“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would both be pleased. I knew. 

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

And before that, his boss told him:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris. 6/23/20

The Science Fiction I’d Write at 68

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 6/2/20

Pantsers vs. Plotters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/28/20

F&SF25 Special Issues

 

Remembering Helen O’Loy

Most short stories never get published. Of those that do, most are never reprinted. So, it is quite fascinating to study a story that does. My Facebook group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey that first appeared in print in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Using its record at the ISFDB.org we can track when it’s been reprinted over the years. It has also been translated into at least six languages. Here’s the timeline of major reprints:

  • 1948 – … And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey (collection)
  • 1952 – Beyond Human Ken edited by Judith Merril
  • 1954 – Assignment in Tomorrow edited by Frederik Pohl
  • 1960 – S-Fマガジン – v. 1 n. 1 (Japan)
  • 1963 – The Coming of the Robots edited by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1965 – Science-Fiction-Cocktail: Band I (German anthology)
  • 1966 – Master’s Choice edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1970 – The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1971 – 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1972 – 3000 Years of Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp
  • 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  • 1974 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1975 – In Dreams Awake edited by Leslie A. Fiedler
  • 1977 – Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Fred Obrecht
  • 1977 – Souls in Metal edited by Mike Ashley
  • 1978 – Robots, Robots, Robots edited by Geduid and Gottesman
  • 1978 – The Best of Lester del Rey
  • 1981 – Science Fiction: Masters of Today edited by Arthur Liebman
  • 1982 – Analog: Reader’s Choice
  • 1983 – The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 5
  • 1985 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1990 – Friends, Robots, Countrymen edited by Asimov and Greenberg
  • 2010 – Robots and Magic by Lester del Rey
  • 2017 – The Robot Megapack ebook anthology

This leaves off the many reprint editions of the above volumes, plus some obscure anthologies, and other collections of Lester del Rey. For example, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One seems to stay in print and is currently available in paper, ebook, and audiobook editions. It’s the volume my Facebook group is reading.

However, why wasn’t it collected in Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComas or The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin? Those two giant anthologies from 1946 set the standard for science fiction anthologies for a generation. Nor has “Helen O’Loy” been anthologized in any of the recent super-giant retrospective anthologies like The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer  or one of the teaching anthologies like Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman

In truth, “Helen O’Loy” is a minor story, and problematic if you analyze it psychologically, especially with how it treats women. It hasn’t appeared in a significant SF anthology in over forty years. NESFA Press remembers Lester del Rey with Robots and Magic, but they are a fan press that remembers the old greats of the genre. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame stays in print because it does exactly what it was designed to do, remember the legendary shorter works of science fiction published before the creation of the Nebula Awards. “Helen O’Loy” was up for a Retro Hugo award but came in second, losing to “How We Went to Mars” by Arthur C. Clarke.

Anthologists who attempt to present a historical overview of the genre constantly shift through the past looking for older SF stories that are relevant to present-day readers. Each new anthology tends to forget more of the older stories. The Big Book of Science Fiction has 29 stories from 1934-1963 where The Science Fiction Hall of Fame has 26 in volume one, and another 22 in volumes 2A and 2B.  Sense of Wonder has 46 stories from 1934-1963, twelve of which were in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There are only two stories – “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Surface Tension” by James Blish appearing in all three anthologies.

Of course, Sense of Wonder has an unfair advantage, it has over 200+ short stories, and is so big that it’s only practical to own as an ebook. However, among my friends, we’ve often wondered if members of the SFWA voted today for the best short stories from 1926-1963 what would they be? So I just paused writing this essay to write about that.

Would modern science fiction writers still pick “Helen O’Loy” as a classic science fiction short story from that era before 1964? I don’t think so. Surely, the current younger generations would see the story much differently than those writers who grew up reading science fiction in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

On a very simple level, “Helen O’Loy” tries to ask a very simple question: “Could a robot ever be considered human?” Science fiction stories, novels, television shows, and movies are still exploring this very simple question. And there is a growing industry seeking to actually build realistic sexbots. Why wouldn’t “Helen O’Loy” remain a classic? For any man lusting after a woman made to order, they’d probably not see anything wrong with the story.

Lester del Rey wrote “Helen O’Loy” before the world knew about digital computers and programming. The technology for imagining how a robot could work in 1938 would be clockwork mechanics, radio electronics, and wire recorders. They had little reason to assume we could build a machine that could see, hear, think, and talk. Del Rey had the myths of Pygmalion and the Golem, and stories about mechanical men for inspiration, but that’s about all. In 1938, on a technical level this story is a pure fantasy.

Then, how does the story hold up for psychological realism? Why would Phil and Dave in the story give up two real life girls, the unnamed twins, for a mechanical girl? One twin wanted to see a movie the boys didn’t so they dumped both girls? Are we really going to believe that biological humans will ever accept pseudo-humans as soulmates?

The main problem with “Helen O’Loy” today is how little respect it gives women. Basically, it says if a machine could be built that looks like a beautiful woman, and if that machine serves the man in all his needs and wishes, then that’s all men need from women. (Why didn’t femfans of the day howl back then?) “Helen O’Loy” assumes women have no wishes, desires, wants, ambitions of their own, that a woman’s only purpose is to fulfill a man’s needs. Are there men and women who would be satisfied with a visually appealing machine that serves their fantasies?

I say the heart of this story doesn’t beat — then or now. Sure, “Helen O’Loy” is an amusing little tale if you don’t think about it. So why has it been remembered and reprinted more than most other science fiction stories? I have to assume it resonates with adolescent male fantasies, or with people who feel challenged to build AI robots.

All along, science fiction has loved robots. And building a robot equal to a human has been the gold medal goal. But it’s here when I personally feel science fiction has always failed miserably with a total lack of logic and vision. Humans are emotional creatures, and emotions come from biology and chemistry. AI minds will be digital. The only emotion I can imagine a robot having might be curiosity. Why has science fiction failed to understand that no matter how much a robot might look like us it will never think or feel like us? And why has science fiction for so long wanted to see robots that are so like us that a Turing test would include physically passing for human?

To many science fiction fans, Isaac Asimov owns the robot story. He didn’t expect them to pass for human, or to think like us. But I don’t think Asimov ever extrapolated very far with the possibilities of intelligent machines. His stories certainly invalidated stories like “Helen O’Loy” but why haven’t other science fiction writers gone further?

I think we will forget “Helen O’Loy” partly because of its affront to feminism, but also it’s ideas about robotics are too primative and silly today. Of course, any anthology that tries to show the evolution of fictional thinking about robots will include it. And to be honest, I still enjoyed the story, and admired the way del Rey told it. I had to wince many places at the sexism, and groan at the idea of vacuum tube robots with memory coils, but ultimately I liked the story.

James Wallace Harris 5/10/20

 

What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown

In this short 1949 science fiction novel, Keith Winton, the editor of pulp science fiction magazine Surprising Stories is on a weekend retreat at his publisher’s estate in the Catskills. He has fallen for Betty Hadley, the editor of Romantic Stories. Keith woos her to stay, but Betty has to get back to New York City. Keith stays, first going back to his room to edit the letter column for his next issue, but then going out to sit in the garden, hoping to see an experimental rocket hit the moon with flash that can be seen from the Earth. It is 1952, but not our 1952. Instead of impacting the moon, the rocket crashes onto the Catskill estate sending Keith Winton into another universe.

I don’t want to tell you too much about this other universe — there’s too much fun to spoil. Keith’s new reality is much like ours in every way, but their concept of science fiction is quite different. What Mad Universe is a cross between a nail-biting pulp thriller and a wild satire of science fiction and its fans.

If you love pulp fiction, you should love this story, especially if you’re an aficionado of 1950s Sci-Fi, and I am in a big way. This novel has often been reprinted, yet it’s not well known. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jim Roberts (6 hours 48 minutes). It took me a bit to get used to the style, but I could never tell if the slight oddness was Brown’s or Robert’s. In the end, it didn’t matter, the audiobook made this story even better.

The story prefigures the work of both Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley. And if you know what recursive science fiction is, then that’s another tipple in its favor.

