readers are thinking about the best books of that year and novels from the previous year are forgotten — unless they win a Hugo or go on sale at Bookbub. Once a novel reaches a certain age, about the only way it finds new readers is if its author becomes popular and readers of their new novels decide to go back and read their old ones. In pre-digital days, books would often go out of print. But with ebooks and audiobooks, they hang around longer, often showing up in $1.99 sales.

Ask yourself, how many of these novels did you read, or remember reading a review, or had someone recommend it to you, or is already on your TBR pile? Also, how many titles are completely unknown to you? Hundreds of science fiction novels were published in 2018, but how many got popular attention?

The nice thing about the Locus Awards is they break out the science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels to win their own awards. Here are their other SF finalists:

  • Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager U.S.; Hodder & Stoughton)
  • If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy Kress (Tor)
  • Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
  • Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
  • Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell (Titan US; Titan UK)
  • Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz; Orbit US)
  • Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon)
  • Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)

I wished that the Nebula and Hugo awards gave separate awards to the various genres. It would help us readers who focus only on specific genres and give more recognition and awards to writers. (While I’m wishing, I wish they had separate awards for print/paid short fiction, and free-to-read online short fiction.) There were three other SF novels up for the Hugo in 2019, and all were finalists at Locus:

  • Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
  • Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
  • Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)

Of the Nebula finalists, only one book was science fiction:

  • Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)

To widen the scope, I’m going to add the starred reviewed SF from Kirkus Reviews. I’m not including young adult novels.

Strangely, The Calculating Stars was not a starred review at Kirkus Reviews. Except for one title (Blackfish City) Kirkus picked books that weren’t award-winners or finalists.

Goodreads voted 20 SF novels for the best of 2018, several of which have already been mentioned above. Their winner was Vengeful by V. E. Schwab that was also picked as a starred review at Kirkus Reviews. However I don’t really consider it science fiction, but a superhero fantasy, which should be a new genre. The Calculating Stars came in #14 with the Goodreads voters. I loved that book, and after it won all the awards, I figured everyone else did too. Obviously, fans and reviewers don’t always align themselves with award winners. Some of the books below I wouldn’t count as science fiction and others that aren’t novels but novellas. Remember Goodreads represents books people bought, tracked, and saved in a books database. Here’s the twenty in ranked order.

  1. Vengeful by V. E. Schwab
  2. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  3. Vox by Christina Dalcher
  4. Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
  5. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
  6. Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
  7. Perspolis Rising James S. A. Corey
  8. Artificial Conditions by Martha Wells
  9. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule
  10. Head On by John Scalzi
  11. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
  12. Star Wars: Thrawn Alliances by Timothy Zahn
  13. Severance by Ling Ma
  14. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
  15. Rosewater by Tade Thompson
  16. Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu
  17. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
  18. The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch
  19. Relevant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
  20. The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

The Chicago Review of Books picked 10 SF novels as the best of 2018. What we’re starting to see if both confirmations of award-nominated books and other titles being repeatedly recognized by reviews and fans.

  • Mem by Bethany C. Morrow (Unnamed Press)
  • The Book of M by Peng Shepard (William Morrow)
  • Semiosis by Sue Burke (Tor)
  • Severance by Ling Ma (FSG)
  • Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit)
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • Black Star Renegades by Michael Moreci (St. Martins Press)
  • Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco)
  • State Tectonics by Malka Older (Tor)
  • The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer (MCD Books)

Best Science Fiction Books picked their 25 favorite SF books of 2018, and many of the now usual suspects are at hand again. Here they are in their ranked order (and some are novellas and one anthology):

  1. The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
  2. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
  3. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
  4. Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport
  5. The Reincarnated Giant edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters
  6. The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith
  7. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  8. Semiosis by Sue Burke
  9. Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
  10. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
  11. The Rig by Roger Levy
  12. Head On by John Scalzi
  13. Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds
  14. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
  15. The Book of M by Pen Shepherd
  16. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
  17. Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang
  18. Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio
  19. Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
  20. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule
  21. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
  22. Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
  23. State Tectonics by Malka Older
  24. Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams
  25. Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Reading about these books makes me wish I could read all of them. The trouble is I only read a handful of new books each year. I’ve already bought many thinking I would read them, but I’ve already been diverted by 2019 books. I’m very lucky if I read three new SF novels during the year they come out, and then three more when they get noticed for awards in the following year. That means I miss a shelf of great science fiction every year.

