“Snow” by John Crowley

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #76 of 107: “Snow” by John Crowley

We can learn quite a bit about writing from reading “Snow” by John Crowley. It’s a lovely story that most readers admire. Understanding why reveals those writing lessons. You can read/listen to the story here.

The setup is simple. Beautiful blonde Georgie marries a rich man who buys her everything, including a “wasp” that follows her filming 8,000 hours of her life. The film is destined for a funeral memorial, so it’s a rather odd gift. The rich man dies, Georgie becomes rich, marries Charlie for his looks, and eventually dies herself. Charlie loves Georgie, misses her, and after two years of grieving goes to the cemetery to see the films the wasp took. However, things don’t work out like he thought they would.

First, “Snow” zeroes in on everyone’s deep-rooted feelings for departed loved ones. This has nothing to do with science fiction. William Faulkner said in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “…problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing…” is exactly why “Snow” works.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing, he advises “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” What really makes “Snow” work as a story is all the ways the “wasp” fails to work with Charlie’s expectations. Or even to what we readers want and expect. But more than that, chasing memories causes Charlie to learn through the slow suffering of aging, desire, and looking backward.

I expected Charlie would go to the cemetery and request to see certain days that he fondly remembered being with Georgie. That’s what he expected too. But the wasp system didn’t work that way. There are two buttons: Access and Reset. The first shows one scene, randomly. Reset shows another random scene. Charlie goes to the caretaker disappointed. He learns the recording technology used by the wasp is at the molecular level so they can squeeze in 8,000 hours of film, but there is no ordering and no time/date stamps. Just momentary glimpses from the past.

Charlie keeps coming back, addicted to those random scenes, learning about himself and Georgie. Eventually, Charlie notices that the memory clips are fading over time, turning snowy. He complains to the director, who tells him an interesting story about being a film archivist in his old job for the movie studios. He tells Charlie that in the oldest film clips, people’s faces looked pinched, cars and streets looked black, and things felt wintery.

Charlie never goes back to the cemetery. The last paragraphs are about what Charlie has learned about human memory. He believes there are two kinds, one that worsens over time, and another that can grow more intense.

Charlie is a character we can root for, we can feel and empathize. That’s another of Vonnegut’s rules. His number one rule is, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” My time was not wasted. This is the second time I’ve read this story, and both times I felt a powerful sense of resonance with the John Crowley gives us. It made me think about my own life and wants. The time it took to read it produce worthwhile insights for me. “Snow” made me contemplate the nature of memory, recognizing how much our memories are like the memories collected by the wasp. Yet, what I wouldn’t give for a film library of my life.

Vonnegut also says, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Charlie wants Georgie, either in real life or in memories. This is something everyone feels, so does that make this story more powerful? More powerful than say a story about someone wanting to save Earth from alien invaders? I think it does. I think the most powerful science fiction stories are the ones that make us think about people. Remember Charlie Gordon? Or Kip Russell?

Another piece of advice from Vonnegut is, “Start as close to the end as possible.” Crowley doesn’t spend any time when Georgie was alive. He gets right to the heart of the story and only spends a bit over six thousand words in storytelling. I think that’s another plus for this story. Short, sweet, and POW! That’s why Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days” was so effective.

Finally, and this is the hardest to judge, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action,” but I believe Crowley adhered to this advice very well indeed. In the end, Charlie says, “I wanted to go, get out, not look back. I would not stay watching until there was only snow.” One for action, one to tell us all about Charlie.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/23/22

“Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #65 of 107: “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

This is the third time I’ve read “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin. It has 11 citations on The Classics of Science Fiction Short Fiction list. And it was made into an episode of The Outer Limits.

These are the stories “Sandkings” are tied with on our list for 7th place, all having 11 citations, all heavy-hitters.

This kind of success makes me wonder how such stories are written to make them so memorable. I’m familiar with all the above stories, and some (“Coming Attraction,” “The Country of the Kind,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Ugly Chickens”) are among my all-time favorites. To be honest, I put “Sandkings” in the second half of that list. But still, it’s a catchy tale.

In “Sandkings,” Simon Kress is a rich collector of violent pets. But not on Earth, on a planet named Baldur, so his pets can be quite exotic. He is offered sandkings, insect-like creatures, with hive intelligence. Kress buys them because he’s told they worship their owners and fight wars. He is also warned that there are certain conditions to be met to maintain safety, but then this story wouldn’t be the story it is if Kress minded those warnings. (I did wonder if Gremlins was an influence, but I checked and it came out five years later in 1984.)

“Sandkings” is another horror story in a science-fictional setting. The VanderMeers seem to have a penchant for those. Evidently, they have a macabre streak. Maybe they grew up reading Poe. “Sandkings” is a story old Edgar Allan would have admired. But I also catch whiffs of other literary influences.

First off, I wondered if Martin read Theodore Sturgeon’s 1941 classic, “Microcosmic God,” and thought, hey, this god of small things is a neat idea, I wonder if I could do something with it and make it more realistic? The protagonist for “Microcosmic God” was named Kidder, another K-name like Kress. Mercurio Rivera’s “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” (Asimov’s Jan-Feb 2020) also used the god of small things theme. I only know of these three stories that use the god of small things theme, so it appears writers can recycle it about every forty years. Does anybody know of other examples?