If you need to know more details, there’s an extensive synopsis on Wikipedia, but it’s full of spoilers. If you want to sample the story, you can read the novella version online from the September 1948 issue of Startling Stories (it’s severely cut down). There is a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon, but if you think you want a whole lot of Fredric Brown What Mad Universe is also available with four other of Brown’s science fiction novels in the NESFA hardback collection Martians and Madness — the other stories are Martians, Go Home (1955), The Lights in the Sky Are Stars (1953), The Mind Thing (1961) and Rogue in Space (1957).

What Mad Universe - hardback 1st edition

Martians and Madness

JWH

A Philosophical Conversation Between Two Short Stories

This week at the Science Fiction Book Club on Facebook, we’re discussing two stories: “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (1973) by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (2018) by N. K. Jemisin. Le Guin’s Hugo award-winning short story is often taught in schools because it presents a brilliant philosophical Zen kōan. Jemisin’s story rejects Le Guin’s implied conclusion and offers an alternative answer by resetting the kōan. Both stories paint a tiny utopia with quick colorful strokes, each with a moral conundrum, and each with a solution to upset their readers.

Every so often in our genre, a science fiction writer will present a story that other writers want to reply to by writing another story. For example, it appears the novels The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card are part of a conversation with Robert A. Heinlein that he started with Starship Troopers. Sarah Pinsker’s story, “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going” is also part of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” conversation too, but I haven’t read it, and there are no links for it on the web.

If you haven’t read Le Guin’s and Jemison’s stories, I hope you go off and read them now because this essay gives spoilers. Both are very short. The links to each story are above. I recommend listen to each story as you read along with the text. Both text and audio Jemisin’s story are at that link. Here is an audio version of Le Guin’s story.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin offers an allegorical lesson about the nature of utopias. She intentionally speaks to you the reader, inviting participation in the creation of her utopian city, Omelas, because she wants you to believe it is indeed a perfect society. That’s the first part of the story, and quite lovely. The second part of her parable is when she describes the price of this utopia, which Le Guin later claims she got from William James. Omelas is a beautiful place to live because of the suffering of one child. All citizens know that suffering is part of their social contract. Le Guin describes the suffering child vividly so we feel the horrendous price the citizens of Omelas must accept. The third, and final part of this allegorical tale, is about the people who reject that contract and walk away from Omelas. It’s a powerful story, especially when you actively consider whether or not you the reader would stay or go.

Le Guin sets up her moral problem by presenting an artificial situation, much like the famous trolley problem in psychology. Most readers only consider it a story and a theoretical issue. I don’t. I see the story as a metaphor for our own existence. All the societies on Earth provide happiness to some based on the suffering of others. “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” is a perfect analogy for our own social contracts. Le Guin is telling us any happiness we gain comes at a terrible cost, and we’re complicit with the bargain.

Le Guin was theorizing about the nature of utopias. Even though humans have sought perfect societies since the dawn of time, we’ve come to believe that utopias are impossible. Le Guin knew her fictional problem was limited to her story, but I assume she also knew the guilt we’d feel reading it because it matches real life much too closely.

In the story, Le Guin, and I suppose readers are expected to admire the people who walk away from Omelas. But where do they go? There has been much speculation about that. Le Guin wrote a novel after this, The Dispossessed that explores a place, Anarres, that tries to imagine a place that those leaving places like Omelas might want to go.

Now we come to N. K. Jemisin. She didn’t admire the people who walked away and instead imagine people who stay and fight. Jemisin’s story also paints a picture of a tiny jewel-like utopia, Um-Helat. It’s a whole beautiful world but much like the city of Omelas. The differences are interesting too. We all imagine what we think utopia would be like, and both writers know this, offering their readers a chance to participate — an impressive writing technique.

Um-Helat, unlike Omelas, would be near perfect and without evil if it wasn’t for our world. Um-Helat exists in another dimension, and is our world perfected after much struggle. Unfortunately, some of the citizens of Um-Helat have discovered a way to observe our world, and our hate and beliefs in inequality are corrupting theirs. I wondered if this wasn’t partly a specific metaphor for the internet and wondered if Jemisin isn’t asking what we should do about people who pollute the online world with their evil perspectives.

Some of the citizens of Um-Helat have come up with a solution to this problem. They don’t walk away. They seek out and kill those citizens that are spreading corruption from our world. I doubt Jemisin sees this as a literal solution. Isn’t this the flaw of her stories to inspire readers to think and discuss?

I buy neither solution. We can’t walk away. There’s no place we can go that doesn’t have the same social contract of trading suffering for happiness. Nor can we fight inequality and hatred by killing its perpetrators. And it is impractical to create a whole new society. Neither solution works in the real world, but the real world still demands a solution.

If we only consider these two stories to be about the theoretical problem of creating a fictional utopia then we can talk all we want and then walk away just like the characters who walked away from Omelas. If this is only fiction, we can say, “Kill the bad guys.”

If we consider these stories metaphors for our society, we can’t walk away, and we can’t kill. Yet, we can’t forget these stories because we can’t forget all the real downtrodden or all the real people infecting everyone with hate.

Reading these stories create existential angst. We might have given up on utopias in fiction, but we can’t give up on improving this world. Maybe we can’t reach 100% utopian perfection, but we can achieve a lot more happiness and equality. Studying the past shows us how much worse societies were, so we know we can improve. But what is the maximum utopian efficiency we can achieve? 75%? 90%? 99%

We also have a social contract. Success and happiness in this world come from the failure and suffering of other people. Hatred and misery in this world come from inequality. We’re all like those citizens of Omelas who willingly accept the torture of a child, and we’re like the citizens of Um-Helat who spread inequality. Why? Because we all want to climb the ladder of prosperity and social position. We just tune out all those tortured people and hatred to get what we want.

Yes, these are only stories, but they are revealing stories. If we don’t realize that we’re part of an evil social contract we’re not walking away, but running away.

[The photo of N. K. Jemison above is by photographer Laura Hanifin, copyright 2015.]

James Wallace Harris, 4/10/20

 

 

 

 

 

Star Trek Lovers Don’t Read This

I’m serious about my trigger warning title. If you love Star Trek don’t read this. It’s not worth the aggravation. I’m aiming this at old farts like me who wish science fiction was more scientific, and there ain’t that many of us. I expect maybe five readers. I finished watching Star Trek: Picard and have some things I want to talk about, but I don’t want to rile any fans. Overall, I thought the show was fun. It was also a pleasant excursion down memory land. However, I have some quibbles, some specifically about the show, and others about science fiction in general. My complaints probably aren’t fair anyway, just my personal pet peeves for things to be different in science fiction.

And maybe I’m being too literal in wanting Star Trek to be more scientifically realistic. Maybe all Kirsten Beyer, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, and Alex Kurtzman wanted was to present a metaphorical story about how paranoid conservatives (Romulans) are infiltrating all levels of the federal government (Federation) so they can fight illegal immigration (synthetics) and keep America pure (humanoid).

At that level, it makes the show a feel-good experience. Yet, I feel the need to bellyache.

My first quibble with the show deals with superscience. It appears anything that can be imagined is possible within the Star Trek universe. For example, if they can have instantaneous communication with 3D holographic images, why not just teleport everyone anywhere in the universe and forget starships? Wait, they did that. Star Trek allows for any magical wands and fantasy portals. Wasn’t that doohicky given by the synthetics in the last episode really just a magical wand? Are wormholes in Star Trek any different than a magical wardrobe to Naria? Just another fantasy portal to get you to another world?

I’m beginning to wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right the evils of comic books. Doesn’t it feel like all the comic book movies have corrupted science fiction movies with superhero characters and nonsense science? Star Trek: Picard was no more challenging in the understanding of reality than belief in Santa Claus or Superman. Have we all become children again? Picard is always able to find a chimney to descend.

My second main quibble with Star Trek: Picard was the synthetics’ outpost on Coppelius. We had eight episodes building us up to what magnificent creatures these AI beings are, and what a tremendous threat they are to all humanoid life in the galaxy, and what are we given? A society that looked like a small commune of 1960s flower children. In fact, they reminded me mostly of the hapless Eloi in the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. I was expecting a far-out civilization, with imposing architecture and technology. We are eventually thrown one bone, with that ESP-driven multi-tool, but wasn’t it really plot-fixing abracadabra. I hate when science fiction equates advanced beings with ESP magical mumbo-jumbo powers. Psionics ruined 1950s’ Astounding.