Maybe we need awards for the best novels and stories that are 5, 10, 15, and 25 years old, to help some stories survive just a little bit longer. Some books deserve more time to find readers. Most writers hope when they create their novel it will outlive their own mortality. Most stories are forgotten in their first year of publication. That’s a shame because we overlook many brilliant works of art. Most writers give up because they don’t find readers. I urge you don’t always read books from your same three favorite writers, or from endless book series. Try something new.

I know writers love having a hit trilogy or successful series, but I find extended stories kind of selfish because reading sequels means sticking with the familiar until it jumps the shark and not taking a chance on new writers and new stories.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal just won the 2019 Hugo award for best novel. Congratulations! It also won the Nebula and Locus awards. I read both The Calculating Stars and its sequel The Fated Sky this month and loved them. I fully understand why The Calculating Stars is winning all those awards.

I’m not going to try and review The Calculating Stars because it’s gotten plenty of press. What I want to explore is why it’s so likable and readable. Anyone daydreaming about writing a wildly successful science fiction novel should study it. It’s definitely a page-turner. I generally avoid sequels but I also raced through The Fated Sky too.

Why is The Calculating Stars so popular? To me, the appeal of Elma York’s character is primary. This novel was atypical for science fiction because it was extremely character-driven. It almost felt like I was reading a memoir of a real person — and one written by a literary major.

But there was much more to why this book is exceptional. The story was a do-over, an alternate history where Americans were first into space in the 1950s, and women and minorities became astronauts much sooner than actual history. The story felt like it made amends for Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson — the women in Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly; for the women pilots called the Mercury 13; for the women profiled in the book Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt; for the black aviators in the book Black Wings by Von Hardesty; and for Ed Dwight who should have been America’s first black astronaut as part of the second cohort of astronauts after the Mercury 7.

The Lady Astronaut series is also another kind of do-over, one where we went to Mars. Why did we abandon our Martian destiny in 1972? I grew up with Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo in the 1960s. Everyone expected us to go on to Mars in the 1970s — everyone except Congress and Richard Nixon. So we’ve boldly explored low Earth orbit for nearly fifty years now. I doubt humans will make it to the Red planet, except in science fiction stories like this one.

Finally, I believe there’s one more defining emotion that made The Calculating Stars great. Maybe it’s wistful sadness, maybe it’s bitter regret. There’s a famous scene in the 1954 film On the Waterfront. It’s the scene where Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is telling his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) that he could have been a contender. Terry was an up-and-coming fighter, but Charlie worked for the mob, and Terry was made to take a dive, ruining his future forever.

I think many readers of The Calculating Stars wish they could have been astronauts and gone into space. Kowal knows that women, minorities, and all us science fiction fans lacking the right stuff wanted our chances too. We wish we could have been contenders and The Calculating Stars resonates with that desire. I feel the book looks back in regret, saying that America should have been better, more just, more equal, more open, and more egalitarian. That maybe we’re doing better now than we did in the real 1950s, but we aren’t there yet, just like we never made it to Mars.

 

It should have been different. In our timeline, it wasn’t our night, but in Elma York’s timeline, it was.

James Wallace Harris

(By the way, The Calculating Stars is currently on sale at Amazon for $2.99 for the Kindle edition, but I don’t know for how much longer.)

Who Were the Korlevalulaw?

Brian W. Aldiss

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this essay. I sat down to review the short story “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss. I thought I’d check Google before I started to see if I could find any history about the story. The first item returned was ‘“Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss‘ – a review of the story I had written back in 2009. I know my memory is deteriorating, but I found it hilarious that I had completely forgotten something I had written and I was about to write the very same thing then years later. I wish I had finished writing this new review before discovering my old review so I could have compared the two. I know I should be depressed over the existential holes in my memory, but nowadays, I just laugh at myself. I’m going to worry when I stop laughing.

Reading that forgotten review from a decade ago shows I damned the story with faint praise and use it for a jumping-off point to discuss the nature of science fiction. I will quote parts of it in this review. I liked “Appearance of Life” much better this time around. Most stories do get better with rereading. I’ve also learned since 2009, that the more I read works by a single author, the more I can map their range of abilities and interests. Back in the 1960s, Aldiss was among the Big Three of British SF writers: Aldiss, Ballard, and Clarke. His legacy has been fading in recent decades — but then so has most of the science fiction writers I grew up reading. I know I’ve pretty much forgotten about Aldiss since the end of the 1970s.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been gorging myself on science fiction short stories. I haven’t completely logged my 10,000 hours yet, but I’ve acquired a decent sense of the art form. Every SF short story must stand on its own, but it also competes with all other science fiction short stories. Science fiction by its nature is in conversation with itself. Science fiction is about ideas. The challenge to a creative SF writer is to come up with fresh insights to old ideas, and if they want to be cutting-edge, add a new idea to the genre’s repertoire.

