Deadly Serious Science Fiction

What if we had a special streaming service that showed us television from the year 2050 so we could watch the future unfold on our HDTVs at night. Would we change the way we live in this present? Would we steer towards the news and shows we wanted to come true and away from those that frightened? And what if over time we could see the future change as we changed ourselves little by little. Wouldn’t that validate the reality of those 2050 TV shows from the future?

Hasn’t that been what we thought science fiction has been doing all along?

We avoid committing ourselves because half of us doubt any speculations about the future. What if there was no doubt? What if we knew the future for certain? Would we act decisively? I’m not sure we would. Then what’s the value of serious science fiction?

Science fiction has always encouraged us to rush towards sense-of-wonder tomorrows and run away from scary dystopias. However, most people don’t take science fiction all that seriously, and for that matter, most science fiction never tries to be serious. On the other hand, sometimes a science fiction writer cries wolf. Should we listen?

Back in 1968 John Brunner offered us the deadly serious science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar. I read it in 1969 when I was 17 and I loathed the future Brunner envisioned for 2010. I did not want to grow up to live in John Brunner’s extrapolated timeline. What he foresaw horrified me with its relentless political unrest, ecological catastrophes, but worst of all were the portrayals of constant worldwide terrorism. Brunner’s scenes of senseless violence repulsed me bitterly. I wanted exciting stories about colonizing Mars, so his future wasn’t one I wanted. By the time 2010 rolled around forty-two years later, we all realized just how brilliant John Brunner’s novel had been at speculating about things to come.

No science fiction writer claims to predict the future. No science fiction book has predicted the future. But rereading Stand on Zanzibar in 2010 was goddamn eerie.

The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s deadly serious 2020 science novel about our near future, and it reminds me so much of Zanzibar.

Both novels are hard to read on many levels even if you ignore their doom and gloom. Neither are traditionally structured fiction. Stand on Zanzibar offered a continuing narrative every fourth chapter, but between that narrative were imagined news programs, journals, bulletins, press releases, short stories, book quotes, and readings from a pop culture philosophy called The Hipcrime Vocab by one Chad C. Mulligan. Brunner coined a lot of slang to give his future a realistic flare, which required the reader to pick up the lingo as they read along. Stand on Zanzibar is 582 pages of dense reading. All this puts a strain on its page turning appeal. Nevertheless, this novel has always been the epitome of serious science fiction (at least to me). Now it has competition.

The Ministry for the Future is also hard to read because it does not read like a normal novel. I’d say about twenty percent is the ongoing storyline, while most of the 106 chapters are lessons/lectures in either monologues/soliloquies or Socratic dialogues. Robinson doesn’t try to create the barrage of future pop culture sources that Brunner did. Instead, he writes to educate his reader about the many dimensions of solving problems associated with climate change. It’s not thrilling action, but it is thought provoking. And Robinson works so hard to be optimistic. He wants us to believe we still have a chance.

Science fiction has always convinced its fans that it’s about the future, but it’s not. Science fiction is nearly always about escapism from the today, and sometimes, it gives the illusion that it’s saying something insightful about tomorrow. Every so often we get a SF writer who attempts to extrapolate today’s trends into tomorrow’s catastrophes or marvels. Brunner and Robinson are such writers. In both 1968 and 2020, Brunner and Robinson play Cassandra, warning us we’d better get our shit together because hell is on the horizon.

I want to recommend The Ministry for the Future to everyone, but I must be honest and admit it’s not a fun read. Science fiction has always had a problem with infodumping, and this book is mostly infodumps. I find them fascinating, but most readers won’t. There’s practically no story to this novel other than pondering how to change the world to avoid a climate apocalypse.

But here’s the thing. The first chapter, which is told in regular fiction style, was more effective at scaring me about climate change than anything I’ve ever read. You can read it here. I highly recommend you take the time to do so. If the entire novel had this emotional intensity maybe it would scare readers into changing their lives. Unfortunately, most of the chapters are like this one. Like in Zanzibar, we leave the plot narrative frequently. And when it does return, half the time, it’s more infodumping. The story does get more attention over time, just don’t expect it to entertain like The Expanse books or The Murderbot Diaries.

I am not trying to turn you off from buying and reading The Ministry of the Future, but I am trying to do an honest sales job. Stand on Zanzibar is extremely hard to read too, but I’ve read it twice and want to read it again. I believe both books are easier to listen to then read. Robinson’s book is read by multiple narrators. This helps make the infodumps more dramatic. And since many parts of Zanzibar is supposed to come from radio and TV audio, it’s more natural to hear them than to read them. See if your inner voice can handle this:

Don’t worry, Robinson’s prose isn’t like this, and neither is most of Brunner’s. But Brunner does make a valiant effort to simulate future dazzle. Robinson doesn’t. His work might be called a philosophical novel with lectures, maybe like Hermann Hesse. Thinking about both books I realize I have some questions about science fiction that challenge my lifelong assumptions about the genre.

First, should science fiction attempt to shape the future? Is it hubris to try? Back in the 1940s and 1950s true believers like Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about the glories of space travel hoping they would inspire young people to grow up and build rockets that went to the Moon and Mars. Just because that happened doesn’t mean science fiction can claim it as a feather in its cap, but maybe it helped. I don’t know. But if you read memoirs by most rocket scientists you’ll find passages about growing up reading science fiction.

If in the future we do avoid climate change, will we look back and say science fiction had a hand in getting us to act sooner? There is a sub-genre emerging out of science fiction called Cli-Fi, and once you study its nature you’ll see it has a long history. But is it effective? Is Kim Stanley Robinson succeeding at inspiring his readers to aim at a different future? By the way, he’s written other Cli-Fi novels, so he’s been working at this task for a long time.

One area where Robinson does succeed is defining the problem, but you have to read The Ministry of the Future to see how he does that. Then we need to reconvene in 2050 and discuss whether or not The Ministry for the Future got us to take different paths to get to that future.