Like I said, I felt Poe was an influence. But I also wondered about Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Sandkings” has a gothic feel to it, and it’s about sensuality, decadence, and evil. The sandkings worship Kress. They build images of him in stone. Those images change over time, reflecting the corruption of Kress’s soul.

Reading “Sandkings” makes me wonder if more writers shouldn’t search out old forgotten SF themes and refashion them into new stories. It’s done all the time but usually at a superficial level to the most commonly used themes. The best example is the murder mystery. Why haven’t we gotten tired of that theme/plot?

James Wallace Harris, 12/28/21

Reviewing Analog Because I Want to Write Science Fiction

I haven’t read all the stories in a science fiction magazine in decades. I’ve always wanted to be a science fiction writer but I’ve never had what it takes. At seventy, I’m wondering if there’s any chance left of even getting even one short story published? I plan to read several different science fiction magazines to judge where short science fiction is at in 2022. I’m starting with Analog.

Reading and reviewing new science fiction is difficult for me. I have sixty years of reading science fiction and new fiction just doesn’t compete with all the classics I’ve discovered over my lifetime. I’m getting tired of reading average science fiction. Nor do I want to write it. Can I identify what makes a story anthology worthy, or award-winning worthy, but most of all, what makes a story successful over time? I’m afraid none of these stories were classics, and only a couple might deserve being collected in a best-of-the-year anthology. Although they all missed the magic I love to find in science fiction stories.

Several times over my life I’ve tried to write science fiction, including taking MFA writing courses and attending Clarion West. I’ve never been satisfied with my own work. When I read a story in a science fiction magazine, I think about the effort it took to write each story, so I hate to criticize them. On the other hand, if I’m going to use the last drops of my psychic energy to write a story, I don’t want to write anything that’s already been done over and over again. And that was always common in writing workshops.

Finally, the comments on the stories in the Jan-Feb issue of Analog below are my memory notes. I thought maybe others might be interested in my notes as I read through different science fiction magazines.

My notes are mainly to help me remember what the story was about and how I felt about it. I’m also working on improving my memory by writing notes. I’m still refining this process. I try to summarize each story as a way to remember it or to get others to read the story. I’m still experimenting with my note-taking style, so they aren’t consistent yet.

To be blunt, most of these stories lack a sense of wonder. They are about far-out concepts, never transcend into the magical. And even though I’ve written dozens of unpublished stories in the past, I’ve never felt any of them had that magic either. That’s why I’ve always given up.

What makes “Vintage Season” or “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Star Pit” work? I’m sure all new writers aim to hit one out of the park with each new story. I remember at Clarion West hurting one guy’s feelings. He came to me after class and asked me which story was the best one that week. I didn’t think and mention the one I thought was the obvious best. It wasn’t his. And then I realized, he thought his story was the best and wanted affirmation. So I said I thought his story was among the better ones that week, although I didn’t believe it. It’s almost impossible to judge one’s own work.

Reviewing fiction often involves telling people their babies are ugly. I don’t like doing that. On the other hand, do you want to really believe your baby is beautiful when it’s not? I’m going to try and be honest in my notes, but not vicious. Hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but I’m just as harsh with myself.

The hard, cold, reality is most science fiction stories are just average stories, and that’s being excessively generous by some critics. The hard, cold, reality is only a few stories truly stand out each year. The hard, cold, reality is most writers produce dozens or even hundreds of short stories over their career, but just a handful of their stories are remembered.

Often these stories remind me of older science fiction stories. After reading thousands of science fiction stories, it gets very hard to find something that feels new and different. And all too often when I’m reading new science fiction magazines, I feel the writers were inspired by TV shows and movies rather than reading classic science fiction stories. I think they would be better served if they read the classics.

Choosing the right length is also very important. If you stretch your story, you can try the patience of the reader. If you tell it too quickly, it will diminish its impact. Novellas must be exceptionally good to justify the time they ask the reader to give up. Short stories must be extra potent to make any kind of impact in their short space. Personally, I find novelette length the best length for short science fiction.

I used to believe that television and movie science fiction wasn’t as evolved as written science fiction, but that’s changed. I can understand why new writers are influenced by television and movies. Unfortunately, the popularity of science fiction on television is so pervasive that all science-fictional ideas have been done to death

Most science fiction stories are meant to be entertaining. Some stories speculate about the future, revealing the author’s hope or fears. Most science fiction stories dwell in a fantasyland created by the momentum of past science fictional fantasies. In the real world, we’re on course for global civilization collapse. It’s too late to avert drastic climate change, and capitalism is about to self-destruct. Damn few science fiction stories deal with the future in any realistic way, revealing a bankruptcy of creative potential. Science fiction has become so close to fantasy fiction that any genre distinctions no longer matter. Still, I’m always looking out for what I consider real science fiction.

"Communion" by Jay Werkheiser & Frank Wu

Thread 1: Sentient organism struggles to survive when separated from its hive. It communicates with biochemistry.