Science fiction wants to be infinite in novelty but is often repetitious in routine, improvising on old melodies. Long term readers who have consumed a critical mass of science fiction will understand the genre recycles all the great concepts for each generation of young readers. Neophyte fans often feel they are experiencing a mind-blowing concept for the first time when reading current SF. They believe those ideas are new to them and original with the author they are reading. They can’t tell if the presentation is a brilliant revision or a tired retread. Nor do new SF readers understand that science fiction has evolved over time and gone through many revolutions in writing styles. It isn’t easy to spot the changing prose styles in science fiction as it is flipping through art history textbooks.

I’ve only read four novels by Aldiss, but only vaguely remember two, Hothouse and Non-Stop which I’ve read twice each. (Called The Long Afternoon of Earth and Starship when I read them in their first American editions back in the 1960s.) Over the decades I’ve only read a scattering of his short stories. I’m currently listening to The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss from Audible.com.

What got me interested in Aldiss again was Joachim Boaz’s review of The 1977 Annual World’s Best Science edited by Donald Wollheim. It contains “Appearance of Life” which Boaz rated 5/5 (Near Masterpiece). How could I resist that? Boaz said of the story, “It is powerful and mysterious. Aldiss at the height of his powers.”

Here is my original description of the story:

“Appearance of Life” can be found in these anthologies, but it’s not a very famous story.  I’m reading it because it’s the opening story from The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald A. Wollheim, a collection we’re reading in the Classic SciFi reading group.

The story opens with two sentences that sum up the story, “Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair.  They came together under my gaze.”  The story immediately evokes the awe associated with tales about mysterious missing aliens who leave galactic ghost worlds behind, like the Krell that once lived on Altair IV in the film Forbidden Planet, or the strange civilization that once existed on Bronson Beta, from the novel After Worlds Collide. These were my first encounters with the sense of wonder brought on by discovering long dead alien cultures back in the 1960s, but it’s a very common cliché in science fiction that I see over and over again.  It’s odd what Aldiss does with this common idea.  His aliens are called the Korlevalulaw, a tongue-twisting name to say or think.

One cool idea in the story is the Korlevalulaw abandoned written writing, which is something our culture is doing now because of the Internet.  What will aliens discovering our civilization ever make of keyboards and LCD monitors?  Reading this short story also makes me wonder what if anything could be made of my life from the possessions I’ll leave behind.  Think about it.  Photographs tell more than anything else.  How long will this blog endure?

On the planet Norma, humans find a vast building that girdles the planet for sixteen thousand kilometers.  Humans have decided to use this alien construct that is impervious to the electro-magnetic spectrum as a museum to house the history of mankind.  Androids tirelessly store humanity’s artifacts, supervised by twenty human female staff members.  The narrator is a “Seeker” who gets to prowl the collection and develop theories.  The entire structure was left empty by the Korlevalulaw, and after ten centuries humans have filled several thousand hectares of space.

Seekers are specially trained people to intuit understanding from scant evidence, perfect for studying the junk left in this vast Smithsonian like attic a thousand light years away from Earth.  At the current rate it will take 15,500 years to fill the alien structure.  To the Seeker, the human artifacts are almost as alien to him as the Korlevalulaw is to us, because humans have been around for so long that they no longer look like 20th century people.  That’s a nice science fiction speculative concept to come up with, to be a far future anthropologist, and it’s not an uncommon idea.  H. G. Wells’ Time Traveler spent time in a far future human museum trying to figure out that changes that people experienced over 802 millennia.  So far, Aldiss hasn’t presented us with anything new in this story, yet.

The Seeker explores a spaceship from the time when humans were split 50-50 by gender and discovers a wedding ring.  In the Seeker’s time, gender population is 10 to 1 in favor of females.  We readers don’t know why, but it’s an interesting thing for Aldiss to throw out.  Eventually the Seeker discovers two cubes, from different spaceships, that were holographic recording devices.  By unbelievable luck, they are from a married couple that recorded messages to each other fifteen years apart, and were design to only respond to the face of their beloved, so the Seeker sets them together and lets the holograms chat out a long dead love affair in an out of sequence conversation of regret and love that is sixty-five thousand years old.