But one last confession. I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories and novels, and it has changed how I think, but I’m not sure it ever changed how I act.

James Wallace Harris, 1/23/21

Judging a Book by its Cover

The old advice is to never judge a book by its cover but I often ignore that advice. Especially when it comes to reading science fiction. Oh, I don’t assume a book’s contents or quality has any relation to the cover, but cover art does influence my book buying decisions.

The other day on Facebook I saw the first cover above for Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Hunt Collins and immediately wanted to track down a copy. I had never heard of the book or the author, but I love finding old forgotten SF from the 1950s. I did a significant amount of research on ISFDB looking at the covers to all the editions, and ended up ordering the 3rd cover above. That Jack Gaughan cover from 1965 had just a little bit more appeal, although the first one, from 1956 captures the feel of 1950s SF wonderfully. The middle cover, which also has it visual allure, is from 1961. To be honest now, I wish I had ordered the 1956 edition. I haven’t read the story yet, but here are my thoughts on the covers.

Overall, I prefer the realistic look from the 1956 cover, but the 1965 cover screams 1960s science fiction, reminding me of Samuel R. Delany books I read as a teen. Jack Gaughan did covers to many of Delany’s paperbacks in the mid-1960s. Here’s the larger version from a 300dpi scan I made of the copy I bought. Because I started buying paperbacks back in 1965, the nostalgia triggered by this one ultimately decided my purchase.

However, back in 1965 I was pawing through used bookstores and loved those covers from the 1950s paperbacks too. I really want a copy of the 1956 edition too but can’t convince myself to spend another $10 for a book I already have. But here’s the best scan I found from eBay. The artist is Bob Lavin and it’s his only work listed on ISFDB. But I did find a collection of his work here, including the art from this cover.

And I found this on Pinterest. I wonder why its reversed from the paperback cover?

There’s a lot going on in this painting. Some people are wearing skin tight clothing, while others dress like folks from the 1920s. The book is about two subcultures that vie for control of society. 1956 was the year before On the Road by Jack Kerouac came out, and America was introduced to the Beats (who the country started calling beatniks after Sputnik went up in October of 1957). Could Ed McBain/Evan Hunter/Hunt Collins known about the Beats before they were famous? The Vikes (Vicarions) in the story are hedonists and drug users, so could they have been inspired by the marijuana smoking Beats? Of course, the 1950s was well known for stories about juvenile delinquents and the evils of pots smoking. John Chellon Holmes had written about the beats in his 1952 novel Go, maybe Ed McBain read it.

The Jack Gaughan cover suggests a far future, a more psychedelic era. Although, this 1965 book cover predates psychedelic art I would think.

The middle book from 1961 whose cover is by James Mitchell. It’s his only cover art listed at ISFDB. Like the 1956 and 1965 covers it suggests a far future city, but unlike the 1956 cover, it doesn’t suggest the two subcultures in conflict.

There is another cover, from 1979 by Peter Elson that I didn’t like as well, but seems to capture some of the elements of the 1961 cover above.

All four covers have sweeping curves of a future city skyway. Looking at the covers from the 1961 and 1979 editions I’d imagine a much different story within than looking at the 1956 or 1965 covers, which imply other kinds of science fiction within. I’m hoping when I finally read Tomorrow and Tomorrow it will be like the 1956 cover. Mainly because I like stories about people and society.

I want to imagine a 1950s person imagining a science fiction future while reading it.

By the way, the original hardback, which had a different title, Tomorrow’s World, had the worst Emsh cover I’ve ever seen.

JWH

Wishes Inspired After Reading 400+ Short Stories in 2020

Besides all the anthologies pictured above I read parts of several other anthologies, many short stories from old and new magazines, and many stories off the internet. But this is nothing compared to what professional editors and anthologists read each year.

This experience has transformed the way I perceive and understand short fiction. There seems to be endless ways to construct a short story and just as many ways to give voice to the narrator(s). And although there seems to be a finite number of themes that science fiction explores there seems to be infinite ways of expressing them.

I’m in a short story reading group on Facebook with over three hundred members, and there is no consistent reaction to stories. One reader can claim a story changed their life while another reader will tell us the story is unreadable. Are stories completely subjective, or do some achieve some kind of artistic objectiveness?

All my short story reading has inspired a number of wishes. I know, I’m always wishing for something. Even if I can’t have my wishes come true, I do love formulating them carefully.

  1. I wish I could remember my favorite stories. After reading over 400 stories this year, and a 1,000 in the past three years wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you which ones I loved best? I can’t. All following wishes stem from this first wish.
  2. I wish I had the discipline of keeping a log of everything I read with comments and annotations. It would be an external memory. I know a number of people who do this and it really seems to pays off. However, such effort does require more discipline than I can muster. Can you imagine logging and summarizing 1,000 stories?
  3. I wish I could assemble my own anthologies of favorite stories if I can’t remember them or keep track of them. Unloved stories really aren’t worth remembering, are they? I’ve thought of photocopying my favorite stories and keeping them in a binder, folder, or box. That way I could could reread them easily, or sort them into different orderings – by themes, chronologies, or types. I also imagine myself scanning stories and saving them in CBR/PDF/Kindle collections, but I believe I would prefer holding physical copies.
  4. I wish I could read and write about stories in such a way that I get more out of them. I believe one reading only gets me 20-25% of what the author intended. Multiple readings and writing essays gets me more of what’s there. I doubt I’ll ever achieve 100% reading efficiency, but I could become more proficient than I am now.
  5. I hope I don’t burn out on reading short stories. I’m developing a tolerance, and that worries me. While some good stories are even more dazzling as I learn how to read better, other stories seem even more trivial. And there is a growing middle ground. Stories that are good, but not quite really good. My enjoyment might improve if I put some effort into discovery their hidden qualities. Do I spend more time with such stories, or search for newer stories that are immediately dazzling? There is a downside to constantly seeking more powerful fixes, I burn out churning through mediocre reading.

There is a dynamic to growing old that I’m becoming all too aware. That’s becoming jaded. There’s a wonderful essay I read in the The Guardian this morning, “The joys of being an absolute beginner – for life” that applies to what I’m saying here. It’s about maintaining the mind of being young when learning something new and then maintaining that attitude as you get old. That’s hard to do when you’re body is wearing out, and it’s also hard to do when you’ve done something a zillion times. But what’s the alternative if I give up trying?

Not only must I work on my wishes, but I must also work on the advice of this article.

James Wallace Harris, 1/7/21

From Let’s Pretend to Literature

Why would a grown man write a short story for an adult science fiction magazine about toy people on a boy’s model railroad layout becoming alive and having their own thoughts? It’s one thing for Disney to create the Toy Story series for children that adults enjoy, but it’s really another thing to ask grownups to let’s pretend about toys having conscious minds. Or is it? Wasn’t The Twilight Zone in 1961 doing the same thing in its classic episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” about conscience toys hoping to escape an existential fate? And let’s not forget The Nutcracker or Babes in Toyland. The idea of toys having a secret life has been around a long time. Well, at least as long as kids have been playing let’s pretend, but why has the same theme survived for grownups in stories, novels, plays, operas, and ballets?

Chad Oliver, was an anthropologist who wrote “Transformer” for the November, 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a periodical that prided itself on having sophisticated adult readers. (Online copy here.) I read “Transformer” last night in The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg that was published in 1987. The story was reprinted again for Sci Fiction in 2005 (archived to read online). You can also listen an audio version at Radio Echos online. Finally, you can buy the Kindle edition of Far From This Earth: The Collection Short Stories of Chad Oliver Volume Two for $1.99 to get it and many other Chad Oliver short stories.

Chad Oliver is another dead science fiction writer whose work is slowly fading away. He barely gets a write-up in Wikipedia. A fair number of his books are still in print for the Kindle and most are only a $1.99. My only previous experience reading Oliver was his Mists of Dawn (1952) as a kid back in the middle 1960s, a title from the wonderful Winston Science Fiction series for young adults. I reread Mists of Dawn recently when I was fondly remembering those books.

“Transformer” is a strange little story. Isaac Asimov and Marty Greenberg didn’t want to use it for their anthology of science fiction stories because they didn’t consider it science fiction, but the story got to both of them so much that they had to include it. In my younger days I would have dismissed this story as fantasy because of my prejudice against fantasy fiction, but in my old age I’m more accepting of up front make believing. (That reminds me of a Bob Dylan line, “I’m younger than that now.”)

In “Transformer” an old woman is talking to a person named Clyde, but right at the beginning she also addresses us readers while talking to Clyde:

You might stick around for a minute and listen, you see—things might get interesting.

One more thing we might as well clear up while we're at it. I can hear you thinking, with that sophisticated mind of yours: "Who's she supposed to be telling the story to? That's the trouble with all these first-person narratives." Well, Clyde, that's a dumb question, if you ask me. Do you worry about where the music comes from when Pinza sings in a lifeboat? I feel sorry for you, I really do. I'll tell you the secret: the music comes from a studio orchestra that's hidden in the worm can just to the left of the Nazi spy. You follow me? The plain, unvarnished truth is that I get restless when the town's turned off for a long time. I can't sleep. I'm talking to myself. I'm bored stiff, and so would you be if you had to live here for your whole life. But I know you're there, Clyde, or this wouldn't be getting through to you. Don't worry about it, though.

This is strictly for kicks.

This is Chad Oliver way of saying he knows we’re adults and gives us a wink-wink. Knowing he’s an anthropologist makes me wonder if this story has some kind of subtext about primitive minds, but I don’t think so. I think Oliver is choosing to be an adult and saying, “Let’s pretend.” However, his story of ELM POINT, a crummy toy town on a cheap model train layout in Willy Roberts’ attic is neither fun nor playful, it’s more like an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.

Here’s the thing, we adults, we grown-ups, we mature intellectual beings, play let’s pretend all the time. Just before I read “Transformer” I finished up watching Bridgerton on Netflix, an 8-part miniseries where adult viewers pretend Jane Austen wrote a story with sex and nudity. Our make believe train set town is a film recreation of Regency England, a favorite fantasyland for romance aficionados. That recreation is no more accurate to reality than Willy’s train layout on an old piece of plywood. But we still have fun, don’t we?

In other words, most adults never stop playing let’s pretend either. We just stop needing the toys to jump start our fantasies. That reminds of a Philip K. Dick novel, The Three Stigmatas of Palmer Eldritch, where colonists on Mars shift their let’s pretend from using Perky Pat dolls and layouts to enhance their hallucinations on the drug Can-D, to then use the new drug Chew-Z that doesn’t require toys to shape the hallucinations. I must reconsider what Dick’s novel is saying in regards to what I’ve learned from this Chad Oliver’s story.

Chad Oliver is asking us about our fantasy life being transformed.

Willy Roberts surveyed his model railroad without pleasure. He could remember the time when it had given him a real hoot, but after all he was thirteen years old now. He felt slightly ashamed that he should want to mess with it at all, but it was better than getting kicked around in football by all the big guys in the neighborhood. And Sally had said she was going to the show with Dave Toney, damn her.

I remember getting two train sets for Christmas in 1959, when I was eight. I loved those toy trains, but they were quickly forgotten by the time I was nine. It’s hard to believe Willy is still playing with his at thirteen, but then I watch YouTube videos about guys my age spending fortunes on their elaborate model train layouts.

At what age are we supposed to give up playing let’s pretend? How many people ever do?

I’ll let you read most of “Transformer” for yourself if you want to. This 1954 story reminds me so much of when I was a kid in the 1950s. But Chad Oliver also reminds us that there’s a troublesome side to reality that always intrudes on our pretending. ELM POINT if fake, and poorly made. It has rubber trees and cellophane rivers. Our narrator tells us:

It isn't much of a life, to my way of thinking. You do the best you can, and get up whenever some dumb kid hits a button, and then you get tossed in the wastebasket. It seems sort of pointless.

And later on says:

I don't want you to get the idea that I'm just a sour old woman, Clyde, a kind of juvenile delinquent with arthritis. I'm not, really. You know, a long time ago, when Willy was younger, even ELM POINT wasn't so bad.
...
I'll tell you, though—it's funny. Sometimes, a long time ago, I'd go and sit down by that silly cellophane river and I'd almost get to where I liked it here.

Our narrator and the other denizens of ELM POINT decide to rebel against the tyranny of Willy Roberts, but things don’t go according to plan. After the failed coup Willy decides to sell off his train, layout, and toy citizens. Our narrator ends up in the house of another boy for his train set, but things aren’t as good.

That's right. ELM POINT looks like Utopia from where I'm sitting. Mark Borden, the one that bought me, can't afford a real model railroad set-up, and his house doesn't even have an attic. So about once a week he takes us all out of his dirty closet, sets up his lousy circle of track, and starts up his wheezing four-car freight train. It isn't even a scale model. Big deal.

Things are relative in both reality and our make believe worlds. We hope for better times, and sometimes remember the bad times weren’t that bad after all. We all play let’s pretend when we watch TV or read novels or even just kick back in our La-Z-Boys and fantasize. Could Chad Oliver be asking us to compare our lives to living in a badly constructed model railroad layout?

I’m also reading a nonfiction book, Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen that’s about how our political economy was shaped by the fantasies of rich Milton Friedman worshipping libertarians over the last fifty years. I’m also reading The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction fantasy about the politics of the future after climate change starts killing people by the millions. Both books are deadly serious and ask us to stop playing let’s pretend and do something. But we don’t, do we? Why is playing let’s pretend so overwhelmingly alluring to us?

Am I reading too much into “Transformer?” Did you find something else? The story is haunting even though it’s a simply little fun tale for F&SF. More and more, I’m spending my let’s pretend time by reading old issues of F&SF. What does it say when I knowingly choose a cheap model railroad layout over reality?

Maybe the anthropologist in Chad Oliver is saying something in his story. Maybe it’s a neat little message in a bottle thrown on the ocean of fantasies.

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/21

Vintage SF Short Stories

Mark R. Kelly has come out with a new ranked list of well remembered science fiction short stories. You can view it here. I like to use the word remembered because some people get bent out of shape when seeing list titles with words like classics, great, best, in them. All of us who are in the business of creating lists try to come up with quantitative ways of recognizing which stories are remembered most, and that kind of implies the results are among the best or classics. Ultimately, it’s tracking reader memory. Kelly has an interesting system.

I love all these lists because I love reading old science fiction short stories. I thought I’d compare several just for the fun of it, and help remind people there are lists out there that help find old science fiction short stories to read. By the way, January is Vintage Science Fiction Not-a-Challenge month accord to the Little Red Reviewer blog, and reading short stories count. If you read and review old SF you might post links to their site.

Kelly has a nice feature for his list, a photo of a recent anthology and a link to Amazon where you can buy that anthology. See our “The SF Anthology Problem — Solved” essay for which anthologies have the most remembered stories.

Click on the heading link to see each site’s full list of stories.

Mark R. Kelly’s 10 Top SF Stories:

  1. “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson
  2. “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl
  3. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith
  4. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison
  5. “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke
  6. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke
  7. “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison
  8. “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
  9. “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ
  10. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison

ISFDB Top 10 SF Stories:

  1. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
  2. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
  3. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H. P. Lovecraft
  4. “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
  5. “Dear Devil” by Eric Frank Russell
  6. “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr.
  7. “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin
  8. “Enemy Mind” by Barry B. Longyear
  9. “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison
  10. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

Sci-Fi Lists Top 10 SF Stories:

  1. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
  2. “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov
  3. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
  4. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke
  5. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang
  7. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison
  8. “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang
  9. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny
  10. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison

The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories Top 13 Stories (our list):

  1. “Bloodchild” by Octavia E Butler
  2. “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke and “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ
  3. “Blood Music” by Greg Bear and “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith

4th place ties made our list run longer than 10:

  • “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson
  • “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl
  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
  • “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester
  • “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
  • “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison
  • “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Here is a list of all the lists we used to calculate our list, which include the ISFDB and Sci-Fi Top 100 lists.

So, consider reading some vintage SF short stories this month.

James Wallace Harris, 1/2/21

“Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam

Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam

You can read “Rust” here.

“Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth, and I found it to be quite a moving little story. Humans are already gone or extinct. There’s a tiny, but growing sub-genre about the last robots on Earth. “Rust” was published in the October 1939 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, well before Clifford Simak’s 1952 classic City. That collection of stories featured interconnecting narratives that described life on Earth after humans told by intelligent robots and dogs. Then there was the 2006 film Wall-E about a lonely little robot left on Earth. Most recently on Netflix, there was “Three Robots” as part of the show Love, Death + Robots based on a John Scalzi short story. And I’m sure there’s more.

I’ve loved all these last robots on Earth stories. It’s a shame that “Rust” isn’t a well-anthologized classic. Joseph E. Kelleam is a forgotten writer who published just a handful of stories and short novels. “Rust” was his first published story. It was reprinted in the 1953 anthology, The Robot and the Man edited by Martin Greenberg, and in 1979 in The Great Science Fiction Stories 1 (1939) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. Both of these books are long out of print. Follow the link above to read a scan of the original magazine publication at the Internet Archive.

I have always loved stories about robots, and this little tale about X-120, G-3a, and L-1716 pushed a number of emotional buttons. I have to wonder about that. They weren’t cute little bots, but huge hulking killing machines over twelve feet tall. But it doesn’t take much to like a robot, just watch this video of real robots from 2020 dancing to understand what I mean.

