“Chronopolis” by J. G. Ballard

“Chronopolis” by J. G. Ballard is story #4 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “Chronopolis” was first published in the June 1960 issue of New Worlds.

“Chronopolis” is set in the future where society has outlawed keeping time. Ballard imagined a future where our high-tech global civilization collapsed from the complexity of overpopulation. In this new world, the population is much smaller having giving up the rat race.

The story begins in a holding cell. Conrad Newman is awaiting trial for as of yet unspecified crimes. Newman is obsessed with making his south-facing jail cell window into a sundial so he can accurately keep the time while everyone else is unconcerned about when things will happen. Gradually we learn that this society operates without a schedule, and clocks are illegal. They allow timers, which people use to cook eggs, time a math class, or how long they should sleep, but not clocks that force schedules onto life’s activities.

Ballard has come up with a nifty idea. You don’t know if this new world he described is better or worse for not knowing the time, but Conrad Newman is a renegade who secretly embraces keeping time, allowing him to outcompete other people. Newman’s world is the opposite of Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Conrad Newman is the polar opposite of Everett C. Marm. It’s funny, but we root for each character in their separate stories.

I got to say, I really liked this story a lot even though when you think about it, there’s not much to it. On the one hand, it’s the old fashion kind of science fiction that’s based on a neat idea. On the other hand, it feels different from the other science fiction of 1960 or before. J. G. Ballard is considered one of the pathfinders of the New Wave movement in science fiction in the mid-1960s. “Chronopolis” isn’t really New Wave yet. Probably why it feels different is it’s British science fiction, and British science fiction always felt more grown-up to me.

I’ve only read a couple novels by Ballard, and maybe a dozen short stories, but they’ve all impressed me as being “heavy” in the old hippie sense of the word. I assume that was another way of saying weighty. I recently read “The Terminal Beach” by Ballard and was equally impressed, and it felt equally heavy. Years ago, I bought The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard on audiobook. It’s 55 hours long. I also have it on the Kindle. Whenever one of his stories comes up on the discussion group I like listening to them. They feel mature and atmospheric. I also like reading them because I’m impressed with Ballard’s prose. Each time I read one of his stories, I tell myself I need to listen to the entire 55-hour audiobook and I really want to get into Ballard’s work.

The other day at the Friends of the Library used bookstore I found Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. I couldn’t tell if it was a novel, memoir, monograph, or what, but I bought it. This is how it’s described at Amazon:

An existential odyssey weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm.

The mediascapes of late capitalism reconfigure erotic responses and trigger primal aggression; under constant surveillance, we occupy simulations of ourselves, private estates on a hyperconnected globe; fictions reprogram reality, memories are rewritten by the future…

Fleeing the excesses of 1990s cyberculture, a young researcher sets out to systematically analyse the obsessively reiterated themes of a writer who prophesied the disorienting future we now inhabit. The story of his failure is as disturbingly psychotropic as those of his magus—J.G. Ballard, prophet of the post-postmodern, voluptuary of the car crash, surgeon of the pathological virtualities pulsing beneath the surface of reality.

Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia can uncover the technological mutations of inner space.

An existential odyssey inextricably weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm—a world become unmistakably Ballardian.

Some of that description faintly feels like “Chronopolis” but it’s an early story for Ballard, that hints at things to come. Also, by serendipity, I came across this YouTube video by the Outlaw Bookseller on the New Wave. Ballard figures heavily in it. Warning though, this video is one hour and twelve minutes long.

“Chronopolis” is another story that’s pushing me into the world of J. G. Ballard. One of these days, and hopefully soon, I’ll start gorging on Ballard’s books.

James Wallace Harris, 5/12/23

“Special Flight” by John Berryman

“Special Flight” by John Berryman is story #3 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

Editors assembled anthologies to reprint and promote stories they believe people should read — stories they feel should be kept alive. I have to wonder why Hartwell selected “Special Flight” because to most modern readers, or even readers in 1989, the story is a clunker. Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest selected “Special Flight” for their anthology Spectrum in 1961, but other than those two anthologies no other editors have wanted to save this story from oblivion.

John Berryman, according to ISFDB, only published 21 science fiction stories, and some of them were occasionally reprinted. However, John Berryman is not a name I remember. He is a forgotten author. So why read his story in 2023? I’ve never read “Special Flight” before, or even heard of it, but it’s an impressive science fiction for 1939 if you think about it in a certain way. “Special Flight” was first published in the May 1939 issue of Astounding, just months before the July issue that many consider the first issue of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Then why didn’t Hartwell choose one of the more famous stories from that year?

Reading “Special Flight” brings up a long queue of questions. The sole quality that makes this story impressive is it tries to scientifically imagine routine space flight in 1939 in a realistic manner. So, do I recommend you track it down and read it? Not really, because it gets the science all wrong. However, if you happened to have an academic bent and like to study science fiction as a subject, then “Special Flight” is an interesting read.

If you’ve ever wondered how people in 1939 imagined space flight actually working, and not just being silly Buck Rogers stuff, “Special Flight” can provide some answers. Berryman was trying to imagine a near future where we mined the Moon for minerals and rocketships were much like merchant ships or cargo aircraft. “Special Flight” reminds me of what Heinlein was trying to do in the 1950s and it also reminds me of the original Star Trek.

Shouldn’t we forgive “Special Flight” for its mistakes if it was solid scientific speculation in 1939? Jules Verne got nothing right scientifically in Journey to the Center of the Earth but it’s still a well-loved story today. Why? Because the storytelling is fun. Then what about the storytelling in “Special Flight?” It’s not bad but it’s not great either. It’s about the level of a science fiction B-movie from 1953. Remember all those old black-and-white movies where the big danger of space flight was meteors? That’s what happens in “Special Flight”

“Special Flight” is action-packed. It’s about an emergency rocket flight to the Moon to save the lives of over a hundred miners. Everything possible that could go wrong does, including a giant tank of milk busting and flowing all over the rocket ship. Berryman spends a lot of his wordage on math and navigation and not that much on characterization. The crew is often knocked around like Captain Kirk and his crew — remember how the actors threw themselves around on the sets of Star Trek? In other words, the action is cheesy. But on the other hand, the focus is on getting to the Moon, and quite a lot of detail that Berryman imagined feels realistic. For instance, Berryman imagines that spaceflight causes tiny blood clots in the brain that produces a list of effects that can make operating a spaceship difficult. He talks about the three-body problem, something I didn’t know about until I read the Cixin Liu book. He imagines an automatic pilot and system that controls chemical rockets to maneuver in space while atomic rockets provide the main thrust using water as fuel. He talks about orbital velocities, g-forces, and take-off speeds. Stuff that just wasn’t in science fiction in the 1930s.

If you like to chart how science fiction evolved or are curious about how people before WWII imagined realistic space travel, then read “Special Flight.” If you’re used to modern well-told science fiction stories, you’ll probably want to skip it.

By the way, here’s an illustration from the cover of Cosmic Stories (July 1941) that imagines being in space in a rather realistic way for the time. I do like picturing how people imagined space travel before NASA. That’s why I enjoyed “Special Flight.”

James Wallace Harris, 5/11/23

“Forgetfulness” by John W. Campbell

“Forgetfulness” by John W. Campbell, Jr. is story #2 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading.

Instead of counting all the titles and authors of science fiction books I’ve read, I’m starting to tally all the far-out concepts science fiction has given me. In “Forgetfulness” John W. Campbell took one of my favorite concepts, walking in ancient dead alien cities, which was probably an old SF concept even in 1937, and gave it a couple twists. It’s going to be impossible to talk about this story without giving spoilers so think of this essay as an analysis of SF concepts and not a review. You can read the story online here, or buy it in a $2.99 Kindle edition of Campbell’s collection Cloak of Aeshir. However, I don’t recommend buying unless you’re a big fan of John W. Campbell.

“Forgetfulness” begins with a spaceship landing on the planet Rhth, one of nine planets in the system. The main point-of-view character is Ron Thule, an astronomer, from the planet Pareeth. They have traveled for six years, in a spaceship 2,500 feet long and 400 feet in diameter, covering 3.5 light-years, traveling at nearly the speed of light. These people from Pareeth are looking for a world to colonize, and are disappointed that Rhth is already inhabited. They hope to settle in the remains of a majestic city that was built by spacing-faring race millions of years ago and discover its secrets.

Try and pronounce Rhth. If nine planets weren’t a giveaway, the name Rhth should be. There they meet Seun, a very tall, graceful human-shaped being, clothed in a golden outfit, with a beautiful colored cape. All the people of Rhth wear gold suits and colored capes and live in opalescent domes twenty to thirty feet in diameter situated under giant green trees near the dead city. The buildings of that titanic city are three thousand feet high, but the winds have filled the streets with five hundred feet of dirt.

Seun has told Ron Thule and the commander of the Pareeth mission, Shor Nun, that the builders of the city had once visited their world. And that their world, Pareeth, once orbited the same sun as Rhth, but had been torn away by a rogue star. This hints that maybe the builders had conducted a kind of panspermia across the galaxy. As the story progresses the achievements of the builders become greater and greater. However, the people of Pareeth eventually discover secrets that can shatter their minds and their hopes.

Most of us find a great sense of wonder reading about the rediscovery of lost cities. So, it’s not a remarkable feat of creativity for a science fiction writer to imagine humans finding long-dead alien cities. Still, it’s one that sets off a powerful sense of wonder and has been used time and again in science fiction.

Campbell puts a twist on this concept, by having aliens discover a city from a long-dead civilization of mankind. John W. Campbell has a reputation that claims he wanted humans to be the galactic crown of creation, and this story supports that. In his earlier story, “Twilight” he had a human time traveler discover a far future deserted human civilization. That gave him a chance to imagine the engineering marvels of what we could achieve someday. In “Forgetfulness” he has aliens discover dead human civilization, but this time, Campbell imagined an even more impressive future for us built by super-science. You should read both stories to see just how hopeful Campbell was for the human race.

Both “Twilight” and “Forgetfulness” could be considered Dying Earth stories, although H. G. Wells in “The Time Machine,” William Hope Hodgson in The Night Land, and Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men, took that idea, even much further.

Unfortunately, “Forgetfulness” is hard to read. Part of that is due to a dated writing style, but also because Campbell didn’t really have much of a story to tell. They came, they discovered wonders, they were frightened, they were disappointed. There’s no drama or revealed emotions. “Forgetfulness” was reprinted in the classic 1946 anthology Adventures in Time and Space but has been mostly forgotten since. Damon Knight remembered it in his 1966 anthology Cities of Wonder, and Brian Aldiss and Harrison brought it back again in 1973 for The Astounding-Analog Reader. Both are very minor anthologies. The second contained just seven stories from Astounding covering 1937-1941, a rather odd collection.

It’s interesting that a story about remembering has been forgotten. The big concept in “Forgetfulness” is visiting the remains of an astonishing civilization millions of years after its citizens have gone. Campbell puts his own twist on it by having that civilization be a future version of ours. However, there’s another important concept he wanted to get across, and that’s how we forget the past. Shor Nun and Ron Thule can’t understand why Seun doesn’t understand how the city works. But then Campbell reminds us we couldn’t explain the technology of cavemen, or from other periods of human civilization. Remember all the discussions about how did the Egyptians build the pyramids? Well, it turns out Seun has even newer technologies that are even further advanced than the builders and they have merely forgotten earlier primitive technology.

I have to wonder if Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Rescue Party” wasn’t inspired by “Forgetfulness” and “Twilight.” Or that the screenwriters for Forbidden Planet hadn’t read “Forgetfulness” too. Or were their ideas independently invented?

That’s the thing about science fiction. Concepts keep getting reused. Are they forgotten and then reinvented? Or does science fiction evolve over time as concepts merge and mutate? Will some young writer in the 2020s come up with a story about a far-future space race discovering a future Earth and finding the ruins of what our civilization will become? How will this writer imagine the pinnacle of our success? Campbell wanted to believe that humanity will evolve until it has god-like powers. That idea has shown up in science fiction over and over again. But do we still believe that? Right now the peak of our civilization might end this century.

James Wallace Harris, 5/9/23

Science Fiction Book Reviewers on YouTube

I have become fascinated by science fiction book reviewers on YouTube. Most are young, and what’s particularly fascinating to me is how they are reading old books to learn the history of science fiction. That’s something I’ve been curious about for years, how do younger people feel about older science fiction. Of course, some of them bring a woke perspective, but I don’t mind, I often accept their criticism. On the other hand, some of the woken lack compassion for what it meant to grow up in the past.

Most of these book reviewers don’t review new books. I’m used to those book reviewers in science fiction magazines reviewing the books that are just coming out or will be soon. So I assume these YouTube reviewers aren’t getting ARCs or review copies. Some of these reviewers seem to be making money off their YouTube channel, maybe enough to make a living. Or that’s the hope. My favorite reviewer is Bookpilled, and he admits his YouTube channels are the way he makes his living. That might be changing since he’s about to become a world traveler. Not all of his videos review books. He makes money by buying used SF and reselling it online, and some videos are showing what’s up for sale.

Bookpilled is my favorite because reviews books intelligently, and with a lot of insight. I don’t know his real name, but I think it’s Matt. He actually gets me to read books. The link above is to his main site, but here is his last favorites video:

The next channel I like is Fit 2B Read. I liked this particular review because it made me want to read/reread all five books. I wish these reviewers would use their own names. I like how Fit 2B Read sought out forgotten classics. That’s what I’m doing myself. The guy is very camera ready and his show is either scripted or he’s very good at talking off the cuff. One of the main problems with watching YouTube videos is they waste the viewer’s time by either giving us information unrelated to the video or by slowly meandering around a topic or just never getting to the point.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but some YouTubers just don’t speak well enough or look good enough to watch. Fit 2B Read does a good job of being a talking head. He doesn’t get too close to the camera. He speaks fast, but not too fast. And he’s coherent. Like many of these YouTubers, he cranks out the content, finding different reasons for creating a topic to film. This doesn’t always work, but I know that YouTubers have to constantly produce new content or they’ll lose viewers. YouTube has some kind of statistical science for promoting videos, and that puts YouTubers who want to build their channel and make money on the rat race treadmill. Fit 2B Read does make some slick-looking videos.

And talk about a slick production, I’m quite impressed with The Library Ladder. His production is eye-catching, he has a radio announcer voice and a camera-ready mug. But what really wows me about this guy is his collection. I assume he’s wealthy because he often shows books that are rare collectibles. The video of his that makes me drool is the one on Gnome Press.

One of the strangest reviewers is the one for Media Death Cult. His stage name is Moid Moidelhoff, but I don’t know if that’s a real name. Moid is quite a character. In many of his videos, he’s wearing a gun. Moid goes all out for his channel. He’s even started interviewing famous writers. Here’s his review of two lesser-known Philip K. Dick novels. (He hopes to review them all.)

Next up is the Secret Sauce of Storycraft. I was impressed with her take on The Sparrow but today I watched an earlier video, Classic SciFi Sampler, and she disappointed me with how many mistakes she made and how often she admitted she didn’t know something and didn’t want to look it up. That was an older video and I think she evolved quite a lot. Right now I’m forgiving of her mistakes because she seems young and fairly new to science fiction. But what I like is how she’s working to catch up.

I thought the premise of the video below was a great idea. She wanted her users to know what kind of books she disliked because if she only reviewed books she liked they wouldn’t completely understand her as a reviewer. Unfortunately, she only gives a litany of her emotional reactions to the 8 books, and no useful details as to why. The reason why I liked her review of The Sparrow is she worked out a framework of ideas to judge the book and that gave me something to think about. The woman who does Secret Sauce of Storycraft does know how to make a video, speaks well on camera, is camera ready, and stays on topic. I’m expecting her to improve. She needs to give us more details about the book and I hope she comes up with more analytical thinking about the themes in books like she did for The Sparrow.

The Shades of Orange, by a young woman named Rachel, also shows potential. She gives a bit more detail about the books than the reviewer on The Secret Sauce of Storycraft. I’m showing this video because she rereads Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe, a book my friend Mike is reading, and one I’ve been thinking about reading. She starts with some new releases. I want to see more of that. I’m completely out of touch with newer science fiction.

I wish these reviewers would give more details about the books and less about their impressions. I do not like spoilers, so I know it’s hard to present a book without ruining the story for people like me. I liked how she said that Shadow & Claw was about a regressed society which she didn’t learn right away in her first reading, but made a big difference in enjoying the book in her second reading. That’s a good detail and it’s not a big enough spoiler.

The Outlaw Bookseller often creates videos on topics I’m most anxious to watch but I have trouble watching them. My problem is he doesn’t get down to business quick enough, or he digresses, but when he is on target, he’s often the most knowledgeable about the genre of the reviewers mentioned here. And he covers the books and topics I’m most interested in. For example, I recently wanted to read a D. G. Compton novel. The Outlook Bookseller does give the level of detail I want, but he sometimes tells too much about the story. The details he does give are a description of what happens in the book. That’s great if they aren’t spoilers, but I also want analysis. The Outlaw Bookseller does give me most of what I want from a review, but I have to admit the presentation doesn’t work well for me. The reviewer has the details I want but gives them too fast, and in a kind of stream of conscious way that’s hard to hang onto cognitively. I think I would do better reading his reviews. I’m sticking with this channel, trying to adapt to the presentation, because this guy knows his stuff.

My guess is these YouTube book reviewers (BookTube?) have a greater potential of promoting and selling books than bloggers and magazine reviewers. I’d like to find reviewers who focus on new books, so if you know of any, give me a link in the comments.

James Wallace Harris, 5/6/23

“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

“Harrison Bergeron” is a political satire set in the year 2081. Kurt Vonnegut imagines everyone is not only equal under the law but handicapped to be made equal in all ways. Stronger people are weighed down, talented people are made less talented, and intelligent people have to wear earplugs that make various kinds of noises to distract them from thinking deeply. In this rather short story, George and Hazel Bergeron are watching a ballet on television. They have forgotten their 14-year-old son Harrison has been arrested for being too handsome, too smart, and too strong. During the course of the TV show, their son appears on the ballet stage having escaped to start a rebellion. (You can read it here, or read a detailed synopsis on Wikipedia.)

“Harrison Bergeron” is not a subtle satire, instead it goes for the absurd. It’s a very likable story. Vonnegut tells it in simple language with vivid details. You immediately agree with him that this dystopian world is wrong. This short story has become quite famous, having been adapted to the screen four times. National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley even reprinted the story. The National Review keeps using “Harrison Bergeron” – here’s it being used again in 2015 against economic inequality in “Inching Towards ‘Harrison Bergeron.’

Usually, satire attacks something, and I have to wonder what Vonnegut was attacking. While reading it I thought maybe he was protesting laws designed to create equal opportunity. Then when I read about National Review and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia quoted the story in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin then I began to wonder even more. And it’s referenced in academic papers, including a 2013 one about transgender athletes. I thought Vonnegut was liberal. Wikipedia did say he wasn’t against his story being used in a Kansas court situation, he didn’t agree with their interpretation.

So why have conservatives embraced “Harrison Bergeron” so thoroughly? Are they using its satire the way Vonnegut intended? A site called What So Proudly We Hail promotes the story with a very pointed introduction:

Central to the American creed is the principle of equality, beginning with the notion that all human beings possess certain fundamental rights and equal standing before the law. Our concern for equality has expanded over the past half century to focus also on inequalities in opportunities, wealth, achievement, and social condition. What good is an equal right to pursue happiness if one lacks the native gifts or the social means to exercise it successfully? In this satirical story (1961), set in a future time in which “everybody was finally equal . . . every which way,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007) challenges our devotion to equality and invites us to consider the costs of pursuing it too zealously. Although the story is not explicitly about racial, ethnic, or gender equality, the questions it provokes about the kind of equality we should want, and the costs of pursuing it, are relevant also to campaigns to eliminate inequalities among racial and ethnic groups or between the sexes. Does the society portrayed here represent a fulfillment of the ideal of equality in the Declaration of Independence, or rather a perversion of the principle? Does opposing invidious distinctions, envy, and feelings of inferiority require reducing all to the lowest common denominator, and is this the true path to “social justice”? Would homogeneity attained by artificially raising up the low, producing a nation of Harrisons rather than a nation of Hazels—a prospect offered by biotechnological “enhancement”—be any more attractive?

The story does resonate with conservative thinking and even more so today. Are there other ways to read it? On the surface, the bad guys in the story are the government and laws that try to make everyone equal in every way. However, was that what Vonnegut was protesting. Was he all fired up and wrote this story the way the conservatives have used it?

I have no idea, but I do wonder about something. Vonnegut’s story is silly, absurd, and far from real. Vonnegut was often silly and absurd. I wonder if he just didn’t get the idea of a government taking the idea that everyone should be equal, and imagining how they could go about making it happen. It was published in a science fiction magazine. If Vonnegut was serious about his satire, why didn’t he publish it in a serious magazine? And back then, bizarre speculation on social change was common in SF stories.

The story came out in 1961, well before the liberal sixties. Eisenhower was probably president when he wrote it. A similar idea about making everyone equal had been used in the 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan. In the 1950s the main political push to make people equal was providing equal education to African Americans. And that effort was to make people better educated, not dumber. My guess is “Harrison Bergeron” is based on a silly idea that came to Vonnegut and he wrote a story to illustrate it. Conservatives have just run with it.

What’s also interesting is Hazel, the wife, has no handicapping applied to her. She’s average. Was Vonnegut saying something about women? 1961 was also before the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s. Was he being liberal to make the Handicapper General of the United States, a woman? She had the funny name Diana Moon Glampers? Was this a dig at women?

I don’t think I’ve read “Harrison Bergeron” before. Its basic idea is so memorable that I can’t believe I’d forget it. I could have since it’s been around since the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s also been reprinted quite often and I could have read it and thought it so absurd as to be completely minor, and did forget it. “Harrison Bergeron” has 9 citations in The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories v. 2. I just read it because our short story club has just started reading The Treasury of World Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell. That anthology is a monster of over one thousand pages of classic science fiction where Hartwell also introduces science fiction from around the world.

Despite its fame, I still think “Harrison Bergeron” is a silly story. I’d only rate it ***+ in my system – three stars mean well-written, and a + means I liked it a lot. Four stars would mean it’s a story I’ll want to reread now and then, and I don’t feel that.

I’m going to try and review as many of the stories as possible from The Treasury of World Science Fiction. I haven’t given up on my Heinlein project, but after gorging on his work for months, I’ve been taking a break. I’ve wanted to get into a science fiction novel I never read but I’m still on a short story kick.

James Wallace Harris, 5/6/23

Five Reviews of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I first read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell in 1997. Then in 2005, I listened to it when it came out on audiobook. I remember it being an exceptional novel of first contact involving the Jesuits. Russell explored both religion and science fiction at the same time. Essentially, the story asks why bad things happen to good people, especially why would God be so cruel to one of his faithful. It asks this ancient philosophical question in a special context involving aliens, aliens who essentially make the query meaningless, or does it?

However, I don’t really remember the details of the book. This week I accidentally watched three reviewers review this book on Youtube and discovered most of them are part of a science fiction alliance of reviewers. That led to two more reviews. Watching all of them tells us a whole lot about how books are perceived by readers, and how reviewers take different approaches to evaluating books for our consideration. Here they are:



Fit 2B Read:

Secret Sauce of Storycraft:

Media Death Cult:

The Library Ladder:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to study these reviews carefully and reread The Sparrow. Bookpilled is my favorite science fiction reviewer on YouTube and he did not like the book. He had very specific criticisms, some of which I’ve made against other books. I don’t remember thinking about those criticisms when I read The Sparrow.

The Sparrow is on the Classics of Science Fiction list with 23 citations. It is a novel that’s widely admired. But it’s over a quarter of a century old, and it’s been eighteen years since I last read it. I’ve changed, society has changed, and maybe it will be a different reading experience for me this time. Watching these reviewers has brought up a number of questions for me:

  • Are reviewers too easy or hard on books?
  • Are readers too easy or hard on books?
  • Will these reviewers change how I reread The Sparrow?
  • Are there positive qualities that all readers can recognize?
  • Are there flaws that all readers can perceive?
  • Are the value or faults of novels entirely subjective?
  • Have these reviewers found insights I missed?
  • Are novels merely Rorschach tests or do novelists have something specific to say?
  • Do we waste our time by reading books that aren’t worth discussing?

I like this group review by the Science Fiction Alliance. Kalandai doesn’t seem to be part of the group but her review fits in. I hope this group does other group reviews. Some novels are worth the extra focus.

James Wallace Harris, May 2, 2023

How Many Post-Apocalyptic Stories Do We Need to Read?

The primary value of science fiction is introducing readers to new concepts. Take time travel – it’s a mind-blowing concept. But how many stories about time travel do we have to read before the concept loses its sense of wonder, or even becomes boring? When do we say: “Hey, I get the idea!”

My mother spent her whole life reading who-done-its, but I got burned out on the concept in my twenties. On the other hand, I’ve been reading about certain science fictional concepts my whole life. Why don’t I get burned out? I think I did, but I just keep reading science fiction hoping to find new concepts that will reignite those old thrills. Along the way, I’ve had to read mouldy concepts so many times that they’ve become boring.

However, let me clarify something. Fiction can approach a theme in two ways. First, the theme can be the focus of the story, or second, it can be the setting. When a theme is new, writers tend to explore it, but when it’s old, they use it for the background of their plot.

After finishing Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and Martin H. Greenberg, an anthology of twenty-one post-apocalyptic stories about atomic warfare, I realized I’m burned out on that theme even though it’s always been one of my favorites? Why? That’s hard to say, but some stories overcame the problem of overexposure by focusing instead on the storytelling and characters and using the theme as a background. Others were original classics that I exempt from aging.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. is famous for writing A Canticle For Leibowitz, an uber-classic SF novel on the theme of a post-apocalypse caused by nuclear war. However, he had disappeared from the genre in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidently, he saw the 1984 British film, Threads, about surviving a nuclear war winter and it inspired him to edit this anthology. He mentions Threads several times in his main introduction and in the introductions to the stories. Miller said the main focus of the anthology was nuclear wars, especially a large-scale conflict which he called megawar.

It’s possible to read one post-apocalyptic novel or short story every so often and keep the theme interesting. You just don’t notice that writers seem to find a limited number of insights into that concept. Reading twenty-one stories in a row only emphasizes the finite number of subthemes. Miller chose to only focus on nuclear war apocalypses but I’m not sure how civilization is destroyed that matters for some of the subthemes.

I’m going to try and define those subthemes by citing the different stories. And I’m going to point out how some stories stand above the theme and why.

Because Beyond Armageddon is out of print I’ll link the first mention of the story titles to ISFDB.org to show where the story has been reprinted. You might already have another anthology or collection that has it. If there’s a significant article about the story in Wikipedia or elsewhere, I’ll link it in the second mention of the title. This anthology is being discussed on Facebook and if you’d like to read the threads about each story follow this link.

#1 – “Salvador” by Lucius Shepard (F&SF April 1984)

“Salvador” doesn’t involve nuclear war, but it’s about the dangers of escalating wars on civilian life and civilization. The protagonist, Dantzler, is a soldier in the near future fighting in Central America. Remember, this was written during Reagan’s administration and our secret war in Nicaragua. In the story, the Army uses powerful mind drugs to make soldiers super-aware, aggressive, and brave. The story feels like a cross between Carlos Casteneda’s books and the film Platoon.

I don’t think “Salvador” fits the theme of Beyond Armageddon, but it was an extremely popular story that came out during the time the book was being edited. I think it resonated with Miller’s anti-war feelings so he included it. It’s also the second newest story in the anthology. It doesn’t deal with the subject of this essay either. I would have left it out and picked another story that did. However, “Salvador” is an impressive story.

Rating: ***+

#2 – “The Store of the Worlds” by Robert Sheckley (Playboy, September 1959)

“The Store of the Worlds” is a story that at first doesn’t seem to fit the theme of the anthology either, however, Robert Sheckley is brilliant at tricking us into seeing a philosophical insight about nuclear war. When our reading group discussed “The Store of the Worlds” it was highly admired.

This story is one that focused on the theme of a nuclear war post-apocalypse and is squarely aimed at the theme, but I believe “The Store of the Worlds” should have been the last story in the anthology.

Rating: *****

#3 – “The Big Flash” by Norman Spinrad (Orbit 5, 1969)

“The Big Flash” is about a rock and roll band that has explosive success. Its satirical humor reminds me of the film Dr. Strangelove, and the storytelling outshines the theme. Like the movies Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, the story is pre-apocalyptic. The first three stories in this anthology are really about our madness. Science fiction does two things. It promotes futures we’d like to see, and warns us about futures we should avoid. The first three stories in this anthology are all warnings about humanity being insane.

I’m not sure Spinrad wrote this story to protest nuclear bombs. It’s a gonzo story about rock and roll.

Rating: ***+

#4 – “Lot” by Ward Moore (F&SF, May 1953)

“Lot” is the story that should have been first in this anthology. It came out in 1953, probably during the peak era of atomic war paranoia. “Lot” is completely focused on the theme and defines many of the standard attributes of post-apocalyptic fiction. “Lot” is a wet dream for survivalists and preppers, defining their key philosophical creed. Once civilization falls, survival of the fittest is everything. Mr. Jimmon and his family flee Los Angeles just after it’s been nuked. Mr. Jimmon instantly embraces survivalist thinking while his family can’t stop thinking with a civilized mindset even as they race away from the mushroom clouds.

“Lot” is one of my all-time favorite science fiction short stories. It’s brutal. It’s a story of cold equations before the classic Tom Godwin story. It’s one of my prime pieces of evidence that 1953 was the peak year for short science fiction.

Rating: *****

#5 – “Day at the Beach” by Carol Emshwiller (F&SF, August 1959)

“Day at the Beach” is another story that focuses beautifully on the theme. Carol Emshwiller describes life after the bomb, living with radiation. Like many science fiction stories in the 1950s, it speculates about mutations as a consequence of radioactive fallout. Myra and her husband Ben, who are bald, take their son, Littleboy, who has lots of hair, for a day out at the beach. Littleboy is a mutant. Life is grim, but people keep on living.

This story features two of the main subthemes of a nuclear post-apocalypse. The primary one is survival after the bomb and the second is mutants.

Rating: ****

#6 – “The Wheel” by John Wyndham (Startling Stories, January 1952)

“The Wheel” introduces us to another classic subtheme of post-apocalyptic fiction. It suggests that after civilization collapses society will revert to earlier social constructs. I’ll call that subtheme, a devolved society. In this case, a superstitious society like early America and the Puritans. This was common speculation about post-apocalyptic life in the 1950s. A classic example is The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. “The Wheel” is tightly focused on painting the theme. The concepts are in the foreground, although there’s a good story.

Interestingly, “The Wheel,” “The Store of the Worlds,” and “Lot” have surprise endings. I wonder if that’s a factor in them being remembered and reprinted. All these stories are jammed with ideas about how post-apocalyptic life will be different. Yet, they all use good storytelling techniques to express these ideas. In other words, they have a message, but it doesn’t dominate the story.

As we progress through Beyond Armageddon these speculative ideas get repeated and newer writers elaborate on them. But eventually, I believe it gets harder to come up with fresh perspectives.

Rating: ****

#7 – “Jody After the War” by Edward Bryant (Orbit 10, 1972)

“Jody After the War” is where the theme shifts from the focus of the story to the background. The eastern U.S. has been destroyed in a nuclear war, and the capital is now in Denver. Paul and Jody are up in the hills and are having a day outside like Myra and Ben, but they have no child. Jody can’t have children because she’s a survivor of an atomic bomb explosion. This story is more about their relationship and less about the post-apocalypse. Civilization hasn’t been destroyed, but it’s been wounded and suffers from PTSD.

Rating: ***

#8 – “The Terminal Beach” by J. G. Ballard (New Worlds, March 1964)

In “The Terminal Beach,” Traven, a deeply depressed man sneaks onto an island where they’ve been testing atomic bombs. This surreal tale is one of my favorites in the anthology. Because I’ve been reading and watching documentaries about South Pacific atom bomb tests, this story was exceedingly vivid to me. This is another story that’s not post-apocalyptic, at least for the whole world, but Traven inhabits a post-apocalyptic landscape. I feel “The Terminal Beach” captures the psychic horror we felt back in the 1960s.

Rating: *****

#9 – “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson (Astounding, March 1947)

“Tomorrow’s Children” is another story about mutants. There’s quite a bit of scientific talk in this story. Coming just two years after Hiroshima I’m sure the world was full of such speculation. Interestingly, the focus of this story is anti-prejudice. Anderson’s message tells people to ignore what people look like and accept everyone for being human.

Rating: ***+

#10 – “Heirs Apparent” Robert Abernathy (F&SF, June 1954)

In “Heirs Apparent,” Robert Abernathy puts his American protagonist, Leroy Smith, a visiting scientist, in Russia after a nuclear war has destroyed both countries. Russia has been bombed back to serfdom. Smith helps survivors trying to restart agriculture with his professional knowledge. Unfortunately, for a small village, a survivor, Bogomazov arrives there. He’s a member of the Communist party and demands to be the leader forcing everyone to work collectively. Smith goes along. He has no choice. Abernathy uses this story for a lot of infodumping and speculation, but the main gist of the story is capitalism and communism will be useless after the apocalypse.

Rating: ***+

#11 – “The Music Master of Babylon” by Edgar Pangborn (Galaxy, November 1954)

This is another old favorite of mine, but an ideal form of post-apocalyptic fiction for me too. 76-year-old Brian Van Anda survives the apocalypse alone, living in a flooded New York City in the Hall of Music museum. I love post-apocalyptic stories about the last man on Earth, but as usual, they are never the very last person. Van Anda survives inside the decay of the city, scourging food the best he can. Weather permitting, he doesn’t even wear clothes. His only regard to civilization is playing the piano, working to learn a very complicated piece he wanted to perform before the bombs. Eventually, two young people find him. They live like primitive nomads. They had a leader, an old person who guided them, that’s died. They are out searching for a replacement old person because they need guidance. They also want to get married and that requires an old person.

The two major subthemes are living alone after the apocalypse and society reverting to tribal hunting and gatherers.

Rating: *****

#12 – “Game Preserve” by Rog Phillips (If, October 1957)

“Game Preserve” is another story of mutants, but a rather sad, painful one. It’s told by Elf, a child who lives in a strange tribe of human-like creatures. Their cognitive abilities are about equal to chimpanzees, but they all have a fetish. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it’s brutal. It’s another cold equations story.

“Game Preserve” takes the theme and uses it for a rather unusual setting. The focus is no longer the post-apocalypse, but something deep and psychological. I don’t know if Phillips was merely being sensational, or if he wanted to bring up a philosophical conundrum.

Rating: ****+

#13 – “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét (Saturday Evening Post, July 31, 1937)

By the Waters of Babylon” is a classic. If Stephen Vincent Benét had read and known about “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London and After London by Richard Jefferies then his story is an update of those classic post-apocalyptic tales. If he hadn’t read those classics, then it’s a case of rediscovery of a classic concept. I don’t know how old the idea is that if civilization collapsed it would revert to a tribal society. I’d love to read a literary study of that idea.

I’ve seen this reversion theme over and over again. Sometimes it’s back to a hunting and gathering, sometimes the apocalypse knocks us back to a tribal society, and sometimes to a feudal society. And sometimes just to the 19th century. It’s very logical when you think about it.

I love “By the Waters of Babylon.” It has a tremendous sense of wonder. However, over the decades I feel subtheme has been overused. I sometimes wonder if writers merely want a setting that’s pre-modern and use an apocalypse to get them there.

This subtheme demands two other themes. First, why don’t we see new forms of society? And second, why don’t we see more stories about a healed, mutated, or changed modern civilization. “Jody After the War” was one possible example, but it didn’t work out the ideas of the subgenre in the way I’m suggesting. Think about it, what if a nuclear war killed 50% of current Americans but left the other 50% to rebuild. Wouldn’t we just patch up the broken parts and keep going the way we were? Japan and Germany rebuilt and became better than ever. Why don’t we see that in this post-apocalyptic tales?

Rating: *****

#14 – “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Collier’s May 6, 1950)

There Will Come Soft Rains” is another classic. Ray Bradbury imagines people completely gone, and our automated civilization working without us – for a while. We don’t know if this is world-wide or just in the city that got bombed. This rare subtheme, life after people, is one I love to contemplate. Bradbury anticipates the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction book about what would the world be like if people suddenly disappeared. It inspired two television shows. Follow the link to read more.

Rating: *****

#15 – “To the Chicago Abyss” by Ray Bradbury (F&SF, May 1963)

“To the Chicago Abyss” reminds me of the Sheckley story. In it an old man annoys people in a post-apocalyptic world by constantly reminding them of things that no longer exist. Since we have two stories in this anthology on this topic I guess that makes a subtheme – what we’ll miss.

Rating: ***+

#16 – “Lucifer” by Roger Zelazny (Worlds of Tomorrow, June 1964)

“Lucifer” is another story about what we’ll miss. It feels like a last man on Earth story. Carlson, the protagonist returns to a dead city to repair generators and get the lights going. The light flare up for a few seconds, and then go out again. But it’s enough to remind Carlson of what life was once like. This story reminds me of the 1959 Harry Belafonte film, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.

Rating: ***+

#17 – “Eastward Ho!” by William Tenn (F&SF, October 1958)

William Tenn cleverly unwinds the clock on Europeans settling North America. He imagines Native Americans reestablishing control of the continent after a nuclear war. The title, “Eastward Ho!” is a play on the famous saying “Go west, young man.” The story really isn’t focused on the post-apocalypse theme, but instead it’s a satire on American hubris. It’s a fun story. It really belongs to the subtheme of what will we build next. That subtheme gave authors a chance to imagine all kinds of societies.

The thing is, no civilization lasts for long, The history of our species is trying out all the possible combinations of societies. So apocalypses just the way we start over and try something new.

Rating: ****+

#18 – “The Feast of Saint Janis” by Michael Swanwick (New Horizons 11, 1980)

“The Feast of Saint Janis” is the second story in this anthology that uses the apocalypse to create an exciting rock and roll story. I guess the subtheme could be called rebuilding America, but like Spinrad and Ellison, Swanwick is using the postapocalyptic setting to stage a gonzo story. And I consider this one superior to the other two. Swanwick imagines a situation where a woman volunteers to become the reembodiment of Janis Joplin. It’s a striking story.

Rating: *****

#19 – “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth” by Arther C. Clarke (Future, September 1951)

“If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth…” is a different take on the nuclear post-apocalypse, although to tell you why would spoil the story. This is both early and minor Clarke, but it’s still readable.

Rating: ***

#20 – “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison (New Worlds, April 1969)

A Boy and His Dog” is a famous novella by Harlan Ellison that earned a Nebula award and was made into a movie in 1975. The setting is a post-apocalyptic America where on the surface men live like a Mad Max movie, but in silos beneath the surface, the good and righteous exist in clean and orderly cities. This is a perfect example where Ellison uses the post-apocalypse as a setting for his story about sex and violence. It has nothing to say about the theme, and its real goal is to be sensational. And boy is it sensational. It’s an exciting and classic science fiction story but I don’t think it fits in this anthology.

Miller maintains an outrage about politics throughout all his introductions, and he’s seriously protesting against nuclear war. I don’t see this story as a protest, nor is it a serious take on his theme. And it will be problematic for modern readers because Vic, the protagonist is a serial rapist who uses a mutant dog to find women to attack. The story is misogynistic through and through.

Rating: **** (but it’s definitely politically incorrect, even I might want to cancel culture it)

#21 – “My Life in the Jungle” by Jim Aiken (F&SF, February 1985)

“My Life in the Jungle” by Jim Aiken is another story that doesn’t fit the theme of our anthology. It’s about a man, a mathematics professor, who suddenly finds himself in the body of a chimpanzee. The story is a surreal fantasy that symbolizes the tragic stupidity of our species. The ending can be seen as a post-apocalypse, but it’s more of an analogy for ecological self-destruction than nuclear self-destruction.

However, “My Life in the Jungle” is a powerful story and the newest of the anthology. My guess is Miller read it while editing Beyond Armageddon and just wanted to promote a new writer. This anthology is its only reprint.

Rating: ****+

I may have had my fill of post-apocalyptic fiction, at least for stories about nuclear war. However, I’m tempted to read other anthologies on the subject to see if anyone found something uniquely different to say. I do have several of them. See my post on “End of the World Anthologies.”

What I really need to decide is if I just like vicariously living in post-apocalyptic worlds. That’s kind of sick when you think about it, and if true, maybe I need psychoanalysis. I’ll have to contemplate that. I’ve always loved tales like Robinson Crusoe. On the other hand, I need to consider that there’s nothing new to be learned from reading speculations about nuclear war. That I should go on to other topics. Time is limited in this life, especially now that I’m 71, so why waste so much reading time on such a narrow subject when there’s zillions of interesting other subjects to explore?

James Wallace Harris, 4/27/23

Science Fiction vs. Raymond Chandler

I’m struggling to find a science fiction novel that grabs me. Months have passed since the last one I loved. That was The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff. It’s not that I don’t have hundreds of science fiction books waiting to be read, but finding one that profoundly resonates with my current mindset is difficult. I subsist on science-fiction short stories until a sci-fi Moby Dick breaks the waves of my attention.

I’ve mostly been diverting myself by reading nonfiction and novels from other genres. I just finished The High Window by Raymond Chandler and for whatever reason it did resonate perfectly with my current mood. I remember reading Farewell, My Lovely years ago and loving it. And I vaguely believe I read The Big Sleep, but that was long ago. Usually, I dislike mysteries, thrillers, and other crime novels. I just don’t care who did it.

What thrills me about Chandler’s books is his prose, and in particular, his descriptions. Chandler is famous for creating the detective, Philip Marlowe. Whenever pop culture satirizes the hardboiled detective, they are usually making fun of Marlowe’s way of talking. Chandler’s dialogue is painfully cliche. His convoluted plots often mystify and confuse. I would completely ignore Chandler if those two aspects were all he offered. What redeems Chandler in my eyes, even elevates him to a model writer, is his descriptions.

Wherever Philip Marlowe goes he describes what he sees in vivid detail. To illustrate my point, here are the first few pages of The Big Sleep. Last night I started watching the Humphrey Bogart version. I’ve seen it several times before. And after reading The High Window I decided to start over with Philip Marlowe and read his first appearance in a novel. When I went to buy it on Amazon I discovered The Annotated Big Sleep and it seemed perfect for jumping into the world of Raymond Chandler.

In the film it’s a bit different, the girl says, “You aren’t very tall” to Humphrey Bogart and he replies, “I try to be.” I’ve seen many different actors play Philip Marlowe and none of them matches my mind’s eye, but Bogie does okay. I watched a couple low budget versions of The High Window yesterday and was extremely disappointed. They go for Chandler’s cliche dialogue but they never capture the feel of the books. Even though Time to Kill (1942), The Brasher Doubloon (1947), and The Big Sleep (1946) were made in the 1940s, they don’t look like the 1940s Chandler describes. They only seem to be visual sketches or quick impressions.

Movies drive quickly through 1940s Los Angeles. Chandler strolls. He stops and smells the roses as well as the dog shit.

This got me thinking about science fiction. Are there any science fiction novels that paint the future in the same way that Chandler has portrayed the past? My first thought was of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. I just went and checked, and it is indeed full of vivid details, but not at Chandler’s level of density. I’ve always liked Heinlein for his details, but checking shows he is a far cry from Chandler’s descriptions too.

Maybe it’s not possible to imagine the future in such detail. Hemingway steered writers away from such writing. But then, few writers like to go overboard on the details like Henry James or Edith Wharton. I guess what I like about Chandler is he paints realistic pictures with words while most modern writers have left realism for impressionism and minimalism or even the abstract.

I need to think about this. I need to pay closer attention to how science fiction writers describe the future. It occurs to me that Walter M. Miller, Jr. was quite vivid in the opening of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” in the April 1955 issue of F&SF.

If you know of science fiction novels that are rich in descriptive details, let me know in the comments.

James Wallace Harris, 4/20/23

The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

For most of my life I’ve had a prejudice against the fantasy genre. When I was ten I was crazy about the Oz books, but not long after that I discovered science fiction. I know it’s possible to enjoy both science fiction and fantasy, but I associate fantasy with the unscientific, with religions and myths, and with the belief in magic. On rare occasions I’ve fallen for fantasy tales, like the Harry Potter books and The Golden Compass trilogy. I believe they were acceptable to me because they were for kids and I assume fantasy stories are fine for children. Although, that might suggest that part of my prejudice against fantasy is because I believe fantasy is for children — and that at a certain age we should give it up.

However, I mainly dislike fantasy stories because fantasy embraces magic. I hate the concept of magic for scientific and philosophical reasons. I have always hoped that scientific thinking would supplant religious thinking. Christianity has a problem with magic too. Christianity has always hoped to supplant belief in magic, and I can understand why. Because for a new paradigm to take old the old one has to be erased. But for me, Christianity is just another form of magical thinking, and I expected science to replace it.

You might be thinking this is a weird way to review a book, but reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany deals with these philosophical issues — and I wonder if it’s message isn’t anti-magic. I’m not sure what it’s exact stance on the subject is, which is why I want to talk about it. And you might think I’m even more confused because I’m reading a classic adult fantasy novel when I just declared I’m too old for fantasy novels.

I decided to read The King of Elfland’s Daughter when the unnamed reviewer on Bookpilled, my favorite science fiction reviewer channel on YouTube, reviewed it. The Bookpilled guy praised The King Of Elfland’s Daughter so highly I felt I should try and overcome my fantasy prejudice and give it a read.

The King Of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924, and according to Wikipedia it made quite an impact. Over the years, some of my favorite science fiction writers from the mid-20th century mentioned an admiration for Lord Dunsany. In 1969 Ballantine reprinted the novel as the second book in its second series of Adult Fantasy novels. That series if often cited as reviving fantasy as a popular genre for adult readers. I remember that Ballantine Adult Fantasy books coming out back then, and I liked them for their covers, but never wanted to read them. Over the years, I have ended up reading a few of them. I wish I had bought and saved those Ballantine editions because many of them sell for hundreds nowadays.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter might not appeal to modern fans of fantasy though. It’s prose sounds like something out of Chaucer, and there is very little character development, dramatic action, or even dialogue. Lurulu, the troll, who is mostly a comic character seems to have had the most lines. I say that because in the audiobook edition I listened to the narrator did voices for the characters and about the only one that stood out was the troll’s. I also read along with a 99 cent Kindle edition from Amazon.

The story is set in the village/valley of Erl and the neighboring fantasyland of Elfland. The setting is sometime before 1530 — Dunsany makes a specific point of bringing that up. Erl is ruled by a hereditary lord who lives in a castle, but a Parliament of elders comes to visit the lord of Erl telling him they want more magic in their land. The lord tells his son, Alveric, to go into Elfland, find and bring back the King of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel, and marry her. This happens early in the book and they have a son named Orion. Unfortunately, Lirazel can’t adapt to human ways and returns to Elfland. Most of the rest of the story is about Alveric trying to find his way back to Elfland to recapture Lirazel, and Orion growing up to be a hunter, first of stags, but then of unicorns.

This novel was pleasant enough to read, but it’s structure was primitive, much like a long fairytale. Alveric and Lirazel have practically no personal traits at all, and there’s barely any for Orion. Lirazel is beautiful, and that’s about it. Orion is good at hunting and loves his hunting dogs.

On the other land, the prose is rather nice.