Jean and Chris’ love story takes a couple of pages to play out, but ultimately it seems completely mundane to me, even though they were separated by interstellar war.  I’m surprise Aldiss didn’t invent something new to add to marriage and love.

Now we come to the intent of the story, called the “secret of the universe” by the Seeker in his epiphany, “Like the images I had observed, the galactic human race was merely a projection.  The Korlevalulaw had created us – not as a genuine creation with free will, but as some sort of a reproduction.”  Then the Seeker decides his flash of intuition is nonsense, but we know that isn’t true by his final actions.

In the end the Seeker flees the world Norma to desperately seek out an isolated world to hide away from humanity, fearing that if he communicated his secret it would doom mankind.  And this is why I’m writing this review.  What is Aldiss really implying?  I think he’s saying something philosophical that’s more than making up a spooky SciFi story ending.  I feel Aldiss wants his story to be disturbing like those Mark Twain stories written in his collection Letters from the Earth, which featured Philip K. Dick paranoia about existence.

Experience SF readers will have read many stories about our species exploring the galaxy. Galactic empires are an over-explored territory. When considering intelligent life in the galaxy stories tend to fall into three camps: humans are the only intelligent beings (Foundation series by Asimov), intelligent beings show up infrequently (“Appearance of Life”) and the galaxy is teaming with life (Star Wars, Star Trek). One of the common assumptions of the infrequent model is intelligent beings evolve, spread through the galaxy, and then die out or evolve into a higher nonmaterial existence leaving the galaxy unoccupied again. Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey both take the evolution to a higher plane of existence route.

The stories of alien archaeology where humans only find the material remains of a vast civilization of disappeared inhabitants is one of my favorite themes. Often in these stories, the mystery is to solve why the ancient aliens disappeared. Characters usually feel that will lead to either of three outcomes. First, such as the works of Olaf Stapledon, show humans an evolutionary/spiritual purpose to follow. Second, they feel it’s some kind of test, a rite of passage, to joining the league of advanced beings. Third, there is a drive to acquire the knowledge and technology of these senior beings. I believe Aldiss was trying to come up with something different in “Appearance of Life.”

The famous science fiction editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of humans being inferior to aliens, so we often see Homo sapiens as the top dog in the galaxy. I’d say most science fiction writers assume the galaxy is full of intelligent life, but humans will play a significant role, and no species will truly dominate. Most galactic empire stories are about the high tech potential of humans but fall short of becoming non-physical energy beings.

In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss opens with:

Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair. They came together under my gaze.

The museum is very large. Less than a thousand light years from Earth, countless worlds bear constructions which are formidably ancient and inscrutable in purpose. The museum on Norma is such a construction.

We suppose that the museum was created by a species which once lorded it over the galaxy, the Korlevalulaw. The spectre of the Korlevalulaw has become part of the consciousness of the human race as it spreads from star-system to star-system. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as demons, hiding somewhere in a dark nebula, awaiting the moment when they swoop down on mankind and wipe every last one of us out, in reprisal for having dared to invade their territory. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as gods, riding with the awfulness and loneliness of gods through the deserts of space, potent and wise beyond our imagining.

The two opposed images of the Korlevalulaw are of course images emerging from the deepest pools of the human mind. The demon and the god remain with us still.

 

I believe that opening captures the routine reactions of most science fictions stories about missing ancient aliens. Humanity has spent thousands of years speculating what God and Satan, or gods and demons, are like. How is that any different than speculating about possible superior alien beings? There is an ineffable quality to that problem that we never tire of putting into words.

Most SF stories predict we will be able to communicate with any alien species we encounter. Aldiss has major doubts. In “The Failed Men” also from The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss Aldiss casts more doubts on our ability to communicate between vastly different cultures. In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss uses a clever analogy with the talking holographic heads of Jean and Chris to explain why humans will never understand the Korlevalulaw. Aldiss’ insight is we can’t talk to each other, so there will be no communication possible between humans and gods, or humans and advanced aliens, or even humans and average aliens.

The Seeker who narrates this story is trained to synthesize ideas and experiences. In the end, he claims to have an insight into the secrets of the universe. However, like his insight at the beginning of the story, it parallels ancient theology, that the Korlevalulaw created us as their art. How is that different from the Biblical idea that we’re created in God’s image?