James Wallace Harris, 12/31/20

Deluge (1933) – Forgotten SF Film

I’m finding all kinds of old and forgotten films on YouTube, including some science fiction films I didn’t know existed. I’ve read about the 1928 English novel Deluge by S. Fowler Wright, but never knew it was made into an American film in 1933. According to Wikipedia it was lost for many years, then Forrest J. Ackerman discovered an Italian language copy in 1981. Then in 2016 an English language copy was found. It’s now available on DVD/Blu-ray made from a 2K scan. However, it can also be seen on YouTube. I don’t know if it’s a legal copy or not, but this print is pretty good. There are other prints there that aren’t.

Deluge is a Pre-Code Hollywood film which means it’s grittier and sexier than most old films from the 1930s and 1940s, and that gives it a kind of brutal honesty. However, it’s still an early sound picture, and probably most modern viewers will think the cinematography, acting, and special effects primitive and clunky. It was made by the same studio and in the same year as King Kong. I thought the special effects in Deluge were damn impressive for that era.

Deluge is post-apocalyptic flick where we get to see New York City destroyed by earthquakes and a tsunamis. Martin (Sidney Blackmer) is a married man with two small children who tries to save his family but is washed away. He believes his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and kids are dead and starts a new solitary life by scavenging supplies he stores in a cave and living in a small cabin.

Concurrent with Martin’s story, Claire, a competitive long distance swimmer, has washed up on shore and is discovered a brutish man named Jepson (Fred Kohler) who claims her as his possession. But Claire escapes by swimming back out to sea and washing up on another shore where Martin finds her. They begin a new life together and eventually consider themselves married.

However, Jepson hasn’t given up looking for Claire, and has joined a band of ruthless men who rove the countryside looking for women to rape and kill. Along with all of this, a group of survivors are rebuilding a small town, and Martin’s wife and kids find their way to it.

The big conflict of the story comes when the town decides it must hunt down and kill all the roving males who are capturing their women. It’s not Mad Max, but the story is quite honest about the brutality of living in a post-apocalyptic aftermath. The story even gets nicely complicated when Martin rediscovers that his wife is alive and doesn’t want to give up either woman.

Deluge is only 77 minutes long, but it is a science fiction film from a time when science fiction films were so rare that people didn’t know they belonged to a genre category. Here is Wikipedia’s list of science fiction films of the 1930s. I don’t consider them all science fiction, some are fantasy, and several are the classic horror films from Universal Studios. Plus, many are crude multi-episode serials about Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and similar adventure heros. Science fiction was known as that crazy Buck Rogers stuff back then. The most impressive science fiction film of the 1930s was Things to Come from 1936, and if you haven’t seen it you should. Quite a few films on this list are from Europe.

Ranker has a rather nice list of these old films worth watching, The Best ’30s Sci-Fi Movies. It’s just 34 titles, and Deluge comes in at #27. I plan to watch The Invisible Ray (1936) next with a story about seeing the past by viewing light from the Andromeda galaxy.

I enjoy watching these old films because I like to imagine how people from the 1930s explored science fictional concepts. Some ideas are old, like in Deluge with civilization being destroyed. That’s as old as Noah’s Ark, which predates The Bible. Knowing that light from other stars and galaxies comes from the past is a relatively new concept, and only significant since we learned of the speed of light in the late 19th century. Space travel by rockets is also recent, since the first chemical rockets were built in the 1920s. The word robot was coined in the early 1920s. Many of the science fiction films listed for the 1930s in Wikipedia are based on 19th century novels.

Even thinking about the future in the way we think about the future isn’t all that old. One of the earliest science fiction sound films was Just Imagine (1930). It was considered a musical-comedy about the future.

It’s fun to see how the past saw the future. I always thought it would be a gas if I could travel back in the past and show them films from the future, from our times. Would they marvel or be horrified?

JWH

I’m Having a Problem With Science Fiction – And It’s Due to Getting Older

“Gossamer” by Stephen Baxter is about two women astronauts being marooned on Pluto. Back in 1964 I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel and my pre-adolescent self was thrilled by Kip’s adventures on Pluto. I desperately wanted to grow up and have such experiences too. Now, in 2020 at age 69, the thought of being an astronaut on Pluto seems bonkers. I didn’t really enjoy reading “Gossamer” even though it was a perfectly fine story. However, what’s weird, is I could reread Have Space Suit-Will Travel and thoroughly enjoy pretending to be Kip on Pluto again.

The younger unscientific me wanted science fiction to be real. The older scientific me and wants science fiction to be realistic. Do you grok the distinction? In 1964 I wanted my world to be science fictional. In 2020, I want my science fiction to be worldly. I’ve gotten half my wish, because the world has become very science fictional. However, science fiction has become more fantastic, more unbelievable, even the kind that claims to be based on hard science.

Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing “Gossamer” because we’re reading through The Year’s Best SF 1 (1996) edited by David G. Hartwell. Hartwell also included “Gossamer” in his 2002 anthology The Hard SF Renaissance. He introduces the story in the The Year’s Best SF with:

Stephen Baxter writes in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward. This kind of SF is particularly valued by hard SF readers because it is comparatively scarce and requires intense effort by the writer to be accurate to known science. It produces innovative imagery that is peculiar to hard SF; that sparks that good old wow of wonderment. His novels began to appear in 1991 (Raft); the 1995 novel, The Time Ships, is his sequel, published 100 years later, to H.G. Wells's 1895 The Time Machine. Baxter's “Gossamer” appeared in Science Fiction Age, the most successful new SF magazine of the 1990s. His visions based on science are astonishingly precise and clear and that is what his fiction offers as foreground for our entertainment.

In his introduction to “Gossamer” in The Hard SF Renaissance, Hartwell quotes an interview with Baxter from Locus Magazine:

Looking back, things do change, in terms of influences. When I was young, I was influenced by the greats of the past, Wells and Clarke. When I was kind of cutting my teeth, writing a lot of stories and finally selling stories in the eighties, it was the people who were around at the time, the dominant figures: Benford and Bear in hard SF And now, my contemporaries, roughly: Paul McAuley, Peter Hamilton, Greg Egan. And I’ve met everybody else who s still alive, probably—not Egan, but Clarke and Benford, and Bear I’ve become quite friendly with.
 
With people like Bear and Benford, McAuley and Robinson, who are working off the same material as I’m working from—the new understanding of the planets, and so forth, the new understanding of cosmology (which is maybe more philosophy than science, because it’s untestable), we’re all coming from the same place. And you do have this dialogue, really, a conversation. 

Even though “Gossamer” is from a quarter-century ago, I consider it and Baxter, Bear, Benford, McAuley, Robinson – all the New Space Opera and British Space Opera authors part of a new movement of Hard SF. They’ve yet to become old since I don’t know of a newer movement that has replaced them yet.

The trouble is I don’t find their hard science fiction particularly hard. It’s more Super-Science Fantasy for me. For example, in “Gossamer” people scoot around the solar system via a subway system of wormholes. Yes, mathematicians have thrown out theories about wormholes, but I remember from an episode of Nova, them saying that to open a 1-meter wormhole for 1-second would require the energy of converting the mass of Jupiter into energy.

I believe we’re talking the practicality of counting angels on pinheads. Science fiction writers have latched onto space drives, warp drives, wormholes, and banter them about with a bit of physics mumbo-jumbo and expect us to believe it’s hard science. Come on, this is no more believable than portals in C. S. Lewis fantasies. There are other theoretical interstellar propulsion systems that science fiction writers use — light-sails, ramjets, anti-matter, etc. that are a little more believable, but only if we’re very damn lucky, and a zillion technical issues don’t get in the way, which I expect they will.

As of now, I’m skeptical of any story where the characters go anywhere near a fraction of lightspeed. And I consider any story with FTL as science fantasy. Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same category as The Lord of the Rings to my adult mind. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think there’s a paradigm shift in science fiction by some writers and readers to disavow interstellar travel. My younger self loved galactic empires but my older self has become an atheist to those faiths.

If I had read “Gossamer” as a teenager I would have embraced it thoroughly. But at 69, I’m just not drinking the Kool-Aid. Actually, my Sense of Wonder has switched to Sense of Nostalgia. I delight in old science fiction that was never scientific, but I now admire it for what science fiction once meant to me. I guess it’s easier to find pleasure in old hopes, than finding new hopes in old age.

But It’s Just a Fun Story

I believe there are two kinds of science fiction. 99% of science fiction stories are just for fun. You get your characters into a fix and then get them out. The reader is amused. If such tales need wormholes and space warps to create exciting make-believe adventures, far-out. And that’s cool. And if Baxter intended “Gossamer” to fall into this group, then it’s a fun story.

However, there is that 1% of science fiction where I believe the science fiction writer is speculating about real possibilities, and I can’t help but believe any writer or story that claims to be Hard SF is not in this 1% group. These are the stories I read growing up in the 1960s that imagined technologies and explorations that I expected might come true in my lifetime. Apollo 11 validated such stories. As a kid I believed science fiction promoted interplanetary travel. I also believe we had a real space program because older generations had grown up reading science fiction and wanted to make it true.

The difference between then and now is I used to believe we’d also invent interstellar travel. Growing up has made me doubt that. Growing up has made me doubt a lot of science fictional ideas. I can forgive old science fiction for their hopes, but I’m just ultra-skeptical about the hopes of current science fiction. I keep wondering when will science fiction grow up.

If Baxter is suggesting that leaping around the solar system via wormhole stations will come true in future generations then I just don’t buy it as a story, especially as hard SF. Does that make sense to you? I’m not picking on the story, I’m picking on the science fiction speculation. I guess I’ve just got too old for Santa Claus Science Fiction.

Other Logical Problems

Even if we ignore the wormholes, I have other problems with “Gossamer.” In the story, two women, Cobh and Lvov, crash onto Pluto after unexpectedly traveling too fast in a wormhole. Cobh assures Lvov they will be safe but will have to wait 20 days in their spacesuits to be rescued. That hit me harder than the wormhole as being completely unbelievable. There’s scientific realism, but there’s also practical realism too.

Now this is picking on the story. There just isn’t any explanations for how they could live in their spacesuits for so long. How do they go to the bathroom? How do they eat and drink? How many tons of supplies must they carry around to keep those suits going? Where is the fuel for their scooters? Once the two woman are on Pluto they have no logistical problems, or even any problems with the cryogenic cold. That’s too unworldly for me.

Also, they’re on a scientific mission to study Pluto’s atmosphere. All their work could have been done by robots. If their society can create wormholes, I imagine their robots must be pretty damn spectacular. The worldly way would not involve human exploration of extreme environments.

But there’s one last piece of logic that bugs me. I can’t believe people would really want to visit Pluto in person. It’s like wanting to lounge in a tank of liquid nitrogen wearing a spacesuit. Sure, Baxter speculates they might find life there, but there’s nothing there but extreme cold, gases in cryogenic liquid form, and rocks. My worldliness tells me once people realize what space travel really means, we’re not going to have that many volunteers. In the next few decades as we go back to the Moon and on to Mars, I believe a new reality will be revealed and romantic science fictional notions about space travel will disappear.

When I was young going into space seem so fantastic, but now that I’m older the reality is most of the solar system is bathed in horrible radiations and lethal temperatures. Even Mars, my favorite planet, would be a horrible vacation destination. Oh, there will always be masochistic thrill-seeking explorers, but the practically of indulging such adventures will wane.

When I was young, exploring outer space seemed so romantic, adventuresome, and exotic. I thought the best possible thing to do in life would be to leave Earth. Now, that seems so damn crazy. Everything that’s wonderful and beautiful is on Earth. Maybe getting closer to death has made me wise to the reality of science fiction. Now the beauty of science fiction is remembering what it was like to be young and having those wild crazy dreams.

James Wallace Harris, 12/19/20

The Cold Equations of Thinking Like a Dinosaur

Spoiler Warning: This is not a review, but thoughts for my short story discussion group. We’re discussing The Year’s Best SF 1 edited by David Hartwell, which is currently just 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition. “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly is the first story in the anthology, originally appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction (June 1995). It won a Hugo for Best Novelette in 1996. If you haven’t read “Think Like a Dinosaur,” go find a copy and read it before reading my comments. It’s a wonderful story with plot elements you don’t want spoiled.

It’s hard not to think of “Think Like a Dinosaur” as a retelling of “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The plots are the same – nice girl must be spaced by nice guy because story logic dictates there is no other solution in the story’s reality. “The Cold Equations” is one of the most famous science fiction short stories in the genre. [You can read “The Cold Equations” online at Lightspeed Magazine.] Readers still argue for ways to save Marilyn even though the whole intent of writing the story is to kill her. Godwin’s point is the universe follows laws indifferent to human emotions and sometimes we just can’t save the girl. Kelly uses the same cold equations to kill Kamala. Instead of calling the logic the cold equations, Kelly calls it thinking like a dinosaur. Now this is not an insult to cold blooded reptiles. In the story, aliens that look like descendents from dinosaur type creatures offer to give Earth interstellar matter transmitter technology if they’re convinced humans can live up to the required rules of using it. They are called dinos in the story, and it’s implied they are far wiser than humans.

The main rule say the dinos is no duplicates. As soon as someone is transmitted to another stellar system the original must be destroyed. There’s a hint that the universe will balk at duplicates, but I didn’t find that clear. It might just be an arbitrary rule by the dinos. Maybe they’ve learned from experience that having multiples of the same being running around causes too much trouble. But this is the rule the dinos insist on for Earth to join the intergalactic community. By the way I’m reminded of Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It too applies the cold equations to matter transmitted travelers that seem to reinforce the dinos thinking.

Matter transmitters are rarely the subject of science fiction. The most famous use of them is Star Trek, where I always assumed travelers were disassembled and then reassembled using the same atoms. If you read the article on Teleportation at Wikipedia, that method is called beaming. There is another method called Quantum teleportation, which is the kind used in “Think Like a Dinosaur” and Rogue Moon. In that method, the subject is scanned and reproduced with atomic particles at the receiving site. This means two copies exist after the transmission.

The premise of “Think Like a Dinosaur” is the universe demands we eliminate one copy. Now you can argue with the logic of this, but for James Patrick Kelley’s story, it’s a required truth. And we need it to be true so Michael must kill Kamala, in the same way Barton must kill Marilyn. I’m amused by those readers who trying to find a way out of this problem within the story, or demand that the story should have been different.

Why are such stories created? It’s a horrible premise that disturbs some readers. Do these stories feed some kind of kink in some readers who secretly get off on killing young women? I doubt it. I believe cold equation stories are a tiny subgenre of science fiction where the writer sets up a situation that illustrates being forced to make an extreme decision. Lot in “Lot” by Ward Moore abandons his wife and sons to save his daughter and himself when he realizes not everyone in his family has the instinct to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Lot knew his wife and boys could never let go over the old world, and thus wouldn’t make it in the new one. If you pay attention, you can spot other cold equation stories.

Of course, the real purpose of these stories is for the reader to put themselves in the situation and ask what would they do. Would you put Marilyn or Kamala in the air lock and punch the button that opens the outside door?

There is a TV version of “Think Like a Dinosaur” produced for the 1995 remake of The Outer Limits that perfectly illustrates how the writers and producers of that show couldn’t think like a dinosaur. That botched the ending by forcing additional motivations onto Michael. They also showed him being crushed by his decision. Either they didn’t understand the story, or they didn’t think television viewers could handle it.

I don’t know if Tom Godwin or James Patrick Kelly were offering lessons about reality, or just creating stories with tricked up plots. Robert A. Heinlein always wanted his readers to understand that exploring the galaxy would take guts, with explorers needing to make the tough choices that the universe requires in its cold equations.

On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll ever have matter transmitter technology that can send people, or even large inorganic objects. Like most readers who complain about “The Cold Equations” have shown, the situation where Marilyn could have stowed away should never have been possible. They wail at the unbelievability of the premise. As a person who has often moaned and groaned about unscientific and illogical science fiction I can understand these attacks. However, sometimes you just have to let a story be a story.

p.s.

There are stories where duplicates do happen and the stories reveal the problems of having duplicates. But I can’t remember any of them. If you do, please leave a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 12/9/20

“Death of a Spaceman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

You can read "Death of a Spaceman" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. online at Project Gutenberg or listen to a rather good audio production at YouTube by NewThinkable.

When we love a story, do we love the words, or love what the words point to? With fiction, we’re drawn into some stories and repelled by others. What makes us care for a story? What aspects of the story resonate with our sense of self. (I wanted to say soul, but that’s too overblown, something a teenager would say. What part of the mind/body responds to art?) Most people never go beyond I love it or I hate when reacting to a story. But what is it about a story that we love or hate, what is it that we’re responding to and what is responding?

Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations got me to read “Death of a Spaceman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a story that moved me. How did an old science fiction story affect me emotionally? What words and sentences in “Death of a Spaceman” triggered responses in my sensorium? How can staring at black marks on a white page set off emotions? Would any other series of words that set off the same series of emotions be considered equal to reading “Death of a Spaceman?” Could I reduce that short story to a series of statements that would read like a recipe for setting off those emotions? And if it’s possible to translate the story into a recipe/algorithm? Could I create a recipe that I could use as an outline for writing an emotional driven short story?

Here is a tally of my reactions to aspects of “Death of a Spaceman” that made me like it.

  • Old Donegal (Donny) is a 63-year old man. I’m 69. I seldom encounter old people like myself in stories.
  • Donegal is bedridden, dying of cancer that’s slowly paralyzing his body. It started with his legs and has now worked up to his arms. My body is wearing out too, and I think a lot about the progression of disease and what it will be like to die. In the past couple of decades I’ve known many people that ended up bedridden and dying. I have spinal stenosis and clogged arteries that makes my legs numb at times, and I can imagine it progressing.
  • Donegal’s dying is portrayed very realistic and gritty, and lately I’ve been loving gritty science fiction stories from the 1950s, stories that weren’t anything like stories I grew up reading as a kid in the 1960s, which nearly always featured young protagonists. One word jumped out at me that Miller used, enemas. Poor old Donegal is bedridden, and that’s very degrading and embarrassing, he would need someone to take care of all his bodily needs. And that’s something particular that’s always scared me about with getting old.
  • Donegal is a retired astronaut who regularly flew to the Moon. He worked on the engines, and his work is presented as a mundane job much like an engine room mechanic on ocean going cargo ships. I’m a lifelong science fiction fan and when I was young I wished I could have had a spaceman’s life like Donegal’s.
  • Donegal is doing everything within his limited powers to choreograph his own deathbed scene. My mother did that too. She desperately wanted to die at home and did. Seeing how Donegal tried to control things from his bed made me think about how much my mother must have work to maneuver her own ending. Will I do the same thing?
  • As Donegal connives to get his wife to do what he wants but confesses that the sick and dying must also take care of the caretakers and survivors. I thought that was particularly insightful, especially for an old man who was probably pretty selfish his whole life. Donegal realizes that his wife Martha is suffering too and tries to relieve her of some of her worries.
  • I admired how Miller presented Donegal and Martha pursuing their own goals in this dramatic situation. Martha also pictures how she wants Donegal to die and pushes him to see a priest. I always feel the best fiction presents every character with their own agenda. In the ballet between Donny and Martha we see each of them trying to lead the dance.
  • Donegal and Martha are poor, living in a rented flat, making ends meet off a spaceman’s pension. But they live next to the Keith’s mansion, a rich family that owns the spaceship company Donegal worked for. This reminds me of the movie Dead End (1937) where a mansion townhouse is built right down in the waterfront slums. I guess even back in the 1950s such socioeconomic juxtapositions were possible. In both “Death of a Spaceman” and Dead End, the rich have a party where the sight and sounds spread over the poor neighborhood. That’s quite effective artistic imagery. Donegal by the way, likes hearing the party and the music but worries that it will drown out the rocket blast he hopes to hear as he dies.
  • Donegal is also waiting for his daughter Nora and grandson Ken. He assumes Ken will follow in his footsteps and be a blastman on a rocket run. We learn that Ken is going to disappoint him. This reminds me of my father before he died. He was a sergeant in the Air Force and dreamed I’d take ROTC in college and become an officer in the Air Force. But this was the 1960s, and the last thing I wanted to do. Over the years I’ve slowly learned just how disappointed me must have been.
  • Only Nora shows up. We know that Ken can’t face Donegal. We see Donegal slowly come to grips with this lost hope.
  • We have a couple flashbacks of Donegal at work and home that flesh out his personality for the story. We also learn that the Keith’s have a son, and the party is his going away party because he’s joining the space academy. This sets us up for a very sentimental ending. All through the story Martha worries that the Keiths are disturbing Donny, but he actually enjoys hearing the party and thinking about them. His only worry is they won’t stop the noise in time for him to hear the last rocket take off. Near the end of the day the doctor shows up. I guess in the 1950s doctors still made house calls. The doctor’s role in the story is really to go tell the Keiths about Donegal dying and his last wish.
  • There is quite a lot of content that develops Donegal and Martha as an old loving couple, and I really enjoyed that. And it’s quite entertaining how the priest and Donegal get on in their honest man-to-man fashion when Martha leaves the room.
  • Up until the last moment the party keeps going full tilt noisy, and Donegal gets very worried. Then the music stops. A lone trumpet plays, and Donegal recognizes the trumpeter is playing the music for the lowering of the flag. He realizes the Keiths had this done it for him. Boy did this choke me up, bringing tears to my eyes. I had to go blow my nose.
  • Donegal dies wearing his old space suit boots, listening to the rocket launch. The rich man’s son, the one going off to be a spaceman has the orchestra play “Blastroom Man” after the sound of the rocket launches fades. Donegal died with a grin on his face. Sadly, just after he dies, Ken shows up.

Okay, this is really over-the-top sentimentality, but I bought it all. I don’t think I would have appreciated this story if I had read it in my youth. As I deconstructed the story for my list it’s quite obvious what made me like the story so much, personal connections, emotional connections. And it’s quite easy to look back and see why I haven’t liked other stories in the past. No connections. I have admired stories I thought were beautifully written, had thrilling plots, or contained endless clever ideas, but without generating emotions, those stories were dry and academic, just intellectual feats of prose.

Stand up comics have an understanding of how to trigger laughs. I suppose short story writers have a sense of how to trigger emotional reactions in readers. Did Walter M. Miller, Jr. consciously know what he was doing when he wrote “Death of a Spaceman?” Or is fiction writing mainly the work of the writer’s unconscious mind communicating with the unconscious mind of their readers? Did Miller intentionally contrive every trigger that generated the emotions I experienced?

Is this art, craft, or psychology? Or all three. Amazing Stories, where this story was first published, was mainly targeted to male adolescents back in the 1950s. How did they react to this story? I wonder if I can research that?

Today, Miller is mainly known for writing A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was a fix-up novel based on three short works. Most of his science fiction output was shorter works published in the 1950s in science fiction magazines, and none of those stories were ever very famous. He’s pretty much known as a one-hit-wonder with A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is quite brilliant, especially the first story, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” that originally appeared in F&SF in April, 1955. I’ve only read a handful of his standalone stories. I need to read more and study Miller more closely.

James Wallace Harris, 12/3/20