Thread 2: Nes Mason and his robot Alex crash onto an icy moon. They communicate with language.

For each to be saved they must discover each other's existence. The story has a lot of organic chemistry.

Pleasant enough tale hurt by its novella length and excessive science.

However, it's a neat idea and reminds me of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.

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"The Lobster Pot" by Tony Ballantyne

"By His Bootstraps" meets GATEWAY and "Rogue Moon" wondering into THE MATRIX.

A fairly compelling tale. Four characters with no characterization other than different names.

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"Wind Gets Her Own Place" by Joe M. McDermott

Wind, a 17-year-old Tau Ceti colonist has a tough first year in this YA science fiction story. Her mother doesn't make it through cold sleep and Wind is forced to share a tiny room with her mother's boyfriend who she hates. The story is mostly teenage angst that could have been set on Earth. However, it's a well-told story.

One takeaway: colony life is dreary, although realistic. Few readers will fantasize about this adventure. I want to write something that's realistic, and maybe even deals with our depressing reality, but I want to add something new or transcendent. How can we make readers excited about the future when its so damn bleak? (Many writers in this issue try by writing essentially science fiction fantasies.)


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"Cloud Chaser" by Tom Jolly

Another story with twin storylines, but this one is the first in this issue to have any kind of storytelling finesse. It's a space opera but with a number of cliche elements, including space pirates, and feuding royal brothers. I enjoyed this one and it had fair degree of what's-going-happen tension in the second half. Yet, not quite good enough to believe I'll reread it.

One of my main measures of a better story is if after reading it I know I'll want to reread it in the future.


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"Splitting a Dollar" by Meghan Hyland

Amy and Brad are on the Moon in ancient spacesuits that have been in museums for two hundred years. Before our civilization collapsed, we left presents in a Lunar stockpile for the next civilization. This is Meghan Hyland’s first professionally published story, and the first I've read that's maybe anthology worthy. It's not a retread, and that impressed me. The title is based on the Ultimatum Game, a psychological experiment that makes a nice metaphor for the tale, unfortunately it's explained in the story. It shouldn't have beem. I think trying to make the title clever spoils the story. Just plot the story on the Ultimatum Game. The story has many weaknesses, even though I like the idea. Having Brad just be greedy for gold was too simplistic, making him a strawman. The story would have been better if Brad had a believable motivation. The lesson here is don't imagine routine scenes. Make each scene as good as the overall idea. 

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"Charioteer" by Ted Rabinowitz

Short, tightly written tale of survival during a solar sail race. Sadly, the story's driving conflict was tired and cliche. Why didn't she get a name?

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"By the Lake Where We First Loved" by Paul Starkey

Moira Cohen, nee Ishikawa is on Titan to perform a ceremony to commemorate her dead husband. She looks back over her life and realized her husband's success separated him from her, and diminished her own success.

Not a bad little tale, but the sentiment was strained for me. Again, the problem with such short works of fiction is we don't get to be with them long enough to care. It's like meeting an interesting person in line at the post office.

Lesson here is be wary of the short story length. Too much was said and not shown.

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"The Bumblebee and the Berry" by M. Bennardo

Axel is the governor of generation ship, a hollow asteroid that's been traveling for 630 years. They have reached another star system, but for three attempts they have failed to plot a correct path to their destination, and are now on their fourth attempt. Within this brief story Axel has an epiphany as to why.

I'm partial to generation ship stories. This story is almost a mood piece it's so short, but the character struggles to figure something out. It brings up the problem of story length. It's hard to create a really good story that's short, and even when a writer succeeds, it feels like getting one spoon from a bowl of ice cream.


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"The Way Back" by Jen Downes

I thought this was a lovely story, and it's the closest I've come thinking I'd reread a story in the future. But not quite. It's so hard to judge a story from one reading. Reading new stories are like seeing a new baby and wondering what it will be like when it grows up.

TJ Marshall, or Teej dreams of going into space from age 7. And in this short story, we get to see their dream come true. I'm not sure if Teej is male or female -- I'd need to reread the story closely. What I really liked was the details of Rocklea, Teej's hometown next to the spaceport. It was a very literary beginning. The writing in this story reminded me of early Delany. The rest of the story is kind of cliche but still well done. It also reminds me of Heinlein's STARMAN JONES.

One reason I resonated with this story is it reminds me of how I wanted to go into space as a kid. However, when Teej realizes he needs to return to Earth, it reminds me of how I feel now. Better characterization really helps a story.

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"Dix Dayton and the Miner From Mars" by Liz A. Vogel

Dix Dayton gets wins weird device in poker game in a bar on the asteroid Euphrosyne. While asleep the device causes hole in pressured habitat. Hole is fixed. End of story.

Bland space opera that seemed inspired by the Expanse series. Felt like possible chapter out of planned novel. Didn't work as a standalone story. I think readers want more than just a bit of space opera. Also, I just don't believe in this future. It's television's idea of life in the asteroids, with stereotype characters. Heinlein did asteroid life better in THE ROLLING STONES.

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"Doe No Harm" by Louis Evans

A John Doe arrives at the ER in this short story set in the future where privacy laws are encoded into all computerized medical equipment. The patient is unidentifyable and their embedded ID chip with medical records is destroyed, thus the doctors don't know how to contact next of kin, or have ID directed permission to use their AI driven computerized medical equipment. Every piece of routine equipment shuts down because of automatic privacy lock. Thus, the ER doctor and nurse resort to old fashion methods.

This has been the most entertaining story so far in the issue. Dramatically extrapolating on current medical trends.

Solid story, worthy of being anthologized. Still, it's problem solving over characterization. But that seems to be the way in Analog.

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"Yellow Boots" by Stephen L. Burns

Stude, a robot, and Louis, a human who has had better jobs, work for an organized crime syndicate selling fresh water in a city flooded by rising oceans. They discover their water has been adulterated with sea water by the syndicate and want to help their customers avoid dying without being eliminated themselves.

Few science fiction stories deal with our inevitable future. That makes me appreciate "Yellow Boots" even though the story isn't ultimately inspiring. It's a readable enough story, unfortunately, like many Analog stories, the focus is on the problem rather than the people.

I wish science fiction writers would give us stories of people finding ways to thrive in a doomed world. That's a lot to ask. Stude and Louis solve a problem but their solution doesn't offer hope, just survival. I don't expect Pollyannish fantasies, but more stuff like Kim Stanley Robinson is doing. And I downright loath abandoning Earth for Space stories.

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"A Living Planet" by Benjamin C. Kinney

Ethan misses his wife Liza, who is on a mission to Mars. Worse yet, communication with her spacecraft has been lost. But that's not what this story is about, even though it's enough of an idea for a story. Next, the story shifts to how Ethan doesn't get along with coworkers and boss at JPL because of the way he likes to joke around. Another good conflict for a short story. But even this isn't what "A Living Planet" is about. Ethan's job is to write code for a satellite that gathers up space junk. The real story begins here when Ethan discovers small alien spacecrafts that are light-sail-driven.

This story would have been better if it got right down to the main story. Actually, I was most interested in the missing wife story.

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"Patience" by David Cederstrom

When I started reading "Patience" I was delighted -- it read just like something from a 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The first POV character is Antal, an intelligent creature waiting for a warm-blooded animal to kill. Starting off, I thought it was a past or future primitive human. Either before civilization or post-apocalyptic. I love such stories. But then it mentions its rear set of eyes, so we know it's not human. Through Antal's stream of consciousness, we know it's desperate for food, for blood.

Then the POV changes to a human and we see things completely differently. This was a short but effective story that sucked me in. My only criticism is it was too short. Very nice first science fiction story.

Makes me wonder if I shouldn't pattern my writing on older SF.

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"The Middle of Nowhere" by Rachel S. Bernstein

Bernstein gives us a grim view of the future, one where transporters are replacing old forms of transportation. The only problem is data snafus where travelers end up in limbo. Less bloody than plane crashes. Stephanie works for the Border Patrol monitoring illegal transporter traffic into the U.S. She intentionally routes bad guys and illegal aliens into the bit bucket. Too close to a final solution. (Did I read this story right?)

This is another first story, and Bernstein does an effective job of storytelling but I'm appalled what appears to be happening.

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"A Fistful of Monopoles" by Raymund Eich

The 'Winona from Pomona' is an interstellar salvage ship crewed by Barnet and Faraday McCandless in 2572. They come across a billion-year-old derelict alien spacecraft they hope will have magnetic monopoles they can salvage. Reminded me a bit of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. Decent, but a minor story with an ending that solves one of the main limitations of first-person narratives.

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"Soroboruo Harbormaster's Log" by David Whitaker

At a distant interstellar outpost, the harbormaster logs in a growing list of new ship arrivals and the number of immigrants. Uses the idea that FTL ships will overtake generation ships, and thus the harbormaster ends up logging in older and older ships. A minor story based on an idea I first read in TIME FOR THE STARS by Heinlein.

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"On the Rocks" by Ian Randal Strock

Flash fiction that mixes ideas from old science fiction stories and highly theoretical science that doesn't work. Mildly amusing way to recall Asimov and Heinlein, but the story is a groaner.




James Wallace Harris, 12/20/21

“Where Two Paths Cross” by Dmitri Bilenkin

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #60 of 107: “Where Two Paths Cross” by Dmitri Bilenkin

“Where Two Paths Cross” is a science fiction story from the old Soviet Union by Dmitri Bilenkin. Future cosmonauts exploring a new planet are captured by bushes and nothing the humans do seems to outsmart the plants. Coincidently, this story reminds me of a novella in the new issue of Analog (Jan-Feb 2022), “Communion” by Jay Werkheiser and Frank Wu. It’s an encounter between an intelligent organism that communicates with biochemistry and human explorers.

Both stories are about science. “Where Two Paths Cross” focuses on evolution and adaptation and how it relates to intelligence, and “Communion” deals with biochemistry and how it can be used for communication.

Both of these stories focus on how things work, rather than human wants and desires. We might call them hard science fiction, or we could call them scientific puzzle stories. In both stories, learning what’s being communicated is the clue to resolving the plot. The plot is essentially the same too. Humans are threatened by animals we normally don’t consider intelligent, and the organisms are threatened by beings they don’t understand in terms of how they understand their environment.

Both were readable stories but neither turned me on. Nope, I don’t mean sexually. I’m talking about storytelling arousal. That doesn’t mean I don’t recommend them, I’m just not the kind of reader who responses to such puzzle stories. I need protagonists I care about, and generally that means a human I can relate to in some way. However, as I write this essay and think about these two stories, I might reconsider how much I liked them.

While reading “Communion” I was reminded of “Surface Tension” by James Blish about humans who become microscopic creatures. Now, this might reveal the child in me, but I liked the non-human microscopic creatures in “Surface Tension” because to a degree Blish anthropomorphized them. Although Werkheiser and Wu have their organism speak to the reader in the first person, the authors worked hard to keep it from having human qualities. That creature thinks in terms of organic chemistry. This is more realistic than Blish’s creatures, but it’s not believable like fantasy’s talking animals nor as something really possible in reality.

Bilenkin also worked to keep us from thinking of his alien bushes in any kind of cute way. Basically, the bushes reacted to humans in the same way they reacted to their normal predators — through reflexes conditioned through their environmental experience.

Both of these stories remind me of three other science fiction books, The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, and Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward. They aren’t the same, but there are some similarities in flavor. All have unbelievable premises but we forget that because of the storytelling techniques used to make us believe. Werkheiser and Wu lay a lot of biochemistry on us to help us understand how communication works with organisms that communicate with chemicals. This biochemistry is fascinating, I really liked such details in the nonfiction book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, but there may have been a little too much of it in “Communion.” Unfortunately, Bilenkin probably didn’t know about such science when he wrote “Where Two Paths Cross,” but it would have added to his story.

My point of all this is my reader reaction depends more on storytelling than scientific accuracy or logical believability. I no longer think I should criticize a science fiction story for scientific accuracy or logic. I used to think that was important to science fiction story but I’ve come to realize that there are other qualities important to readers that override accuracy. Analog is known for presenting hard science fiction, but most of the stories I’ve read in the current could be severely trashed as unscientific, illogical, or just not believable. What really ignites a science fiction tale is not science, but what is it?

I’m waiting for others in the group to respond to these stories because I assume there will be readers who were turned on by them. I don’t want to say either of these stories are bad, but neither contained the magical ingredient that gets me high. They were interesting, they had ideas to think about, but they were missing something that would make them my kind of story.

I wish I could define the psychoactive element in fiction that pushes my buttons. We’ve still got plenty of stories in this anthology to read. Maybe it will be revealed.

James Wallace Harris, 12/16/21

“Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #57 of 107: “Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg

“Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg first appeared in Universe 1 edited by Terry Carr in 1971. The Universe series was the next big original anthology series after Damon Knights Orbit if I remember right. Original anthologies were just becoming a thing, and it seemed stories published in them were of a higher order than those that first appeared in the magazines. “Good News from the Vatican” also won the Nebula award for the best short story the following year. Oddly, Carr didn’t include it in his new best-of-the-year anthologies, Best Science Fiction of the Year, nor did Wollheim for The 1972 Annual World’s Best SF, but Lester del Rey did include it in his new best-of-the-year anthology series, Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year. 1972 was a big year for best-of-the-year volumes, and our Facebook group has read two of them.

This is a long roundabout way of wondering if “Good News from the Vatican” was the best SF short story from 1971. Why do we remember the stories we do? We just read another one, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin. And 1971 was famous for Larry Niven’s “In Constant Moon.” Don’t get me wrong, I like “Good News from the Vatican.” Silverberg is a skilled writer with worldly experience and a lot of acquired knowledge and it shows in the story. “Good News from the Vatican” is just as literary as something Graham Greene would have written at the time.

The VanderMeers picked two stories from 1971 to remember. I liked both choices, but they were not the stories I recall for remembering 1971 science fiction. I think of “Inconstant Moon” and “A Meeting with Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke. I’m not disagreeing with the VanderMeers’ choices. And I’m not even considering that different people have different tastes in stories.

No, I want to explore the idea that there are different flavors of science fiction. And there might be fans that strongly prefer one over the other. I’m not sure what to call these flavors, but I believe I see two in the stories from 1971.

To “Good News from the Vatican” I’d group “No Direction Home” by Norman Spinrad and “All the Last Wars at Once” by George Alec Effinger, and probably “Gehenna” by Barry Malzberg and “How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?” by Alexei Panshin.

To “Inconstant Moon” and “A Meeting With Medusa” I would add “The Queen of Air and Darkness” by Poul Anderson. Now you might guess I would add “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” but I’m not sure. It is a story involving outer space but it’s not quite the same, it’s more like the other group. Why?

If you’re familiar with the history of science fiction in 1971 you might say I’ve divided the stories up into New Wave and Old Wave. And that might be true, but I think my unconscious mind is getting at something else.

The first type allows the author to be clever, intellectual, opinionated, and philosophical. The plot or story takes a back seat, allowing the writer to become a commentator. The other type takes the reader on an adventure, giving them a virtual experience.

“Good News from the Vatican,” asks the reader: What would ordinary people, and religious professionals think about a robot being a spiritual leader? “Inconstant Moon,” asks the reader what they would do if they knew the world was about to end?

I don’t know if I’m conveying the insight I’m having, but it’s working for me. I’m zeroing in on why I like different stories and why.

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 12/10/21

“Broad Dutty Water” by Nalo Hopkinson

“Broad Dutty Water” is set in the future after climate change has raised the ocean levels many feet leaving Caribbean islands mostly submerged. Jacquee lives on a floating artificial community but as the story begins is flying away from an atoll where she had snuck away to have a brain implant. Accompanying her on this adventure is an uplifted pig called Lickchop, who already had a brain implant. Jacquee is young and headstrong, ignoring her mentor’s advice, her doctor’s advice, and her friends’ advice getting herself and Lickchop nearly killed but having quite an adventure. “Broad Dutty Water” is the cover story in the latest issue of F&SF.

I read “Broad Dutty Water” because I wanted to read some recent science fiction since I’ve been gorging on old science fiction for months. This abrupt switch has given me an interesting perspective contrasting old SF with new SF. This also comes after I’ve been watching several videos on YouTube that list the best science fiction coming out on film and TV. There has been an overwhelming number of post-apocalyptic movies produced in the last few years. And quite a few movies and shows that people call dystopian. Watching all those previews made me feel folks don’t have much hope for the future.

Should we call “Broad Dutty Water” a post-apocalyptic story because it’s about surviving in a world much different from now? Has civilization collapsed or merely adapted? Jacquee lives on a floating community that looks for new ways to survive and thrive. It’s a positive portrayal. Its citizens are tech-savvy, printing parts for machines like an ultralight plane, and science-minded enough to exploit biological mutations in the climate changed ocean.

I’m currently addicted to watching YouTube and I’m seeing a lot of videos predicting the collapse of civilization. The future is very dark for many young people. Personally, I don’t believe we’ll stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere or correct the flaws of capitalism, so I expect the collapse of our current global civilization in the coming decades. But does that mean doom and gloom?

Isn’t Nalo Hopkinson giving us a positive view of the future in “Broad Dutty Water?” Sure, the story ignores all the suffering involved in a major paradigm shift, but isn’t that good? Don’t we need science fiction that imagines a post doom world with a positive perspective?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a great percentage of SF stories were about apocalypses. People thought the human race was about to blow itself up or wreck the environment. But there was also a lot of science fiction about bright shiny futures. Ever since An Inconvenient Truth I’ve worried that young people didn’t have much of a future. That the science fiction I read only seemed positive about the far future.

I think we need more science fiction like “Broad Dutty Water” that imagines thriving in a post-doom world. Yes, we’ve fucked the planet over big time, but that doesn’t mean we’re all heading into a Mad Max future. Stockpiling AR-15 ammo isn’t the best way to prep for the future.

One other comment on “Broad Dutty Water.” Hopkinson uses dialect in her story. Dialect is hard to read, and most writing teachers tell budding writers not to use it. However, I thought it was effective here. The story is set in the Caribbean and in the future, so people will sound different. Maybe writing teachers are wrong.

James Wallace Harris, 12/6/21

Three From Moderan: David R. Bunch

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #52, 53, 54 of 107: Three From Modern by David R. Bunch

How and why do we read old science fiction stories and novels? Our Facebook group reading of The Big Book of Science Fiction is one explanation. The VanderMeers picked stories they want to save from obscurity and published them in this anthology. Their author introductions tempt us to read other stories and novels. Most people pick books that look interesting to them at the bookstore or read books friends or famous people on television recommend. A few readers might even read stories I write about on this blog. But sometimes readers pick books on specific themes or styles.

The past is full of great stories, but then new great stories are being published all the time. We’re torn between reading the latest versus the classic. Do you ever contemplate what you read and why? Or do you merely stumble upon your next read?

Our next three selections to discuss are three sections/stories from Moderan by David R. Bunch: “No Cracks or Sagging,” “New Kings Are Not For Laughing,” and “The Flesh Man From Far Wide.” The last appeared in the November 1959 issue of Amazing Stories, but the other two might have been written for the book, which first appeared in 1971. Evidently, Bunch was working on this weird theme for a very long time.

There is a new 2018 edition of Moderan from the prestigious New York Review of Books that contains an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. That might explain why the VanderMeers chose to include three stories by Bunch for our anthology. It’s kind of significant that NYRB reprinted this book. Here’s their sales blurb for it:

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.

This volume includes eleven previously uncollected Moderan stories.

What’s kind of funny is while I was researching Moderan, I discovered I owned a Kindle copy of the NYRB edition, which I haven’t read, and probably picked up as a $1.99 bargain book. I wish I could reprint VanderMeer’s introduction. However, you can read it by going to the Look Inside feature at Amazon.

Obviously, some people think this book is special, but my reading of these three sections has only mildly interested me. Reading the hype and history of the book intrigues me more, so I might be tempted to read the entire fix-up novel. I’d be even more likely if there was an audiobook edition, but there’s not. I tend to get into iffy books easier when I’m listening and a good narrator is helping me out.

Moderan first appeared fifty years ago. It was quirky then, written for a quirky time. We live in a much different time and quirky in a much different way. We live in what’s some people are calling the Post Doom era. That catchphrase merely means civilization is on the decline, and we’re already suffering climate change. The advocates for this philosophy suggest instead of hoping society will change and do something to avoid climate catastrophes, that we should start adapting to the new reality. This is an interesting concept for science fiction readers. Instead of reading endless Max Max post-apocalyptic futures, or scenarios of escaping Earth into space, imagine futures where we hunker down and endure.

Moderan is a book about post-civilization, thus making it timely for today’s readers. But will it resonate with them? Unfortunately, I think not. It’s too far future-ish. It’s told in an almost allegorical style. And it’s not literary enough, in my opinion, to widely appeal to readers of eccentric works. I believe being so long out-of-print attests to that.

Moderan imagines a post-civilization of cyborgs and mechanical beings, but not a realistic one. It doesn’t work as science-fictional speculation or extrapolation, thus making it a kind of odd fantasy world. Thus I believe its appeal is going to be limited. I imagine readers who love outré fictional worlds, such as the novels by Mervyn Peake or the short stories of R. A. Lafferty could enjoy Moderan. That kind of fiction only works for me when I’m in rare strange reading moods.

Yet, thinking about this book makes me think about post-civilization novels. I’m afraid science fiction hasn’t done a very good job of imagining the real possibilities. The only works I can think of are recent novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially New York 2140 and The Ministry of the Future.

Because we’ve actually entered into a post-civilization phase I have to wonder how readers will react to all the old science fiction that imagined a much different post-civilization existence? Science fiction has produced endless speculations, but now that we opened Schrödinger’s box and reality is gelling on what will be, will science fiction change course?

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James Wallace Harris, 12/1/21

“Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

I was reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg when I got diverted by the group reading of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I had left off at the beginning of “Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. The story originally appeared in the May 1956 issue of F&SF and might be Kuttner’s last SF magazine publication before he died in 1958. It was the last story that Asimov and Greenberg ran in their Great SF series by the husband and wife team.

I’ve been reading The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) in order since 2018 and want to get back to that series and finish it. This really is a great anthology series but they’re out of print. That’s a shame. You can find them on ABEbooks and eBay but they are going up in price every year. There are pdf copies on the net if you look around. I wish DAW would reprint them and get someone to continue the series. Robert Silverberg did do #26 (1964) with Greenberg for NESFA Press which connects nicely into Wollheim/Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction anthology series that began in 1965. However, I like how Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating SF stories for each year decades after the fact.

I can’t say I agree with all their choices. “Rite of Passage” is a well-written tale full of ideas but little emotion, something I’ve been talking about lately. Lloyd Cole is the Black President for the Communications Corporation. Kuttner and Moore have imagined a future where people believe in magic, and Cole is the president of black magic. Corporations also have white presidents.

Here’s the kicker, magic isn’t real, but everyone believes in it. Cole’s job is to cast evil spells under contract for his clients. “Rite of Passage” is about how Cole wants to get revenge on a man who stole his wife by appearing to kill him for a client, thus providing a cover-up for his own intentions.

“Rite of Passage” is rather long, a novelette that feels like a novella. Most of the content is world-building Kuttner and Moore use to flesh out the background of the story. I only enjoyed two pages of the story, which I believe is the inspiration that Kuttner and Moore used for writing the story:

Evidently, the stress of 20th-century life made people lose their critical thinking abilities embracing magic, with corporations exploiting that vulnerability. This is a neat idea. It’s even somewhat prophetic, but political parties are exploiting peoples’ irrationalities. This neat idea is not enough to give this story a heart. Lloyd Cole is not a nice guy, so we’re not sympathetic for his devious efforts to get his wife back. It’s somewhat ironic that others use magic against Cole, and he succumbs even though he knows magic is not real.

“Rite of Passage” is a case where the story is dominated by ideas, appealing only to our intellect. I’m sure some readers will find it amusing and even entertaining. Obviously, Asimov and Greenberg did, but I didn’t. If I had felt for Lloyd’s love for Lila, I might have cared more. Lila drives Lloyd’s revenge, but she’s only an idea, not a real character. It’s a shame that “Rite of Passage” didn’t have the depths of emotions shown in “Vintage Season.” They both seem to have the same amount of world-building.

The classic science fiction story from 1956 that Asimov and Greenberg did include having powerful emotions is “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight. It’s doubly impressive because the protagonist is truly unlikable. Yet Knight eventually gets us to sympathize with him.

Probably the most remembered SF story today from 1956 is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov. It’s another intellectual story, but it has a tremendous sense of wonder, the favorite emotion of science fiction readers.

James W. Harris, 11/27/21

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #50 of 107: “The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones was so uninteresting to me that I wasn’t going to write about it. Then I got to thinking about the comments posted by Joachim Boaz for the last story. He didn’t like my statement “And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.” Besides disagreeing with it, he thought I was being too absolute. I should have clarified things by saying, “For me, fiction works best when it’s not solely intellectual.”

There’s nothing emotional in “The Hall of Machines” and it has generated lackluster support on our discussion of it. But Austin Beeman commented, “Since so much of Sf is setting, story and characters are not always necessary. Found this story beautiful and haunting. Really enjoyed it.” Evidently, stories without emotions do have their fans.

I could have amended my original statement to say, “Since I’ve gotten older, fiction works best when it’s not only intellectual” because I can remember a time when I liked stories just for their neat ideas. But even then, none of those stories would rank in my list of favorite stories.

I remember trying to read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. It’s a novel with many fans and critical support. However, I thought Pynchon was only being clever and just couldn’t find anything to love about the characters or plot and quit reading. My guess is fiction that focuses on intellectual entertainment has admirers and that’s why Joachim was so annoyed with my statement. But I still assume most readers want an emotional connection with fiction. That doesn’t mean those same books can’t have intellectual value, I’m just saying it’s the emotional connection that makes readers love a story.

If you look at any list of best novels or short stories, most, if not all, succeed because of their emotional impact. “The Hall of Machines” has nothing for the reader who wants a character to care about. I was surprised by how little I could find on Langdon Jones. Wikipedia redirects queries on his name to the entry on New Worlds magazine. I could only find one photo of him on Google. I haven’t read anything else by Jones, but if “The Hall of Machines” is typical for his fiction, I can understand why he’s not remembered.

Evidently, the VanderMeers do like stories with an intellectual focus. It explains why I haven’t liked several of these stories we’ve already read. I should be less critical of their inclusion because I’m guessing from Joachim’s complaint such stories do have their admirers. I apologize.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/27/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #34 of 107: “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

Why do we read science fiction? Maybe that’s too big of a question to answer. Why do we love the stories that we do? What’s qualities does a story have that pushes our buttons? That might be getting closer to where I want to go. The last lines of “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon misted my eyes as I read them. But it wasn’t because our unnamed narrator was dying. I wasn’t moved either in our last story, “The Monster” when Marion and Bernard were about to die.

No, I’m moved because our astronaut protagonist says: “‘God,’ he cries, dying on Mars, ‘God, we made it!'”

That’s one reason I love this story. I believe many of us who read science fiction have an affinity for Mars, and a desire to go there. And subset of those readers would even be happy to die there. Sturgeon knew that and hooked us.

But Sturgeon couldn’t have written just that last line to win us over. There is a long build up that makes that last line work. The dying astronaut is visited by hallucinations of his younger selves. One is a boy playing with a model, a boy like many of us who used to play with models. Those of us who love this story can remember being young and pestering older folks with our enthusiasm for newly acquired knowledge.

The dying astronaut has a vivid memory of skin diving and nearly drowning. I admire the story even more because I can remember skin diving a couple of times when I thought I was drowning. I was always a terrible swimmer and shouldn’t have even been trying the things I did. I remember the first time I used a snorkel, mask, and fins, and how I also swallowed water and thrashed in the water. I can remember trying to swim further than I was capable. I remember what it felt like to make it back to the beach, the relief. Those experiences resonated with Sturgeon’s character, and I imagined they were based on his own experiences. Such embedded connections make a story succeed.

However, we don’t have to have shared experiences with Sturgeon and his fictional character. We all wonder what it’s like to die. Maybe we’ve even been sick enough to think we’re dying. There is something special about that last moment, a moment we wait our whole life to experience. How will we handle it?

The first work of fiction I remember from childhood is about a man’s last thoughts when dying. I didn’t know that then. I was seeing the movie version of High Barbaree when I was about six. Later on, I learned it was based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. In the movie, Alec doesn’t die. In the book he does. But I’ve been intrigued by the idea of last thoughts my whole life. That also makes me love “The Man Who Lost the Sea.”

This is the second time this year that I’ve written about “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” I had already forgotten that. I had to use the search feature on my blog to check. The story was even better this second time. I’m not about to die, but I’m old enough that I think about it often. Because I’ve spent so much of my life reading science fiction my last thoughts might be haunted by science-fictional themes. My last thoughts could recall all those far-out ideas I loved by reading science fiction. I might even judge my time on Earth by how many became real?

I do know as I age, what I value in a science fiction story changes. Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is revealing what I still care about and what I don’t. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” still resonates, but so many of the stories don’t. If I was sitting across the table from the stories I’m breaking up with I should tell them, “It’s me, not you.”

I had a friend who died in middle age. His name was Williamson, and before he died he kept rejecting things he once loved. Towards the end, he only cared about two things in life, the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. This dwindling of interests before death I call the Williamson Effect. As I progress through my seventies, and maybe beyond, I imagine I’ll reject most of the science fiction stories I once loved. They will just stop working. I tend to think “The Man Who Lost the Sea” will continue to work for a long time, maybe not to the bitter end, but close.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/25/21