In my original essay I concluded:

Aldiss doesn’t sell his idea to me.  Having humanity be the art of an alien culture is no more real to me than believing man was made in God’s image, although I find it fascinating that billions of humans desperately refashion their lives to fit three thousand year old writings that shaped the long lost twelve tribes of Israel.

The trouble with science fiction writers is they don’t believe their own ideas, they just like to churn out weird concepts to mess with our heads.  The best science fiction concepts are the ones we want to accept, like space travel and life extension, so I’m surprised this story has even gotten the attention it has.   I’m betting most people liked it for the setup, for the sense of wonder buildup, even though it wasn’t original, and the weird ending didn’t mean much to most readers, but I could be wrong.

Now for the second thoughts a decade later. 

With each science fiction story I read I ask myself a number of question:

  1. Do I want to read this story again?
  2. Is this story worth writing about?
  3. Should I recommend it?
  4. Is it on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list?
  5. Is it a story that contemporary readers will like?
  6. Is it a story that is essential in the history of science fiction?
  7. Would I put it on my all-time favorite SF short story list?

For this review, I read the story, then bought the audiobook collection so I could listen to it, and I’m even reading it again for writing this review because I find it pleasantly compelling. And I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to it again in the future, maybe many times.

Since I’m writing about it, that answers question #2. I do recommend it, but the chance of readers finding a copy is damn small unless they own one of these old anthologies, or is willing to buy it on audio. I can’t find any print or ebook editions for sale.

“Appearance of Life” did not make it to the final Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. It only got 2 citations, one for the Wollheim anthology, and one for the Gunn anthology, The Road to Science Fiction Volume 5: The British Way. Currently, the minimum number of citations to get on the list is 8, and that grows over time. It’s extremely doubtful “Appearance of Life” will become a classic, either for our list or with science fiction fans.

Would young new readers of science fiction like the story today? My one data point is Joachim Boaz who is in his early thirties. But Boaz isn’t like most fans, he’s a historian, and also loves the history of science fiction.

Compared to other classic SF short stories, it’s doubtful many will consider “Appearance of Life” significant in the history of science fiction. Part of the problem is it came out in an obscure original anthology, and then it’s never been reprinted in an enduring retrospective anthology. Another factor in hiding its light under a bushel is the Aldiss star is fading.

Two of the definitive retrospective anthologies from recent years  The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and Sense of Wonder (2011) by Leigh Grossman had a large percentage of stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. Huge anthologies like these come out every few years and help keep SF short stories alive in the minds of new readers. Between them and fan polls, it’s about the only way older stories are remembered. But who knows, maybe between Joachim Boaz and myself we can get more people to read “Appearance of Life.”

Finally, I am considering putting “Appearance of Life” on my all-time favorite SF short story list I’m constructing. However, that list is limited. If I was creating 1,000 Science Fiction Short Stories to Read Before You Die it would be on it. Even if I was creating something like Billboard’s Top 100 All-Time Great SF Stories I might include it. However, I’m not sure if it will fit on my Jim Harris’ Top 40 playlist.

My Top 40 playlist is the science fiction stories I want to keep rereading as I get old and approach checking out. The ones I want to remember as my mind fades away. But what makes a story worth cherishing in your fading memory tontine? Before my friend John Williamson died, he got down to loving only two things: the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. My favorites list is growing now, still below 50 titles, and it might eventually reach 100 before my mind pushes me to start thinning it out.

What ultimately matters with a short story or even a novel, is what lingers in the mind. With “Appearance of Life” the images of a giant museum, two memory cubes of lovers in an endless loop of conversation, and the Seeker running away to find absolute solitude. That ending keeps reminding me of the ending to ” Press Enter ▮” by John Varley.

Isn’t getting old and approaching death also a withdrawal into solitude? Do we keep the stories we understand best, and throw out the rest? Or do we keep the stories we don’t understand, and winnow out those that become obvious? I don’t know what my last novel will be, the one I’ll keep reading to the end. But I do know the short story that will win the tontine, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. “Appearance of Life” is still in the rotation for now.

I do believe Brian W. Aldiss had a personal epiphany writing “Appearance of Life.” I’m not sure how well he expressed it, or how well I’m perceiving it. Like the story suggests, communication is not possible. But don’t we always keep trying? This is my second attempt to communicate my reaction to “Appearance of Life.” I don’t know if I’ve done a better job or not.

James Wallace Harris

“True Names” vs. “Press Enter ▮”

True Names and Press Enter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press-Enter-from-Asimovs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

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

Analog Jul-Aug 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris