“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan first appeared last year in the original anthology Mission Critical edited by Jonathan Strahan. I read it in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, which I believe was the first best-of-the-year SF anthology covering 2019 to be published in 2020. It will be reprinted again on 9/8/20 in Strahan’s new best-of-the-year anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Mission Critical was inspired by Strahan seeing The Martian at the movies, and thinking he could do a whole anthology of science-oriented problem-solving science fiction.

“This is Not the Way Home” was the opening story, and it indeed reminded me of The Martian, but more than that it reminded me of Kip Russell and Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. Egan’s story involves a person from Earth winning a trip to the Moon and ends up racing across the lunar landscape in a struggle for survival while wearing a spacesuit with a small being nestled inside. If you know Heinlein’s story, this might be enough of a review to go read “This is Not the Way Home.”

From here on out, I’m going to leak spoilers. I don’t really like writing reviews, what I like I talking about the science fiction stories I read.

Basically, I read Egan’s story because Kaster was first out the gate with a 2019 best-of-the-year SF anthology. I don’t think many readers know about Kaster’s anthologies, but he started out doing audiobooks that I discovered on Audible.com. He did a series called The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 1-10 (2009-2018). I enjoyed them because at the time short SF on audio was not common, and I love short SF on audio. Then he started The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 1-9 (2011-2019). The audiobooks seem to have stopped, but he’s been doing Kindle best-of-the-year anthologies that include The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 1-4 (2017-2020) and The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories (2019). I’m guessing he’s zeroing in on a focus to distinguish his offerings from all the other best-of-the-year anthologists. However, seven of his fifteen stories were also anthologized by Strahan or Clarke. And interestingly this year, Strahan switched from collecting the best SF & F, to just SF. That makes me happy because I don’t really enjoy fantasy. But I digress.

I enjoyed reading “This is Not the Way Home” even though the ending annoyed me and I thought the scientific solution was wildly improbable. I have a hunger for good, old-fashioned science fiction, which is why I chase down the best-of-the-year anthologies every year, and why I’m excited about Kaster’s hard SF anthology, and that Strahan has switched to only collecting SF.

The trouble for me, is modern stories lack something, something I want to explore here, and “This is Not the Way Home” is a good case study.

Writing science fiction in the 21st-century must be hard, especially if the writer has read hundreds or even thousands of great SF short stories that came out in the 20th-century. The old stories had a sparkle that’s missing from the new stories. Egan’s tale about two tourists trapped on the Moon after the lunar base loses contact with Earth is an exciting premise. It’s even more compelling when the station’s crew grabs the only return vehicle and vamoose. Like The Martian, we have three people stranded off Earth with no way home, and no radio contact with Earth. Egan even ups the ante by having the main character, Aisha becoming pregnant. Wow, what a cliff-hanger.

I’ve read Have Space Suit–Will Travel many times, and I never get tired of reading about the technical details that face Kip and Peewee. And I loved all the details of Mark Watney growing potatoes. However, Egan didn’t quite make Aisha’s efforts as compelling. But I’m not sure if it’s Egan, or me that’s the problem. I’ve been reading science fiction for almost sixty years and maybe I’m just jaded. Just how many times can a writer make survival in space exciting?

On the other hand, I just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covered stories from 1971, and I found a whole slew of them to love. Why wasn’t I too jaded to enjoy them?

I don’t mean to pick on Greg Egan or his story. Rocket Stack Rank gave it four stars and said it was stirring and exciting. I don’t want to be one of those old guys who complain that science fiction isn’t as good as it was in the old days — but maybe I am. And I know many other old guys who bellyache about new science fiction too. And don’t get me wrong, I liked “This is Not the Way Home” a whole lot better than many of the stories I read in Asimov’s and Analog.

My friend Mike claims modern SF often ignores the conventions of storytelling. He likes a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end structure, including a strong character development arc that ends with emotional insight or an epiphany. And maybe that’s what I miss too.

This story has what I call a retrograde opening. It begins way into the action, and then jumps back in time to explain what’s going on, and then picks back up where the action started. This is becoming a common plot technique — and I don’t like it. It’s generally leaves me befuddled at the beginning thinking: WTF is going on. I guess I’m a linear kind of reader when it comes to plotting.

And newer stories seem to like leaving things out. They don’t want to say something explicitly. I guess the writers want us to infer what’s happening, and that can be cool, but sometimes it leaves me puzzled or assuming false information. In this story I wondered if Aisha was on Mars at first when she glances up at Earth. And I didn’t realize Jingyi was dead or had committed suicide because of the way it was visually described. Describing what a character sees doesn’t always get interpreted correctly. When I reread the story it all made perfect sense, but not with the first reading.

But I also miss something else. I want novelty. I want some kind of new science-fictional concept or insight. Egan gives us a Skyhook but that’s too old and tired, and for me too unbelievable.

Egan sets up an intriguing problem for his story but disappoints me for two reasons. I didn’t buy the technological solution even though it might be theoretically sound — there were just too many lucky breaks lining up one after the other to be believable. But I was also disappointed we never found out why the moonbase lost contact with Earth. We’re not even positive the story has a happy ending. I wondered if it was a sketch that Egan wants to expand into a novel, but I often wonder that about many modern short SF stories. Where’s the rest is how I feel at the end of many stories today. I guess I need closure and modern storytellers prefer leaving the readers with things to ponder. Ambiguity in fiction is good in some places, but not all places. I wanted that landing like Sandra Bullock made in Gravity, and I wanted an explanation of why Earth stopped talking to its space explorers.

James Wallace Harris, 7/22/20

 

 

 

 

Do You Want a Robot Companion?

Have you ever wished you had a robot companion? Your own Robbie, B-9, R2D2, C-3PO or Gort? And I don’t mean a sexbot, let’s not go there. Let’s also ignore the idea of androids. Data on Star Trek is much too humanlike. Can one own a sentient machine? At what point does an intelligent machine need emancipation? Was B-9 an equal member of the crew on Lost in Space?  Was C-3PO salaried?

The problem is we all want a robot sidekick that’s no dumbass, but at what point are we really wanting a mechanical slave? I was shocked by Isaac Asimov’s short story “Robot Dreams” when Susan Calvin murders a robot when she realizes it’s sentient. Asimov uses the word destroyed, but wasn’t it murder? Somehow, Asimov’s robots are smart and useful but not sentient. Evidently, Asimov didn’t want to go there.

But what about the robot Jenkins in City by Clifford Simak? The classic SF fix-up novel City was assembled from several science fiction stories about robots and dogs. The stories are unified with intros that suggest the tales are being told by intelligent dogs and robots after humans have left the Earth. Jenkins was a faithful robot in service to many generations of the Webster family. Did Jenkins get a paycheck on Friday and get Thursdays and Sundays off? I don’t think so. Robots in science fiction often come across as slaves who love their masters. Why aren’t we revolted by that?

Can we ever have robots that cook and clean as well as any hired human and still not be sentient? I imagine any machine that can maneuver around a house and know what needs to be done will have such a complex awareness of this reality that we have to consider it self-aware. But still, wouldn’t it be great to have Alexa evolve into a mobile robot that could do all the household chores, including being a master electrician, plumber, painter,  tile/rug layer, carpenter, and even maintain the HVAC? And, of yes, do windows.

God, wouldn’t we all become such lazy asses? Still, an AI Jeeves would be a wonderful companion. But would that robot Jeeves turn us into Bertie Wooster? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please watch this:

Don’t we really want a robot companion that becomes our best possible friend? If you think deeply enough, don’t we want to own a robot that protects us like a guardian angel, is as all-knowing as God, and do our bidding like a genie (okay, go there, like Jeannie)? Don’t we want to build a machine that does things for us that other people won’t do? And, wouldn’t we want to perfect these mechanical companions until they had superpowers, even supernatural powers? Until they were superior to us?

Shouldn’t we psychoanalyze why we want to create robots? Isn’t science fiction another version of Genesis where we play God, and Robbie is the new Adam? And if you were one of those people that want a sexbot, think about why. Aren’t we really saying that want to replace humans because they fail us in some way or all ways? And isn’t the fear of the robotic overlords really a fear of inadequacy? Or maybe its cynical pessimism, we want to build intelligent machines because we know humans aren’t intelligent enough.

Once we give the work of running the world over to machines, where does it stop? Have you ever read The Humanoids by Jack Williamson? It’s not like science fiction didn’t warn us.

James Wallace Harris, 7/21/20

 

 

What Makes a Great SF Short Story?

At our Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, we’re reading anthologies. We’re currently discussing The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972) edited by Terry Carr. It’s Carr’s first volume of sixteen annual best-of-the-year anthologies he edited after parting as co-editor with Donald Wollheim for World’s Best Science Fiction (1965-1971).

The group has discussed almost fifty SF stories now and I’m wondering what common elements belong to the stories we like best. Most stories get mixed reactions, but some are almost universally loved, such as “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. We’re currently commenting on “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “… And Then There Were None” by Eric Frank Russell.

I’m learning all kinds of things through reading short stories for this group. One of the most important insights I’ve discovered is rereading stories is vital to truly understanding them. The great stories get better, but often stories I once disliked improve, or even become admired. There are many reasons why we don’t like a story. Sometimes they just aren’t very good, but sometimes we’re poor readers and don’t give them their proper due. We often blaze by bits that add great meaning. Some of these stories I’m reading for the third or fourth time over a lifetime of reading that started almost sixty years ago. They are blossoming in ways I never imagined. I realized now that one reading isn’t enough. One reading isn’t even fair to the story. Stories are like a favorite state park, you see more every time you visit, but you never see everything.

I’m also finding great pleasure in reading these SF stories for reasons not related to the stories themselves. The pandemic and politics have made 2020 an exceptionally depressing year, so reading SF short stories is a wonderful escape. But after a lifetime of reading mostly science fiction novels, focusing on short science fiction is giving me a better insight into the evolution of the genre. It’s also fun hearing from other fans of short SF from around the world. Finally, on a personal level, I’m really getting into short SF as an art form. Science fiction short stories are becoming my special interest for my retirement years. I no longer have the energy to persue genuine scholarship but I still have the curiosity of a kid willing to tear a clock apart to see how something works.

The Found and the LostTake for instance “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” It immediately grabbed me even though I’ve never been a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. I read The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven when they came out, but that was half a century ago when I mass-consumed SF without much contemplation. Her classic novels made little impression on me then because I read just too dang fast, but “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” intrigues me now that I read much slower. I liked it so much that I bought Le Guin’s collection The Found and the Lost on Audible so I could hear the story. I can’t help but wonder what was in that story that made me read it twice in three days.

First, I was fascinated by the few details about the Hainish worlds and that culture’s panspermia. That made me look up the Hainish Cycle on Wikipedia. Even though I had read two of Le Guin’s most famous novels set in her Hainish universe I had missed those details fifty years ago. And I remember recently trying Rocannon’s World and not getting into it. Reading “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” this week has made me want to try Rocannon’s World again, and reread The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

Normally, I don’t like book series, or even sequels and trilogies, but I do like the idea of world-building and future histories. Le Guin seemed to be speculating about interstellar travel in a serious way, and that hooked me. Even though Le Guin is famous for her sociological and anthropological science fiction, I was admiring her hard science fiction because she designed a galactic culture based on Nearly as Fast as Light (NAFAL) travel. And she invented the Ansible, a device that can communicate instantaneously across light-years. That concept made me try to picture a conversation between two people, one of which is experiencing extreme time dilation. Heinlein did that in Time for the Stars where he used telepathic twins – one of a spaceship, and one left on Earth. Heinlein suggested that it would distort communication the closer the one twin got to the speed of light. Actually, I doubt an Ansible is possible, but NAFAL might be.

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” the crew of the Gum exists before the Ansible, so they are completely isolated from their galactic empire. They travel 256 light-years but only experience 10 hours and 29 minutes of travel time. I’m not sure, but that might be possible within the laws of Einstein, and such realism makes for compelling science fiction. Here Le Guin asks what kind of people would exile themselves from their own time period and go on a survey mission that will jump them over 500 years into their planet’s future by the time they return.

One aspect of science fiction that I’ve always loved, is it gives me a vague sense of what life on Earth might be like after I die. History teaches me what happened before I was born, and science fiction lets me guess at what could happen after I die. Will humans ever travel to the stars? Especially given we could exist as a species for a million years. Too many science fiction writers and readers have unlimited hope that anything is possible, but I don’t agree. I like science fiction writers who live within realistic constraints, and I believe Le Guin was doing that. That also made me want to read her Hainish stories.

Le Guin’s story doesn’t predict the future, but does does give tiny hints of speculation, especially about what kind of people will really want to travel to the stars?

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” Le Guin suggests only a crazy person would go on a mission that exiled them from everything and everyone they knew. The Gum is crewed by ten neurotic misfits. I thought that interesting too, especially after we read “No Direction Home” by Norman Spinrad about a future where psychedelic drugs are used to erase every kind of psychological problem. For some reason I liked Le Guin’s vision of the future better, where people are still neurotic. It’s not that I want people to suffer psychologically, but I find futures where everyone is beautiful and happy kind of creepy. (Watch the new version of Brave New World on Peacock TV.)

By Le Guin having ten characters with different mental problems it gave her a chance to explore ten different ways of viewing reality. Mr. Osden’s affliction of too much empathy made for a challenging plot problem. And the discovery of a sentient plant kingdom that was only aware of itself was a truly fascinating concept. I love meditating on the fact that most of the universe is probably not intelligent or self-aware, yet evolution makes countless beings that perceive reality differently.

Finally, why did Le Guin change the beginning of the story? I read “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” first in the Terry Carr’s 1972 annual anthology, but listened to a version that had been rewritten years later. The earlier version begins:

You’re looking at a clock. It has hands, and figures arranged in a circle. The hands move. You can’t tell if they move at the same rate, or if one moves faster than the other. What does than mean? There is a relationship between the hands and the circle of figures, and the name of this relationship is on the tip of your tongue; the hands are . . . something-or-other, at the figures. Or is it the figures that ... at the hands? What does at mean? They are figures — your vocabulary hasn’t shrunk at all — and of course you can count, one two three four etc., but the trouble is you can’t tell which one is one. Each one is one: itself. Where do you begin? Each one being one, there is no, what’s the word, I had it just now, something-ship, between the ones. There is no between. There is only here and here, one and one. There is no there. Maya has fallen. All is here now one.

But if all is now and all here and one all, there is no end. It did not begin so it cannot end. Oh God, here now One get me out of this—

I’m trying to describe the sensations of the average person in NAFAL flight. It can be much worse than this for some, whose time-sense is acute. For others it is restful, like a drughaze freeing the mind from the tyranny of hours. And for a few the experience is certainly mystical; the collapse of time and relation leading them directly to intuition of the eternal. But the mystic is a rare bird, and the nearest most people get to God in paradoxical time is by inarticulate and anguished prayer for release.

They used to drug people for the long jumps, but stopped the practice when they realized its effects. What happens to a drugged, or ill, or wounded person during near-lightspeed flight is, of course, indeterminable. A jump of ten lightyears should logically make no difference to a victim of measles or gunshot. The body ages only a few minutes; why is the measles patient carried out of the ship a leper, and the wounded man a corpse? Nobody knows, except perhaps the body, which keeps the logic of the flesh, and knows it has lain festering, bleeding, or drugged into mindlessness, for ten years. Many imbeciles having been produced, the Fisher King Effect was established as fact, and they stopped using drugs and transporting the ill, the damaged, and the pregnant. You have to be in common health to go NAFAL, and you have to take it straight.

But you don’t have to be sane.

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that Earthmen, perhaps trying to bolster their battered collective ego, sent out ships on enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds that had not, like all the known worlds, been settled or seeded by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds; and all the crews of these Extreme Surveys were of unsound mind. Who else would go out to collect information that wouldn’t be received for four, or five, or six centuries? Received by whom? This was before the invention of the instantaneous communicator; they would be isolated both in space and time. No sane person who has experienced timeslippage of even a few decades between near worlds would volunteer for a round trip of a half millennium. The Surveyors were escapists; misfits; nuts.

But the newer version begins

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that the Earth sent ships out on the enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds which had not been seeded or settled by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds. All the Known Worlds went back to the Hainish Origin, and the Terrans, having been not only founded but salvaged by the Hainish, resented this. They wanted to get away from the family. They wanted to find somebody new. The Hainish, like tiresomely understanding parents, supported their explorations, and contributed ships and volunteers, as did several other worlds of the League. 

All these volunteers to the Extreme Survey crews shared one peculiarity: they were of unsound mind. 

What sane person, after all, would go out to collect information that would not be received for five or ten centuries? Cosmic mass interference had not yet been eliminated from the operation of the ansible, and so instantaneous communication was reliable only within a range of 120 light-years. The explorers would be quite isolated. And of course they had no idea what they might come back to, if they came back. No normal human being who had experienced time-slippage of even a few decades between League worlds would volunteer for a round trip of centuries. The Surveyors were escapists, misfits. They were nuts.

Did Le Guin rewrite so this early Hainish story fit in better with later stories? Or did Le Guin decide the opening information wasn’t needed? Does anyone know where Le Guin wrote about rewriting her stories?

I could go on in even more details, but this essay is already over two thousand words long and few people read anything that long online. If you’re still reading and want to join our discussion follow the link at the top of the page.

James Wallace Harris 7/19/20

 

“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 Drawbacks of Collecting Paperbacks

Normally, I don’t buy paperbacks because I find hardbacks, ebooks, and audiobooks easier to read. Not long ago I saw an auction on eBay for a box old science fiction paperbacks, all anthologies. I love SF anthologies, and I love the covers of paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. Failing to resist the temptation, I made a small bid and eventually won. When they arrived, I was happy at first with my purchase. These old books were a  delight to hold and admire for their covers, but trying to read one was altogether something else.

Most of the thirty books looked unread. I assumed this because their outer spines were still firm and unwrinkled. They seemed in great shape for being 50-60 years old, and reading them would probably cause them to fall apart. The few that had been read, had places where you could see the inside of the spine, and I knew if I handled them too much more the pages would start falling out.

Paperbacks don’t have wide margins near the spine, so the spines need to bent to read. Hardbacks have wider inner margins plus they open flatter for easier reading because they have many signatures sewn and glued together. Paperbacks are a stack of trimmed paper glued to a cover to make the spine, something not meant to last.

I wondered if this was an intentional design flaw of paperbacks so they wouldn’t hold up to multiple readings and sharing. Or maybe publishers just wanted to save paper and related costs and assumed paperbacks were disposable like magazines and newspapers. They probably never imagined a person like me in the 21st-century caring about them.

All that is beside the point now that I have a bunch of paperbacks that I want to protect, which means not reading them. To complicate thing further, I really don’t want to be a collector. I love their covers and I want to read their stories, but I don’t want to be a curator of their care.

Collecting paperbacks 2

I’ve been scanning the covers at 600dpi. I like seeing them on my computer’s desktop background — which cycles every ten minutes. I could just read these old paperbacks and not worry about what happens to their condition. But haven’t they become artifacts of the past worth preserving? Shouldn’t I be putting them into plastic sleeves and protecting them from the environment? I’m sure avid collectors would freak out by the way I just shelve them with my books.

I could convert these paperbacks to digital editions via scanning, but that would be against the law. Making them into ebooks certainly would make them easier to read for other people, but would destroy them for collecting. But that would preserve them for the future if I could find libraries that would take the scans. But what if these paperbacks are valuable, if not just in dollars, but to a lover of old paperbacks? I’ve already acquired a number of Groff Conklin anthologies, the start of a collector’s set maybe.

All possessions present a burden. Think of all the crap humanity has thrown away that historians, museum curators, and rare object collectors would dream of acquiring. There is a history behind these SF paperbacks I bought, maybe not a worldly significant history, but a piece of everyday history from the 20th century that might amuse someone in the 26th-century for a reason we can’t fathom now.

Even if I carefully preserve these artifacts of our genre’s past, my wife will probably call Goodwill to have them hauled off when I die. It would be nicer if the copyright laws allowed for scanning them for a library. I could also donate the physical copies to a library, but most libraries don’t save unpopular books anymore. And physical books in special collections might be protected for a while. But it’s rather inconvenient for users to have to travel to remote libraries to read a few pages of an out-of-print volume.

I have scanned items for the Internet Archive, but it’s recently been under attack by publishers. That makes me wary of scanning more stuff. It’s a lot of work to scan a book or magazine and to make it look nice.

Finally, I have to admit that when my generation dies 99.99% of the interest in these old books will die with it. Still, I feel a responsibility to protect my tiny piece SF history.

James Wallace Harris, 6/19/20

 

The 2020 Hugo Award Finalists

It’s summertime again, that period in the calendar where its time to read the Hugo finalists before the awards are announced at the end of summer. I’ve been following the Hugo Awards since the 1960s, but I’ve never attended a Worldcon. I have assumed, if I had, I would have met my people. I’m not so sure anymore. In recent years, as I’ve read the finalists for the short fiction awards, it’s felt like that fandom has left me behind — maybe a long, long time ago.

I want to read science fiction. I don’t want to read fantasy. I have nothing against fantasy, and often the finalist stories that are fantasy are well-told and engaging. Maybe a better way to explain how I feel is by relating a personal experience. Before I got married I used to hang out at Susan’s family home with her parents and brothers. This was usually on the weekend, and they always had golf on the TV. The whole family loved to watch golf, to talk about the players, quibble over the shots, argue their favorite courses, and I had to sit there and watch and listen. I have no interest in golf. I don’t hate it. I’m just not interested. That’s how I feel about fantasy.

I don’t know why fantasy is handcuffed to science fiction. To me, the two are as different as westerns, mysteries, and romances. Why are they lumped together? Why isn’t there an SFWA and an FWA? Of course, SFWA now stands for Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and I have to accept that. So, why not give out Hugos to science fiction stories, and Hobbits to fantasy stories? When I read the finalists for short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels, it feels like apples and oranges are competing.

Maybe most fans are now omnigenre readers, but to me, it feels like rock songs are up against classical music. It could also be philosophical to me. I see fantasy as allied with the supernatural, and science fiction allied with science. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. But also, the two genres have different facing perspectives. Fantasy looks to the past, while science fiction looks to the future. Wouldn’t you say they each have different artistic goals? In that sense, isn’t putting them up for an award like haikus competing with sonnets?

Then there is the confusing issue of writers who blend fantasy and science fiction together. In the past couple of days, I’ve read two of these. The first, “The Quest for Saint Aquin” by Anthony Boucher which uses the faulty logic that if robots believe in God, shouldn’t that be proof for humans? The second was, “How Long the Shadows Cast” by Kenji Yanagawa, about a space explorer who falls in love before a trip that will cause a 250-year time rift between him and his lover. That’s a great science fictional subject, but it gets confusing when reincarnation is brought into the story.

The reason why Saint Aquin is science fiction is the religion is just a belief within the story, but Shadows is fantasy because the reader is asked to believe in reincarnation to make the story work. Fantasy fans will say its only a story, and the belief is only for within the story. As a hardcore science fiction fan, I say adherence to science in science fiction is like the rules for writing haikus and sonnets — following them is part of the art form.

We live in an age where people want to reject science. I see lumping science fiction and fantasy as being part and parcel with this trend to reject science. I’m sure most bookworms will be miffed with me, and say, “They’re only goddamn stories, don’t take em so seriously.” But look at what’s happened to science fiction itself — it’s given up on science too. Most SF fans now accept a dogma that given enough time science can invent anything. They feel that gives science fiction writers permission to imagine anything. That’s heretical to me because that’s the foundation of fantasy.

And to be honest, science fiction has never been that rigorous when it comes to science. But that’s no justification for allowing the art form to degenerate into fantasy.

I’m old, and maybe grumpy. Most readers will think I’m creating a tempest in a teapot. And maybe that’s true. All I know is its no longer fun to care who wins a Hugo. And it’s getting harder and harder to find stories I really admire, even in periodicals that claim to publish science fiction.

James Wallace Harris, 6/9/20

Why Peter Phillips and Mark Clifton?

Recently we offered a new feature on our Classics of Science Fiction database system, where we allowed query results to be saved when using the List Builder feature. On the results page at the top is a link “Download Results” that allows saving to a .csv file. Our log files show this feature has been used 314 times so far.

What baffles the hell out of us is 34 of those queries were for Peter Phillips and 33 for Mark Clifton. These two are not famous science fiction writers. Why the interest in them? Admittedly, it could be one person running these queries over and over. They are the same queries sorted in different ways but on different days. (By the way, these .csv files can be loaded into a spreadsheet which can be endlessly resorted.)

Mike and I are just curious why this is happening. Isaac Asimov and Brian Aldiss have their fans too. Other than that, Heinlein, Simak, and Ellison have had one query each saved. Plus a lot of queries have been saved for the year 1950.

Why? Why Phillips? Why Clifton? Why 1950? I did see that a Facebook page was created for Peter Phillips on April 9th, and a new collection of his work will be published from Wall Road Publishing. I’m looking forward to that. Phillip wrote a handful of exceptional stories a long time ago, however, I doubt many people will remember him today.

We’ve also wondered if some bot is crawling our system. Or maybe a hacker is looking for a hole. If you did these searches let us know why. We’re just curious.

James Wallace Harris, 6/9/20

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

 

A Four Short Story Day

On most days I read one short story — for my Facebook short story discussion group. For some reason, I read four today — two on audio through my iPhone, one from a hardback, and one from a magazine scan on my iPad. The covers above are from their original publications and the stories were:

  • “Installment Plan” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “Ship of Shadows” by Fritz Leiber
  • “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper

The two Simak stories came from the new audiobook edition of I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak Volume One. So far there have been twelve volumes of The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak, and Audible.com has recently released the first three volumes on audio. Currently, ten of the twelve volumes are on sale at Amazon for the Kindle priced at $1.99 or $2.99. I have all twelve. Audible will sell the audiobook editions for $7.49 if you own the Kindle edition. I’ve been really getting into Simak lately, so that’s why I listened to two of his stories today. The narration was excellent.

I was pushed to read the second Simak story, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” because it was intended for the never-published anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, and that was being discussed on two Facebook groups today. I squeezed it in. I wouldn’t say it was a dangerous vision, but it was very dark, about a man Charlie Tierney who has a personality similar to Donald Trump who intended to commercialize a planet by exploiting the inhabitants but the local intelligent life had other plans.

The first Simak story, “Installment Plan” was also about exploiting a planet and its natives, but it was much sunnier and funnier. Again, the local intelligent life has different plans. This story reminded me of Simak’s classic “The Big Front Yard” about an American farmer trying to do business with aliens whose world intersects his farm through some kind of dimension collision. Simak evidently had a thing for interstellar commerce. “Installment Plan” also has robots like those found in the City stories. Simak was also big on robots.

“Ship of Shadows” was a tour de force of weird space fiction, even winning a Hugo Award for Best Novella of 1970 (beating out “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison). “Ship of Shadows” was worthy of that special F&SF issue devoted to Leiber. The story begins with Spar awakening from a drunk hallucinating, but after his head begins to clear, the world he perceives is very strange indeed. Cats talk, people fear vampires, others are addicted to moonmist but where the heck are we? The characters in this story float as if they are in free-fall, but the action is set in a bar called the Bat Rack. The story took work to read but paid off nicely.

My last read of the day was “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper for another online short story group. It’s a rather straight forward adventure set on another planet. Good, but not as impressive as Piper’s “Omnilingual.”

All this short story reading is making me appreciate many new authors, especially Simak, Leiber, and Piper.

I’ve been reading a short story a day and discussing it online for a few weeks now, and it’s turned out to be very rewarding. Cramming four stories in one day is overindulging. I prefer listening to stories if I can find an audio version. Short stories usually run less than an hour, with novelettes running 1-2 hours, and novellas 2-4 hours. I can read them a great deal faster than that, but I enjoy them far more at the slow pace of speech. I can listen to stories when I do my physical therapy exercises, walk, cook, eat, wash dishes, or pursue other physical activities that don’t require thinking. Audiobook narration has been evolving as an art form, and productions from recent years have been outstanding.

I ached to hear “Ship of Shadows” today but could find no audio edition. My inner reading voice is just pitiful. Most bookworms prefer to read to themselves, but I feel I get way more out of fiction when I let a professional read to me. And when I do read with my eyes, I try to imagine how an audiobook narrator would perform the story. I can’t do what they do, but if I read slow enough, I can recall the kinds of techniques they use.

Tomorrow’s discussion story is “Arena” by Fredric Brown. I think it will be the fourth time I’ve read it over the last fifty years. That’s another thing I’m learning — stories improve significantly with rereading. Some stories I didn’t like or thought dull on first reading eventually become stunning works of art on the fourth reading.

All the stories I read today were first readings. I’ve learned something else by reading so many short stories. The highest rating or compliment I can give any story is to say I want to read it again. “Ship of Shadows” is a story I rate that highly.

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/2020