The real meat of this story is the contrast between Earth and Elfland. Elfland is another dimension that borders Erl on the east. Elfland is timeless. Immortal beings that leave Elfland to visit Earth age. When Alveric is in Elfland capturing Lirazel, ten years pass by in Erl. Lord Dunsany sets up his story so that Erl is Christian and its citizens believe they will go to heaven. But we’re also told there is no path to heaven from Elfland. The choice for some of the characters is between living, growing old, dying and going to heaven, or choosing to live in Elfland where nothing happens and everything is eternal. Dunsany constantly reminds us of the timelessness of Elfland.

Sometimes I picture everything in Elfland frozen in one beautiful tableau. When Lirazel returns she sits on her father’s knee the entire time Orion grows up. I tried to get Midjourney to create an image of that scene but it kept making Lirazel a little girl in her father’s lap. I settled for what I have above.

During that same time, Alveric is on a never ending quest to reenter Elfland. His quest is longer than Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War.

Eventually, Orion discovers the edge of Elfland and sees a unicorn. Now, in this story, unicorns are magical, but not special like in modern fantasy stories. In fact, Orion hunts them, and mounts their heads. I bet modern readers will be horrified at that. Orion also discovers trolls and the trolls start visiting Erl.

I’m not sure if I should tell the whole story, but I’m going to say that the Parliament of Erl come to regret their desire for more magic in their land. They thought it would make their valley famous, but instead magic scares them. And it’s here where I wonder if Dunsany isn’t making a case against magic. At one point the Freer (friar?) speaks to the village:

I won’t tell what the ending is but it involves a transformation that I can’t decide if it’s wonderful or horrifying.

My theory is belief in magic existed before Christianity all across Europe, and for two thousand years the Church has been trying to stamp it out. Lovers of fantasy hate to let magic go. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany’s book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter isn’t about that. On one hand, I tend to think Dunsany is siding with Christianity and is against magic, but on the other hand, I think he’s just as enchanted by the magical.

The reason why I believed fantasy is for children is because I felt pretending is something kids like to do. But I also assume when we grow up we need to get real. Now, I’m no longer sure if it is okay to allow fantasy in books for children. Too many kids never grow up. I thought reading science fiction was taking the road to realism, but I realized late in life that much of science fiction is just as magical as fantasy. The reality is we don’t like reality and wish it was something its not. On the other hand, fiction allows us to cope with a reality that is difficult to comprehend.

Back in the 1800s there was a lot of opposition to reading fiction. Serious people thought it rotted the mind. People thought fiction mainly appealed to children, women, and men who couldn’t cope with the real world. I’m not sure they were wrong. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany wasn’t touching on this issue in The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

If I had the time I would like to make a case comparing the L. Frank Baum Oz books to The King of Elfland’s Daughter. There were 14 Oz books published from 1900 to 1920. The King of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924. I’d like to study what people thought of fantasy in the years 1900 to 1940 before science fiction started getting popular.

As a ten-year-old I wanted Oz to exist like Elfland. As a teenager, and even into my twenties, I used to tell people I never wanted to adultify.

Does anyone know of a good study on the evolution of fantasy fiction? I might not want to read it but I might want to read about it.

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/23

Visualizing Fiction with AI

I am reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany, first published in 1924. Normally, I do not like reading fantasy, but Bookpilled praised this novel so extensively and claimed it was so influential that I had to try it. I’ll review the book itself in the future. What I’m writing about now is how I tried to visualize the story using AI software.

I have a condition called aphantasia, which means I can’t visualize images well in my head. Most people can close their eyes and see things. I can’t. I didn’t discover this until I was in my sixties. I’ve often read that ordinary people when they read a story visualize it in their mind’s eye. When I discovered Midjourney I got the idea that maybe I could use that program to help me see what fiction was describing. I’m just beginning to learn Midjourney. It’s easy to make striking pictures, but very hard to make specific striking pictures.

In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, the Elfland’s daughter is Lirazel, a princess who leaves her magical world to live in our ordinary world to marry Alveric and become his queen in the nonmagical land of Erl. Lirazel has a hard time coping without magic. Alveric wants her to become Christian and worship his way. Lirazel can’t understand why. She wants to worship the stars, but Alveric considers that evil. She tries to skirt his commands by worshipping the reflections of stars in a lake. That’s what the picture at the top of the page is trying to show.

Midjourney will draw almost anything, in any style you request. However, you have to describe what you want in words and codes, and Midjourney does its best to guess what they mean. It’s very hit-and-miss, and quite often Midjourney will ruin a beautiful image with weird deformities of the human form. If you look closely at the image at the top of the page, the women’s hands are ugly. Or look at this image. At first, it’s beautiful, until you see her arms. So many attempts have to be thrown out because of these deformities.

Here is another go at the same scene but asking for a more artistic view. However, I definitely didn’t imagine The King of Elfland’s Daughter looking like this art style. Mentally, I pictured the setting of the story to be a darkly medieval world lit by natural light. That’s why the picture at the top fits better in my mind. But the picture below does have an enchanting fantasy flavor. I can imagine that some readers see the story like this picture.

I went looking for previous artwork used for The King of Elfland’s Daughter but didn’t find much. Here is some artwork from an early edition, maybe even the first. I’m not sure. It’s very stylized. And it’s from the 1920s, so maybe this is how they pictured fantasy worlds.

This is how they pictured it in the 1960s when Ballantine reprinted this novel for its Adult Fantasy series. Notice how stylized the art is compared to how I’m trying to picture it.

These illustrations aren’t from The King of Elfland’s Daughter but show art styles that I think people associate with fantasy. However, probably they are more suited for children’s books. Using Midjourney you can apply any artistic style you want. The trick is convincing the program to use it and that can be hard.

People are using Midjourney to create art that can be used as digital art, book covers, illustrations, or in a series for comic books, graphic novels, and even animation. There are many hurdles. The first is to develop a consistent character out of a program that generates art from randomness. This can be done by using the same random seed number. You can also guide the program by uploading illustrations or photos, or even crude hand-drawn sketches. And there are endless keywords, styles, switches, datasets, etc. that can be applied. It really is something to be learned. And using Midjourney is a skill requiring artistic understanding. You either need to know about art or you need to learn about it quickly.

This is why it will be a while before I could ever read a book and routinely picture scenes in Midjourney. But while I’m reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter I’m often finding scenes I would like to see. There is one with a troll talking to a fox. Another with Lirazel, her small son, his nurse who is a witch, and the troll. And I just read one where Alveric is walking across a vast deserted landscape. He starts out with a bag of food thrown over his shoulders, enough to last him two weeks, a blanket around him as a coat for warmth, carrying a bundle of firewood, and a sword at his side. I’d like to visualize those scenes.

You can try Midjourney for free, but when I did, it warned me there were too many free users at the moment. I joined for $10 a month, but I soon realized that learning the program requires cranking out more images than the $10 account limit, and upped my account to the $30 version. And it’s not easy to use. You have to be a member of the Discord community because you send commands to Midjourey through that social site and view the results there too. There are tons of videos on YouTube that show how to do all of this if you’re interested.

You can view a gallery of Midjourney art here. It’s dazzling. If you crave beautiful pictures, this program might become addictive.

James Wallace Harris, 4/8/23