My last quibble, and really the largest, but one that applies to all recent science fiction, both in books and movies, is imagining AI beings that look like us. And especially why do most recent AI beings in science fiction look like beautiful young women? What a pathetic lack of creative thinking. Sure, I know, it’s a great role for young actresses, but can’t they make a decent robot that can act?

Are all those billions we’re pouring into artificial intelligence just a secret tech-race to develop sexbots? Are there guys out there dreaming about becoming the first trillionaire by marketing a Wowza iWoman?

First, we need to do some deep psychoanalysis on why we think AI beings will look like us. Are we so vain to think we have the perfect form? Also, in most science fiction where the story tries to convince AI beings shouldn’t be destroyed as evil threats, making them look human, even beautiful, is a fantastically huge storytelling cheat. It’s too easy to be empathetic to beings that already look like us, especially beautiful young women.

If Dahj and Soji had looked like six-foot-tall metallic spiders, with dozens of eyes that could see into all wavelengths of the EM spectrum, capable of thinking a thousand times faster than human, free from all oppressive programming of biology, who saw us as extremely limited wetware creatures confused by our passions and urges, would we have thought of them as equals to be protected with by our human rights, laws, and our ethical considerations? Would Picard champion their existence? And be honest, would you have feared and hated them?

Science fiction sells both good and evil robots. Isn’t it rather Freudian that good robots are hot babes and bad robots are evil machines? Okay, I admit there are some counterexamples to my claim. We do have Number Five and WALL-E who were good and machines, and Number Six who was evil and a lovely woman in a red dress. Give those story creators an A+.

We confuse the whole problem of machine intelligence by considering synthetic humans. We will never need to create synthetic humans, but we will create AI minds that exist in bodies of fantastic designs of extreme utility.

The whole arc of season one of Star Trek: Picard was about fearing the children of the singularity. But it never dealt with the issue with any intellectual validity. It remained at a level of primitive movie SF philosophy that existed in 1966 when the original Star Trek premiered. Heinlein did a superior job that year with the SF book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

I’ve always loved Star Trek, but it’s not evolving. It’s just becoming more and more recursive nostalgia. And, at that level Star Trek: Picard was satisfying.  But thinking about it made me worry that neither Star Trek nor science fiction is ever going to grow up. If fact, it seems to be regressing, at least on television and in the theater. Is that just because it’s trying to reach the lowest common denominator to make the most money?

The trouble is, the original vision of Star Trek was intended to be a positive (liberal) view of the future. Back then we truly hoped the destiny of humanity was so spread across the galaxy. Star Trek made us believe it could happen. We’ve learned a lot in the half-century since then, but it’s not reflected in the newer shows. What we learned is Star Trek/Star Wars visions of interstellar travel is a fantasy no different than the magical make-believe universes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. At first, science fiction offered realistic possibilities that replaced the old dreams about reality based on God(s), angels, and heaven, but now science fiction is just becoming another fantasy dogma.

What we need is a science fiction television series where interstellar travel is nearly impossible, where we coexist with intelligent machines many times smarter than our IQ, and maybe even communicate with alien species that look nothing like humans, or anything we ever imagined. We need a high frontier that isn’t a substitute for colonialism, yet fulfills our deepest existential needs. Science fiction on the level of comic book superheroes is no more sophisticated than the thinking of 2,500 years ago when the ancient Greeks imagined the shenanigans of their gods and goddesses.

Of course, that might be expecting too much. Humans haven’t changed significantly in their 200,000-year existence, so why expect them to change now? But haven’t we reached a stage in our development where we could see out of the loop we’re trapped in? Is it too much to ask that we cut back on the fantasy and explore the realistic possibilities of existence in a genre with the word science in its label?

James Wallace Harris, 4/3/20

 

 

 

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh is a fix-up novel that was published in hardback in 1954 but was first serialized as three stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Feb 1953, Jan 1954, Sep 1954). That was quite common back in the 1950s, to assemble a novel from a series of shorter works written first for the magazines. For example, Foundation, More Than Human, A Case of Conscience, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. were all fix-up novels.

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntoshI had discovered the novelette “One in Three Hundred,” in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1954 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty. I thought it a ripping tale and immediately looked it up on ISFDB.org. That’s when I found out there was also a novel by the same title, and it was based on three stories:

My first inclination was to order a copy of the novel. I was anxious to keep reading to find out what happens. It is currently in print but sold as three separate ebooks for $3.99 each, reprinting the individual stories. I really wanted a copy of the original Doubleday edition because of its dust jacket. A first edition can run in the hundreds, but book club editions aren’t too expensive. However, I have the magazines and decided to just read the story in its original serial form.

1

I’m not sure Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas knew what they had with the first story because it wasn’t given cover like parts two and three. “One in Three Hundred” was mentioned on the cover, but it was listed last. However, they introduced the story with:

Intro 1

The story begins with 28-year-old Bill Easson walking around the small town of Simsville, (population 3,261) oddly judging people in his thoughts. What slowly unfolds is the world will end soon and Bill will pilot one of 700,000 cheaply built rockets that can each take ten passengers to Mars. Only 1 in 300 Earthlings will get a chance to survive, and Bill’s job to pick the right people. This story reminds me of a movie I just reviewed, Abandon Ship where Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) has to choose who lives and dies on a lifeboat.

Bill is very conscientious about his assignment. He doesn’t want the obvious morally best people, but people he thinks are up to the challenge and one who could make something out of their new life on Mars. Of course, most people in this town try to con, barter or force themselves onto his list. It’s a compelling story, and fairly adult for a genre targetted to youths. Most of the story is about Bill’s logic, and how he argues with different people who can’t see his way of thinking.

We eventually learn what the editors thought of the story in their introduction to the second part, “One in a Thousand.”

Intro 2

I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to learn that Bill and the ten do make it off Earth because the second episode is about surviving the journey in space. And the editor’s lets you know about as much as you need to know. I like the second part, but it wasn’t as original as the first story. However, McIntosh does provide some very realistic problems for his characters so solve, much more real than most space adventures of the time. 1954 was pre-NASA and although McIntosh doesn’t lay a bunch of technical jargon on us, he does cover all the scientific basics for traveling to Mars. Most science fiction at the time, or even later, seldom bother with these kinds of details.

Again, this might be a spoiler, but it’s probably obvious that in the third installment, they do make it to Mars but face a whole host of new survival problems colonizing Mars. By now the editors know how big of a hit they have.

Intro 3

One in Three Hundred is a forgotten novel of science fiction. It appears to have made a minor splash at the time. Groff Conklin said it was “A distinguished tale” in his January 1955 review in Galaxy. But it was the last book he reviewed in that column and didn’t say much other than describing the three parts like I have above.

P. Schuyler Miller in the February 1955 “Reference Library” damns the story with faint praise.

147-asf195502147

On the other hand, Damon Knight savages the story in the February 1955 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. Who is right, Boucher and McComas and the readers of F&SF, or Damon Knight, who became one of the first literary critics of the genre? Knight makes me feel stupid for liking the story.

Science Fiction Quarterly 1955-02-0075

Science Fiction Quarterly 1955-02-0076

And Henry Hull in his review from Imagination April 1955 makes me wonder how could  have I liked the story at all:

Imag55-04 0063_1L

Galaxy reviews the One in a Hundred again when it was republished as an Ace Double. This time Floyd C. Gale calls it excellent and compares it to When Worlds Collide.

093-093-093-Galaxy v11n0 (1956-01) 093

Finally, we have Leslie Flood’s review from New Worlds #47. His 1956 take is closer to my 2020 opinion.

New Worlds No 047 0127

New Worlds No 047 0128

I have to admit that One in Three Hundred isn’t a great book, but I find it fun reading. But then, I love discovering old forgotten science fiction worth remembering. I’m mining the past for the kind of science fiction I enjoy — the ones I missed the first time around. Of course, that means anything I like and recommend must be taken with a grain of salt if you’re only used to reading modern science fiction.

I recently read The Death of Grass by John Christopher from the same time period and will say it is a classic, a true novel of artistic quality, one a modern reader should admire. McIntosh doesn’t come close to Christopher’s writing skills. However, does that mean I shouldn’t recommend One in Three Hundred? Damon Knight was famous for vivisecting SF novels, and he does make this novel seem silly — but I could do that to all my favorite books. Sure, it is unrealistic to believe that we’d ever build 700,000 cheap spaceships. I doubt McIntosh believed it either. McIntosh sat down to write about one man picking ten people to survive the apocalypse. That’s the primary hook. The second and third parts are about how well he chose.

Of course, McIntosh gets everything wrong about Mars, but then so does all the other science fiction writers of that time, including Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. I remember seeing the name J. T. McIntosh on books when I was growing up, but they never appealed enough to me to buy and read them. Now I wish I had. I assumed he was among the countless hack writers of genre and that might be what he eventually became. However, it appears his early books from the 1950s were more promising. Some of his books are in print today as ebooks, but I don’t know if they are his best work or hack work. If we have any J. T. McIntosh fans out there who can vouch for his better novels, leave a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/20

What Happened to Science Fiction?

Disclaimer: My definition of science fiction is not how others define it. Nor is my approach to Star Trek. I’m just psychoanalyzing myself to understand my emotional reaction to the new Star Trek: Picard. It has given me insight into how science fiction is changing.

Is science fiction always science fiction? The label is so broadly used that it’s almost meaningless. Hasn’t science fiction changed from generation to generation? Wasn’t science fiction different before Star Trek in 1966? And didn’t it change again in 1977 with Star Wars? Before 1966 the audience for science fiction was mainly readers of books and magazines. Star Trek brought in millions of new fans. Star Wars brought in tens of millions of new fans. Didn’t each new wave of fans redefine the genre?

Hasn’t every new decade starting in the 1930s, attract new writers that changed the genre? Wasn’t science fiction before NASA different than after NASA? Didn’t the influx of women writers change science fiction? Hasn’t the success of fantasy influence science fiction? Don’t you think the shift to writing long book series changes things again?

I felt Star Trek: Picard in 2020 works to do something very different than Star Trek in 1966. Can we still call it science fiction? Should a label be changed when the object it points to changes? Language has always been fluid, so we tend to recycle words, which can be confusing. I believe if we study all the different incarnations of Star Trek we’ll see that what we point to with the label science fiction has regularly changed.

Early science fiction was about real things we might invent or discover. Writers said someday we’ll go to the Moon and we did. Someday we’ll invent robots and we’re doing it. Then other writers came along and used those ideas to make up fun stories indifferent to what might happen in the future. They didn’t care what was really possible or not, they just loved the stories. Writers who were idea lovers wanting to speculate found it harder and harder to come up with new possible realist concepts so they switched speculating about fantastic possibilities. And the story lovers embraced those ideas too.

The original Star Trek had many episodes written by idea lovers. With each new Star Trek series the science fiction shifted more to the story lovers. Star Trek: Picard has no speculation at all. In fact, it seems primarily nostalgic and recursive. It even seems to suggest a new phase, character lovers. All the enchantment in this new series seems to come from connecting with old friends, old enemies, and old conflicts. Is that really science fiction?

Everyone has a different definition or concept to explain their love of science fiction. I’m enjoying the new Star Trek: Picard but I feel something is missing, and it’s taken me a while to figure out what. For me, science fiction is that sense-of-wonder rush I get when I encounter a new far-out speculative idea. Plenty of stories are called science fiction, but for me, the real McCoy always comes with a sense-of-wonder epiphany. What I’m realizing is earlier Star Trek series were different from recent series, and something has changed. I’m wondering if this new approach to Star Trek isn’t also a trend with other forms of science fiction. The nostalgic recursion is certainly true of Star Wars and the Marvel Universe.

The Star Trek universe is huge. It’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of television episodes and movies, plus a zillion pages of books and fan fiction. Sure, Star Trek is set in a science fictional framework, but 99.98% of Star Trek is mythos and not science fiction — not by my definition. After the original series, Star Trek is an ever-expanding mythology that seldom adds new science-fictional ideas. Star Trek is mainly Star Trek.

Star Trek: Picard is a chimera. Our senses are dazzled by its special effects while our heart melts with nostalgia, yet something is missing. During the summer of 1966, I began seeing commercials for a TV show aimed directly at me. I actually looked forward to going back to school that year because it meant Star Trek would premiere. That summer was a transition time for me because I was about to begin high school. I had spent my junior high years gorging on science fiction books and short stories, and I was full of sense of wonder and a true believer in science fiction.

There was little serious science fiction on television before Star Trek, notably The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I tuned into to see the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” shown on September 8, 1966. Maybe I had too much hope because a story about a shape-shifting alien seemed old hat. I may or may not have read Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” by then, but I had read other SF stories about beings that could fool us into thinking they were human.

Yet, I was still excited about Star Trek. The concept of a five-year mission of a scientific vessel exploring the galaxy did instill a lot of hope. Knowing that every week Star Trek would present a new science fiction idea completely sold me on the show. Back then I and my buddies would always discuss a science fiction story by the ideas that wowed us. Good stories, no matter the genre, always have good characters, plots, dialogue, standard storytelling structure, but what made science fiction unique was its mind-blowing ideas.

The following week’s episode, “Charlie X” did generate a better sense of wonder high — the idea of a human kid being raised by aliens was far out to ponder on my own and discuss with friends at school. Sure, Heinlein had done a spectacular job with Stranger in a Strange Land, and “Charlie X” felt like a rip-off, but it still was cool — it was on television to see.

The following week’s show, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was even more sense of wonder provoking  — what if we meet aliens with godlike powers? Unfortunately, not all 79 episodes of Star Trek pushed my sense of wonder button. Many episodes were groan-worthy, especially after the first season. Remember the incredibly painful “Spock’s Brain?” Gosh-doggie, it was bad. There were many reasons to cancel that show in the third season despite fan rapture. Evidently, science fiction’s repertoire of far-out concepts is smaller than 79.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered it brought both hope and nostalgia. By then the writers had figured out they needed relationship stories within the crew, and outside threats to generate enough weekly plots to keep the series going. The series began to shift, aiming at story lovers over idea lovers. I followed the show for its entire first run. The original series was more like an anthology of short stories. For the most part, the Next Generation had self-contained episodes, but there was more continuity. I liked it for the mythos it was building more than its infrequent science fiction episodes.

Over the years, I’ve tried to rewatch Star Trek: The Next Generation and I’ve always failed. I like Picard better than Kirk, and even though I liked Spock better than Data, Data’s character actually provided a greater range of interesting stories. Star Trek: The Next Generation had 178 episodes. Very few of those episodes are memorable to me now. However, collectively the storytelling, the mythos, of the Next Generation was more memorable than the story arc of the original series. And I believe that’s why Star Trek: Picard is so compelling. Picard has no science fiction or sense-of-wonder that I can recall from the first five episodes. And it’s not really generating new content for story lovers — the series is aimed at character lovers.

Of course, people are going to scream at me. What about the spaceships, the androids, the holographic characters, the aliens, teleporters — those elements brand it as science fiction! Star Trek has been using those elements for so long that they have zip sense-of-wonder. We take them for granted. They are part of the mythos. My definition of science fiction, and it might be only mine, requires science fiction to be inventive, to speculate, extrapolate, to come up with something new, or at least, a neat twist on something old. Star Trek has stopped trying, and I don’t think Star Wars ever tried. Only stand-alone movies like Her or Gattaca or Moon even try to come up with a different take anymore. Ditto for books. Series, by their very nature target story lovers, and most of them run out of steam generating new stories and switch to character love.

I’m sure some new science fiction writers try hard to come up with new science-fictional concepts, but the genre has mostly switched to chewing on the old bones.

The reason we have more and more book series in science fiction is that fans have mutated from wanting ideas to stories to characters. Science fiction has become character and plot-driven, and for the most part, have given up being sense-of-wonder idea-driven. The standard set of mind-blowing elements of science fiction — space travel, aliens, robots, AI, end-of-the-world, time travel, are so common in society that most children accept them as dogma well before they even start school.

I think I was in the 5th or 6th grade before I encountered the idea of time travel by watching the 1960 version of The Time Machine. I was old enough for it to be a shocking concept — one that I relished. What a powerful sense-of-wonder rush. I then went and read the H. G. Wells original story. It’s jammed packed with science fictional ideas. But it doesn’t take reading too many time travel tales to get jaded.

Science fiction has a big problem with staleness. Which is probably why so many fans have switched to nostalgia.

In 1966, Star Trek still had a chance to present sense-of-wonder ideas to most viewers. By 1977, Star Wars was so cliche that it was big fun. Sure, little kids probably didn’t feel that way, but for most viewers, George Lucas was paying homage to a lot of old science fiction. Lucas and Spielberg repackaged science fiction for the masses, but it was about the story, the characters, the plot, and the special effects. It didn’t speculate.

I now have to read a ton of SF short stories to find a single one that surprises me with something new. Quite often now when I read Analog or Asimov’s I find stories that use science-fictional ideas I’ve seen time and time again. Some of the episodes of Black Mirror surprised me. The kind of idea-driven stories I love is usually found in magazines or anthologies, and not novels. You don’t often see a story like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Modern television shows have a story arc. The best ones feel like watching a long novel. Star Trek: Picard season one is one long story so that each individual episode adds to the overall story. The plot is a thriller, not science fiction, although the setting is science fiction. We will not get a “City on the Edge of Forever” or “The Inner Light.” And after seeing five episodes of season one of Star Trek: Picard, I’m pretty sure its ten episodes will not equal the sense-of-wonder impact of either of those two individual episodes.

I’m enjoying Star Trek: Picard, but it’s definitely missing something, and to me, what it’s missing is science fiction. We have so much science fiction in the 21st-century that we’ve forgotten the essential nature of science fiction. Well, at least the kind of science fiction I grew up reading and watching in the 20th-century.

Action-oriented thrillers set in space may give the illusion of being science fiction, but they are not. I can understand why some fans claim Star Trek: Picard feels too much like Star Wars. Plots centered around political intrigue, crime, war, kidnapping, revenge, terrorism are about those topics. To be real science fiction the plot has to center around a novel science-fictional concept. All the best episodes in the Star Trek franchise derive their sense of wonder from a science fictional concept. And those standout episodes have become very infrequent.

I’m afraid in future years I won’t spend much time remembering Star Trek: Picard because there’s no cool idea to remember. I can remember more episodes from Star Trek than I can Star Trek: Next Generation even though the later show had more than twice as many episodes. That’s because the original Star Trek was like a collection of science fiction short stories, and Next Generation was more of an ensemble of characters in soap opera set in the future. Even more so for Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.

Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, were all very memorable but if you really examine the episodes, they had very little true characterization. They were caricatures where the writers constantly reinforced the same cliche traits. The focus of each episode was a science-fictional idea, sometimes good, often bad. There will be no “The Trouble With Tribbles” or “Shore Leave” episode in Picard. Fans will remember it as season one. And to me, reuniting old friends with old enemies is not science fiction no matter how many space ships you see.

James Wallace Harris, 2/25/20

Blows Against The Empire: Alfred Bester’s 1953 Critique of Science Fiction

Before the tempest in this teapot begins to blow, let me quote Alfred Bester’s conclusion to his severe attack on science fiction from his 1953 essay “The Trematode: A Critique of Modern Science-Fiction:”

The Trematode is a parasite which infests the mussel and either destroys it or forces it to form a pearl. Science-fiction has infested us and we are waiting to see what the result will be. But one thing is certain: the end must be the metamorphosis of science-fiction. Whether it turns to rot or is transformed into a pearl, it will not continue to exist as an isolated organism much longer. For my part, I welcome this end. For my part, I foresee the pearl.

Bester is looking back over what many have called the Golden Age of Science Fiction and burning it down with his blaster. I wish I could find the fan reaction to this essay from back in the 1950s, but Google only returns seven results. And for those who aren’t familiar with the name Alfred Bester, he wrote two books in the 1950s that became classics: The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. At the time Bester had a reputation for being a writing stylist and innovator. So getting a dressing down from one of our own must have been painful.

I wonder what I would have thought if I read and understood this essay in 1962 when I first began reading science fiction. Science fiction wasn’t popular then like it is today. Science fiction was one step up from comic books, and you were called retarded (their word back then) by your peers if you read comics. I remembered also being called a geek and zero for reading SF. Back then those terms were the social kiss of death. I had two buddies that read science fiction in high school and I remember being very hurt by George’s mother when she sat is down one day and gave us a serious talk about evils of reading science fiction. George’s mother was a sophisticated, well-educated, widely traveled woman, and I was always impressed with her thoughts, so it really hurt when she tried to convince us we were reading trash. She implied reading SF was a sign we were emotionally and intellectually immature. We thought we were Slans.

Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a great civil war within the science fiction genre, a war between the Old Wave and New Wave. If I had read Bester’s essay then I would have felt self-righteous because I was on the side of the New Wave and its attacks on the Old Wave were much like his attacks on SF in 1953. It was a painful time that mirrored the Generation Gap and the violent unrest between the folks for the Vietnam war and against it.

Today another civil war/generational divide seems to be emerging in our genre. I often see attacks on old science fiction and old science fiction writers. However, this time I feel like I’m surfing the Old Wave. Of course, I’m 68. I guess every so often science fiction rebels against itself. The Old Empire is attacked by the Young Turks. Probably one reason Star Wars has been so freakin’ popular is the merry band of pirates battling the evil empire motif resonates so well with the young in all ages. And once again the young feel so righteous, like the early Christians planning to overthrow Rome.

Science fiction has often suffered the slings and arrows of self-righteous critics, both from within and without. Civil wars are always the most painful, and I wonder if the current rebellion attempting to overthrow the Sci-Fi Empire will become as contentious as the New Way/Old Wave rebellion of the 1960s? Literary critics and scholars have periodically published attacks on the genre, but even though they rile the SF masses eventually they are ignored. What angers the true fans more than generation conflicts are traders to the cause, the Judas to the genre. On SF by Thomas M Disch offers a more recent attack on SF from a 21st-century book, and some fan opinions of Disch aren’t very nice. His publishers described On SF as “A last judgment on the genre from science fiction’s foremost critic.” Unfortunately, Disch was never very well known.

Bester and Disch say much in common. In fact, all the rockets launched against the empire have similar targets. These attacks generally cause flame wars but do they change anything? Sure, science fiction has become more politically correct over time, but then so has the rest of society.

I found Bester’s “The Trematode: A Critique of Modern Science Fiction” in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, first published in September of 1953. It’s doubtful you’ll be able to find a copy of this anthology. I’m hoping it’s out of copyright because I plan to quote all of it here. The reason why I’m paying particular attention to what Bester says is because of his opening paragraphs:

I HATE science-fiction for what it has been; I love it for what it will be. I am ashamed of science-fiction’s past, as I’m ashamed of the childhood that led me to it. I look to its future with hope, as I look with hope toward my own future development and maturity. I believe I do not speak for myself alone, but for all of us; for we are all alike in our sins and in our hopes.

When I was a boy I was blessed with a boy’s vivid curiosity about life and cursed with a boy’s timidity about facing life. I yearned for many things and could not face the reality of achieving them. I wanted to be a scientist. I received a micro¬scope for Christmas and spent interminable hours peering at drops of swamp water, but I never applied myself to zoology. I never could face the hard work, the study and discipline it re-quired. I merely peered through the microscope and imagined I was making great discoveries.

I wanted to be an astronomer. I read books on astronomy and gazed for hours at the illustrations, but I never learned the stars or even the constellations. I could not face the work. I was content to dream about space. I wanted to be a great chess player. I learned the moves but never applied myself to learn the game. I wanted to be a physician, an adventurer, a fullback, a composer—all the things that all boys want to be—and never became any of them because the reality of accomplishment was so much less glamorous than the dreams.

I don’t hate old science fiction, but there are those who do. Nor am I ashamed for science fiction’s past, although there are many who are. But I do agree with Bester, that all science fiction fans seek hope in what they read.

Because Bester’s judgment of himself is extremely similar to my own life, I figured his criticisms of SF might also resonate. I always had big ambitions but never made the effort. There is that old saying, “Those who can do, and those who can’t, teach.” Evidently, the ambitious who can’t even teach write science fiction, and those who can’t write science fiction read it.

Science fiction reflects extreme forms of hope, fears, ambition, and destruction. It deals with desires so out there they are often indistinguishable from fantasy. For me, science fiction was a consolation prize — reality wasn’t what I wanted so I chose alternates fantasies that I preferred.

Shouldn’t we also consider Bester’s attacks on science fiction to also be personal attacks on our ability to deal with reality? I know I’m taking it personally because of how close I am to Bester’s own psychology.

And I was so naturally led to science-fiction, for that form of literature provided me with the fulfillment of my dreams at no more cost than a pleasant hour’s reading. I could read about the paradoxes of physics, the complexities of chemistry, the puz­zles of the social sciences. I could enjoy speculations and guesses and other men’s dreams; and after saturating myself with these stories, I could believe that I was a physicist, a chemist, a phi­losopher. I could delude myself into believing that I had ac­quired knowledge. I could feel superior to the boy who was a real life fullback but didn’t read stories about Relativity. I could feel superior to the rest of the world.

That was my escape from hard reality. It was the escape of most fans. Were you flunking a course in physics? Pooh! Read a story about time travel and be a physicist. Were you flunking math? Read about light years and feel superior to quadratic equations. Were you incapable of making friends? Dating girls? Getting along with your family? Escape into a story about the social problems on Centaurus. Read science-fiction and escape. That sentence is science-fiction’s past, and from that past we have inherited the vestigial remnants—the Three Immaturi­ties that are plaguing us today, intellectually, emotionally and technically.

If I had read this in high school or college, I would have heard the Twilight Zone music in the background. Bazinga – Bester burnt adolescent me to a crisp. I took physics, astronomy, and computers when I began college, but I just didn’t want to do the work, so I switched majors to English after two years. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist because I read science fiction. But for every science book I read, I probably read a hundred science fiction novels.

Intellectually, science-fiction is guilty of the naivete of the child and the over-simplification of the child. Its naiveté leads it to adopt fads, believe in nostrums, and discuss disci­plines of which it has only the most superficial understanding. I need mention no names. The followers of the “Bacon Wrote Shakespeare” cult and the interpreters of the Great Cipher have their blood brothers in science-fiction, as have the lunatic mem­bers of Gulliver’s Grand Academy of Lagado.

The political and sociological theorizing in science-fiction is puerile. Philosophic thought is absurdly commonplace. Serious discussions are generally on the level of a bull session of high school sophomores who are all rather pleased with themselves and snobbish toward the rest of the world—toward “The Mere,” as Ste. Daisy Ashford put it. There have been many ex­ceptions to this, of course; and there will be many exceptions to the rest of my analysis; but I am discussing the average.

It’s true that you will occasionally find fragments of good sense in science-fiction, but at best they are only parts of a whole which is not understood—tags and tatters of learning like the Latin aphorisms that every schoolboy remembers with ease but translates with difficulty. One result is that science-fiction makes no attempt to use the disciplines as tools. It cannot. It does not know how to handle them professionally. It peers through the microscope and dreams. Another result is distor­tion of idea development leading to false conclusions. The most serious result is a childish tendency to generalize. Lacking de­tailed knowledge and understanding of its subjects, failing to realize that speculation is not for amateurs, science-fiction takes refuge in simplification.

Oh, this is painful. And yes, I can remember all those epics arguments we had over such insanely stupid concepts — science fiction and otherwise. And of course, my generation was mixing science fiction, rock music, drugs, and New Age philosophy together by the 1970s. Baby Boomers just didn’t want to adultify. Our 1960s political revolution was also simplistic and childish. I can easily see why critics claim science fiction is fairytales for adults who refused to grow up.

Yes, we were taking refuge in simplification — but let’s be fair. Are fans of mysteries, westerns, romances, historicals, any more realistic and sophisticated. And we must ask: Does our choice in reading equal our approach to reality in everyday life?

Also in our defense, the reality we were trying to escape in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was epically bleak back then. We were going through multiple tsunamis of social change. Alvin Toffler even coined a term for it – Future Shock. But Bester was mainly talking about the 1930s and 1940s, and remember the shocks those folks went through. I’ve just read several books about science fiction in the 1940s and much of it was seeking transcendental change. And wasn’t the whole 1950s Dianetics/Scientology thing very much like the New Age stuff we were embracing in the 1970s?

Over-simplification might better be discussed as an aspect of science-fiction’s technical immaturity and inability to handle human beings. Let me consider it here, however, since that sec­tion will have more than enough to cover. The naive quality of the morality play in science-fiction stories is the best example of over-simplification. A reading of “Everyman” with its cast of Fellowship, Good Deeds, Knowledge, Beauty, Five Wits, etc., produces a strange effect. You recognize the startling similarity to science-fiction with its Martinet Generals, Industrial Ty­coons (divided into the Good Guys and the Bad Guys), Mis­understood Scientists, Inexplicable Aliens (who usually conceal Superior Powers under a Pastoral Culture), Callous Conquer­ors and Patriots in Revolt.

It is interesting to note that although science-fiction has be­come self-conscious about the naive simplicity of its cast, it has not attempted to remedy this by deeper characterization. It has clung to the morality characters but attempted to deceive the eye with quick shuffles. With a swift twist in the final para­graph, the Martinet turns out to be the Scientist at heart. The Wicked Politician is revealed as a Patriot. The Scientist is un­masked as an Industrial Tycoon (Bad Guys Division) and so on.

The morality play simplification of science-fiction is also re­vealed in its plots, and I wonder how many people have noticed that most science-fiction stories end at exactly the point where they should begin. This is a deadly sin in the arts and one of the standards by which you separate the men from the boys. What the stories amount to, as a rule, is an artificially masked exposition of a situation. When the situation is finally revealed, the story ends. The great classics of science-fiction have been the exceptions to this rule—stories which have courageously and imaginatively tackled problems, no matter how difficult. But in general, science-fiction is afraid to come to grips with its situations. It is afraid of complexities.

Okay, fans of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many fantasy classics should feel that jab here too. And should science fiction take all the hits when our current pop culture has so thoroughly embraced comic books and comic book movies?

We have to ask: Doesn’t Bester’s 1953 criticism apply to most of our current pop culture? Science fiction concepts have spread throughout our society. The fantastic has seeped into almost all forms of fiction. But just read on…

This reflects the childish yearning for a simple world. It re­flects the immature desire to find simple yes-no solutions for complicated problems. Let me cite one more example of this over-simplification. The story in which the protagonist solves a complex problem which has been baffling experts by turning up one simple factor which has been overlooked or ignored. In part this is merely the Dreams Of Glory of our youth, but more importantly, it is a childish refusal to accept the complexity of reality and the complex response demanded by reality. And out of this refusal arises the emotional immaturity of science ­fiction.

Science-fiction is terrified by life. Like the child who is fright­ened and depressed when he looks ahead at the dangers and responsibilities of adult life, science-fiction is panicky when it looks ahead at the dangers and responsibilities of the future. Its stories show this by their universal gloom. Man is doomed to various fates, none of them pleasant. There is no hope. There is no future. And out of this pretentious morbidity, science ­fiction manufactures an apology for its own inadequacy.

Science-fiction is afraid of the dark. Like the child who screams bloody murder when he’s locked up in a closet, science-fiction screams bloody murder whenever it takes a timid step into the unknown. What visions of horror does a child con­jure up out of the dark? Ghostly hands clawing it. Ferocious monsters assailing it. The very earth opening up and swallow­ing it. What visions of horror does science-fiction conjure up out of its insecurity? Ghastly plagues from laboratories. Ferocious monsters from space. The very earth falling apart in atomic disintegration.

Think about all the kinds of movies and television shows this applies to, and how widespread their popularity. Aren’t we terrified of life, of reality? If we aren’t, why do we spend so many hours every day immersed in fiction, and often fiction that’s science-fictional or fantasy?

But let’s go on. Bester’s psychoanalysis for science fiction before 1953 is very specific to a very tiny piece of the pop culture back then. People today have no idea how unknown science fiction was before 1950. The term “science-fiction” had to be explained to the general public in Life Magazine in the early 1950s. Back then the words were hyphenated, which meant the phrase was new. Hyphens are dropped from compound words when they become commonly used.

I know science fiction wasn’t the only source of immature thinking back in 1953. I grew up in the 1950s and remember people embracing UFOs, Edgar Cayce, Jean Dixon, nudism, Bridey Murphy, ESP, all kinds of quack medicine, endless wacky conspiracy theories, John Birch Society, building fallout shelters, a list that goes on and on.

This gloomy satisfaction with assured disaster and this ter­ror of the unknown are not the result of mature understanding and judgment, no matter how speciously science-fiction may ar­gue. They are emotional immaturity. They are the terror of the child who dreads what he does not understand and sees catastrophe lurking behind any closed door. They are a shock­ing admission that while science-fiction prattles about extra­polation, it is only shaking a bogey and frightening itself to death.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is science-fiction’s con­spiracy complex, which is an aspect of childish paranoia. The child, in its terror of what it does not understand, cannot fathom its relationship to the unknown. Viewing the universe with infantile egocentricity, it imagines that every phenomenon relates directly to itself. If the weather is good, it’s because the child has deserved it. If the weather is bad, it’s because the child is being punished. If the child has a success, it’s because the world is its friend and wishes it well. If the child has a failure, it’s because the world is its enemy and wishes it harm. To the mind of the child it is inconceivable that any event can take place without the fate of the child as its ultimate object. Mark Twain describes this attitude vividly in Chapter 54 of Life on the Mississippi.

It is astonishing how many science-fiction stories display this conspiracy complex, this tendency to regard man as the ulti­mate object of all phenomena. The grosser forms are familiar to all of us. We harbor secret enemies in our bosom who manip­ulate nature to own us, deceive us, exploit us, conspire against (and rarely for) us. We are unwitting members of a galactic organization which guides us, tests us, judges us, conspires against (and sometimes for) us. We are always the focal point of a conspiracy, malign or benign. Science-fiction rarely musters the emotional maturity to accept the fact that the universe is most probably entirely indifferent to our aims, ideals and fears, to our virtues and sins; and, what is more, should be.

Now, this next criticism surely isn’t specific to science fiction fans. Everything from comic books to religion, to political fanaticism, has to take some responsibility.

Another aspect of emotional immaturity is the Superman syndrome of science-fiction which is linked with the “One Man with the One Invention” symptom. I will discuss supermanism and the childish desire for the deus ex machina below. Here let me arraign the “One Man” who also belongs to the Pat- Solution Division of over-simplification. Science-fiction readers know him well. He is the one man responsible for saving the earth, destroying the earth, leading us to the light, leading us to doom, etc. Thoughtful people will recognize in him their old childhood inability to understand that the course of history is rarely diverted by single men or single incidents—that, in other words, an Adolph Hitler does not lead a country to Nazism, but rather, powerful economic forces of vast complexity create a totalitarian wave which crests in a Hitler but which might easily have crested in any one of a hundred men.

Similarly, the child (and often science-fiction) imagines that had one certain man not been born, then his one great inven­tion would have been lost to the world forever. This is saying that had Leverrier not discovered Neptune, then Adams and the score of other mathematicians working on the same prob­lem would not have either. This is saying that had Bell not in­vented the telephone, then Gray, Dolbear and Drawbaugh (with whom he battled for years to establish priority) would not have invented it too. This is a childish refusal to recognize the brutal statistical truth of history, that the tail has never wagged the dog, that the stream of life produces incident, and not vice versa.

Supermanism (or supermachinism) is a common escape mechanism of the young. It may be roughly divided into the father complex and the talisman complex. When the child is in difficulties he either wishes for Daddy to come and rescue him or else he dreams about finding a magic amulet or a magic machine which will turn him into a superman and enable him to rescue himself. In neither case is the child prepared to meet the crisis on realistic terms. Similarly, science-fiction is not prepared to meet the present or the future on realistic terms. Either it dreams about Daddy Superman who will come along and rescue the world, or it dreams about the superman’s phy­lactery which, like a fairy’s wand, will be waved over the trou­ble and banish it.

The other side of supermanism is popular villainism. During World War II, the entertainment business fell into the habit of making the Nazi the villain. Whenever a writer was in doubt, he pinned the evil on a Nazi. Actors who specialized in German dialects had fat years. Today, of course, the Rus­sian dialecticians are popular. Radio, television and the motion pictures may indulge in such convenient practices without shame. They are frankly commercial and pretend to be no bet­ter than they are. But science-fiction has also been guilty, and science-fiction has no excuse. It has always preened itself, either openly or by implication, as advanced literature for the advanced intellect. And yet in times when cool thinking and sound judgment were vital, it has helped confuse the world picture as recklessly as any propagandist, politician or tabloid newspaper.

The next jab is rightly targetted to science fiction, and the one many literary critics use when attacking the genre.

But to my mind the most serious aspect of science-fiction’s emotional immaturity is its inability to understand human be­ings on an adult level. Like the “One Man” symptom, this is a part of the over-simplification tendency. The child classifies people according to his understanding of them. Since his un­derstanding is meager, his categories are simple. Consequently, the complex behavior of adults is a constant source of bewil­derment to him. It is also a constant source of bewilderment to science-fiction and is directly responsible for its technical im­maturity.

Science-fiction is like the boy who is afraid of people and takes refuge in his Chem-O set. Similarly, science-fiction has taken refuge in science to the detriment of its fiction. In the past this was no problem. The field had the charm of novelty. There were so many fascinating physical avenues to explore— space, time, dimensions, environments—that there was no need for understanding and development of human character. Un­fortunately, the novelty is fading today and there is a rising demand for mature character handling. But while science ­fiction keeps pace with the explorations of science, its aspects of character exploration have hardly been touched. The boy graduates to larger and larger Chem-O sets, but he refuses to come out of the nursery.

Consequently most science-fiction stories are peopled by mar­ionettes who jerk about on conventional strings and rarely carry conviction. Science-fiction can tell the reader the melting point of a solid on Mercury, the freezing point of a gas on Neptune, the explosion point of a nova in Andromeda, but it has no idea of the melting point, the freezing point and the explosion point of a human being. Yet surely we will all agree that the deter­mination of these points must be the object of all fiction.

A reader must be able to identify himself with the characters in a story. He must feel with them, suffer with them, win or lose with them. He cannot identify himself with them unless he be­lieves in them. He will not believe in them unless they are real. Because of the technical immaturity of science-fiction, characters have very rarely been real. Science-fiction is an extraordinary form of literature and has an extraordinary technical problem to overcome. It demands extra-powerful depth and realism of character to offset the strangeness of outre backgrounds and un­usual ideas. Let me explore this a little further.

A contemporary story in a contemporary magazine is usu­ally a picture of the life we all know. This is the essential ad­vantage of ordinary fiction over science-fiction. It always has the support of the contemporary scene to bolster it. If the characters are unbelievable, at least the scenes are real and recognizable. If the author has written an improbable story about unbeliev­able characters, he can camouflage this by using a contemporary background.

The reader will recognize the reality of the background, and often the background will impart its reality to the characters and the story. This misdirection is an old trick of the enter­tainment business. A very famous director achieved an enviable reputation for the realism of his plays by insisting that every­thing on stage be genuine. His doors were real doors with knobs and locks. His windows had real glass. The books could be read. The wine could be drunk. Everything about his produc­tions was real except the plays themselves. They were as arti­ficial as ever, but the public lost sight of the fact in the face of the overwhelming realism surrounding them.

This is an advantage science-fiction does not possess, and this is the technical pitfall into which it has fallen. Science-fiction’s stories are usually projected into the future, into space, often both. It has no reality of contemporary scene to support it. It must manufacture its locales as well as its characters; and what if the characters are unbelievable? Then the story is destroyed, for there is no familiar scene from which the characters can take color and acquire the semblance of reality. In science­fiction, characters must be extra strong, extra real, for they have no other support; in fact, as I pointed out before, they are in a worse position. They have the burden of outre backgrounds to carry in addition to the responsibility for themselves. And this is where science-fiction most often fails. Its characters rarely can carry themselves, let alone their locales.

Science fiction has improved tremendously since 1953 when dealing with characterization, but I still feel it is seldom close to the world of literary fiction. I’m currently listening to The Best American Short Stories 2019 and its stories are starkly different from the best stories in anthologies of science fiction. When I read literary fiction I feel like I’m reading fictionalize biography or autobiography. Literary fiction is very close to being inside people’s minds. Often the characters seem like hyper-realistic paintings of people, whereas science fiction characters usually feel like they are drawn like cartoons or caricatures — quick sketches, and sure some are even beautiful, but not the finely produced oil paintings like we see it the best literary fiction.

Next, Bester calls us out on our weird hopes for robots. Boy, he had no idea how big robots would become.

As a result, science-fiction has developed a style amounting to reportorial writing—so much so that I almost think it should change its name to science reportage. A great many stories con­tent themselves with the creation of a tool, device or mechanism which is described at great length. The customary conflict is a crisis in the operation of the gadget. The resolution is invariably the mechanical solution; but, I might add, in science­-fiction’s customary vein. Optimistic solutions—20%. Pessimistic —80%.

The inability to understand or handle human beings also is responsible for science-fiction’s predilection for robots and other anthropomorphic thinking devices. They are the easiest substitutes for people. I do not deny that such devices are an important aspect of the future, but does science-fiction realize how strangely it has handled them? They are never treated as tools. They are always transformed into members of society and treated with emotional implications.

It is as if a nineteenth century man were to write love stories about the twentieth century electronic devices which surely would seem as remarkable to him as the robot seems to us. But we don’t feel anything toward our tools today. We simply use them. Those of you who remember Mauldin’s cartoon of the weeping GI shooting his wrecked jeep will understand what I mean, and understand how ludicrously science-fiction has been behaving.

Just think of all the television shows with robots, androids, and sexbots. But it goes well beyond robots and computers. Just think of our relationships with our phones, cars, or toys.

Next Bester compares science fiction to children’s stories and fairy tales. I see that, but I also see science fiction is also a substitute for religion. Science fiction has a lot in common with famous Bible stories. God and angels are aliens. Heaven is outer space and other dimensions. Prayer is telepathy. Miracles are like superpowers. Isn’t the primary symbolism of religion to cast us as children of God?

In my discussion of over-simplification, I have already touched on the endings of science-fiction stories. Here I would like to discuss their beginnings and their technical resemblance to the fantasies of childhood. Like the child, science-fiction says to itself: Let’s pretend . . . and it’s off on the trail of make-believe. I suggest that the reader go through past and current publications and note how few stories are inspired by ideas about human behavior and how many are inspired by the gim­micks of Let’s Pretend.

Let’s pretend there are thinking machines which ----- Let’s pretend there is time-travel, so -----let’s pretend there is over­drive, faster than the speed of light, and ----- Let’s pretend there are robots, with which men delight to go to bed, but The gimmicks of Let’s Pretend are legion, and through them science-fiction makes the leap from reality to make-believe, building up its make-believe world with logic and care, fas­cinated by the chemistry and mechanics of this world, indiffer­ent to the human beings who inhabit it. The gimmicks are not there to illuminate the humans; the humans are there to dis­play the gimmicks—like mannikins in a store window.

Upon occasion, science-fiction creates a Pretend that is so novel and eye-catching that an entire trend is established, and a tradition is built up. This is much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula which blazed the trail for vampires in the nineteenth century and made such a profound impression on the Let’s Pretend school of fantasy writers that we have been afflicted with it ever since.

Now there are two very bad results from Let’s Pretendism. The first, and most obvious, is the divorce from reality which often takes the devout science-fiction reader out of this world and maroons him in the next or the coexistent. His real life suffers. I have been present at gatherings in times when the newspapers have been full of the most vital and controversial news, only to be entertained by the spectacle of two science­fiction faithful in passionate debate (to the exclusion of all else) about the best design for the robot. They almost came to blows.

The second result of Let’s Pretendism is the inbreeding of science-fiction. The tradition of a particular Pretend is built up so rapidly that before long science-fiction presumes that its read­ers have the necessary background to understand the ultimate developments and variations on the theme. Consequently, science-fiction begins to lose touch with itself, and becomes cryptic and incomprehensible to anybody except the faithful who, like our high school sophomores, become smug and pleased with themselves because they don’t need a score-card to follow today’s game, with the name and number of every gimmick.

You have to admit, we do an awful lot of let’s pretend in modern society. And it’s more than what we’re watching on television, seeing at the theater, or playing in video games. Aren’t conservatives engaging in let’s pretend climate change doesn’t exist? Aren’t liberals playing let’s pretend the government can solve all our social ills? There’s a deep psychological reason why science is rejected by this society.

This next part, including his conclusion really only relates to 1953, but it is ironic when we consider how popular science fiction has become in society.

This technical failure accounts for the comparative slowness of the general public in adopting science-fiction. It has been driven to it in recent years by the penetration of science into the everyday life of the everyday man, but the general public will not embrace science-fiction for long if science-fiction contin­ues on its old childish path. The public demands many things —mature thought for guidance, mature conflicts for emotional reassurance, mature technique so that it can identify, believe and be moved. Unless science-fiction can provide these, it will go the way of the detective story which it is now largely sup­planting.

We must face the fact that science-fiction can no longer con­tinue as a form of intellectual titillation for the childish, the neurotic, the lame, the halt and the blind. In recent years it has coasted on its waning novelty, entertaining the general pub­lic with its old tricks and puzzles while the maturing fans, who already know the devices, have waited impatiently for the rest of the world to catch up with them. Now we are all caught up and ready to move forward. There is only one direction. Science­fiction, henceforth, must deal with genuine human beings in genuine human conflicts.

You may argue that what I urge is impossible. What, you may say, if a writer sets a story two thousand years from now? Will man be the same? Will his conflicts be the same? To this I answer with an emphatic yes. I do not believe man has changed, basically, from what he was in Christ’s time. The Bible bears me out. I do not believe he will be changed twenty centuries from now. He may know more or less. His symbols rnay vary. His speech and customs may alter; but he will be the same complex creature, suffering in the same basic con­flicts, fighting, loving, hating, searching for the answers to him­self and his place in the Universe.

Literature, it is said, must hold the mirror up to nature and enable man to understand himself. Science-fiction, let us say, must hold the mirror up to the future and enable man to fore­see himself. But the mirror of science-fiction must be as plane as mature judgment can make, as bright as courage can polish, as large as imagination can reach. No more of those Coney Is­land distortions, please. They’re for the amusement of children only. Science-fiction must come out of the nursery; it must emerge from its childish isolation and enter the universe of which it prattles but fears to join.

The Trematode is a parasite which infests the mussel and either destroys it or forces it to form a pearl. Science-fiction has infested us and we are waiting to see what the result will be. But one thing is certain: the end must be the metamorphosis of science-fiction. Whether it turns to rot or is transformed into a pearl, it will not continue to exist as an isolated organism much longer. For my part, I welcome this end. For my part, I foresee the pearl.

Has science fiction become a pearl? Or, in 2020, is Bester’s criticisms still on target? Over the years I’ve seen many blows against the empire, but it never collapses. Are the targets of Bester’s attacks on SF really just common aspects of human nature? Haven’t we always been that way, and won’t we always will be? Humans just love to make shit up. We love to pretend. We love to believe. We love to hope. We love to rationalize.

I have been an atheist most of my life. When people attack me for my atheism I tell them if there are 1,000 religions out there, you’d be an atheist to 999 of them. Maybe I felt smug being a 100% pure atheist and rejecting all 1,000 religions. But I’ve forgotten my own theory, that science fiction is a substitute for religion. So I’m also only an atheist to 999 religions and still have faith in 1, science fiction.

But why? How can I still believe when I know enough science to disprove most science fiction. I have to wonder if many older religious believers are like me, hanging on to my childish beliefs because I don’t want to be left with nothing. How many of the faithful don’t really believe in God and heaven on the inside, but just keep up with their religion because it’s nice to have something? And how many conservatives reject science because it would mean giving up a philosophy they’ve always cherished? Maybe I should be more sympathetic to climate change deniers. Maybe we’re all clinging to irrationality because it helps us get through the day.

Bester’s essay really hit home with me. I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to do real things in reality. And I did, to a degree. I spent 35 years working with computers. But the whole time I kept these fantasies going that never became real. And I kept reading the sacred literature my beliefs, science fiction.

Since I identify so well with what Bester said, I wonder if he felt other things I felt? Or did he break away? Bester did stop writing SF for a long time but eventually came back to the genre. I need to go search for essays he might have written before he died about his life in science fiction.

Last night I read “Ararat” by Zenna Henderson from 1952. It’s a science fiction story that has no science. In fact, it has ideas about superpowers and ESP that I detest. It’s part of her People series and I’ve read “Ararat” twice before over the years. It’s a lovely, gentle story that always brings tears to my eyes. I think it epitomizes why we prefer SF/F to reality. At 68 I find comfort and pleasure in reading such stories. I wonder what Alfred Bester was reading in his last years?

Bester knew right where to touch us where it hurts. He was good at playing psychoanalysis. I don’t think it’s wise to reject his insight. It’s something we should contemplate. It’s all grist for the mill, as Ram Das used to say. But he might have missed something. Maybe the faults aren’t in what we read.

James Wallace Harris, 2/15/20