“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #24 of 107: “Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver

Now that we’ve reached the 1950s in our group discussion of The Big Book of Science Fiction, I think we should try and remember the historical context that gave birth to our genre. Although science fiction was part of the pulp magazine tradition of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the American public at large hadn’t discovered science fiction yet. During WWII the atomic bomb and V-2 rockets opened their eyes. In the late 1940s the flying saucer mania got people thinking about invasions from space and aliens. Then around 1950 a flood of science fiction TV shows, movies, comics, paperbacks, magazines, and hardbacks hit pop culture causing the Baby Boomers to grow up with the genre. (I chronicled all this in “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)

Science fiction writers were in the unique position to prepare America and the world for the future. John W. Campbell Jr. was the prophet for the space age urging his disciples to write positive fiction about the potential of the future. Not everyone was so optimistic, but their stories usually appeared in the dozens of new digest size magazines that were part of a publishing boom in science fiction, which competed with Astounding Science Fiction.

“Let Me Live in a House” first appeared in the March 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction, from a group of low-budget magazines edited by Raymond A. Palmer, former editor of Amazing Stories, and creator of Fate Magazine. Ray Palmer was major promoter of UFO fiction and nonfiction, and a legendary nut-ball in the SF world. In other words, Palmer was what Philip K. Dick called a Crap Artist. People now consider John W. Campbell a nut, but we should remember back in the 1950s and 1960s all science fiction readers were consider geeky, nerdy, nutty, and social zeroes. One reason I’m reviewing the BBofSF is to retrace the steps of my philosophical development from reading science fiction. Back then, I was a crap artist much like Jack Isidore in PKD’s Confessions of a Crap Artist, which is my favorite work by Philip K. Dick.

“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver is the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — one that I hadn’t read and one that deserved to be rediscovered and preserved. Chad Oliver is an author I’ve been curious about lately. I read his The Mists of Dawn as a kid because it was part of the Winston Science Fiction series, and I reread that novel last year when I got nostalgic for those old YA SF novels. Recently, I was quite taken with his story “Transformer” and wrote about it in “From Let’s Pretend Literature.” Now with “Let Me Live in a House” I’m feeling a need to read more Oliver. Luckily, several of his novels and collections are available at Amazon for $1.99 each for the Kindle editions.

Chad Oliver is little known today, even Wikipedia doesn’t say much about him. Usually, when people mention him, they mention he was anthropologist. I did find this nice “Annotated Bibliography and Guide” to his work.

Oliver explores two major science-fictional themes in “Let Me Live in a House.” The first is about the brutality of space. This story was written well before Sputnik and the creation of NASA. I was impressed that Oliver predicted that only people with the Right Stuff would become astronauts. He also speculated that space would be psychologically hostile to humans, and the premise of this tale is astronauts will need to take their culture with them to survive. We’re shown four astronauts on Ganymede, living in twin track houses, with two married couples playing neighbors and best friends. This opening reminds me of the kind of stories Philip K. Dick was writing in the 1950s, where people live inside artificial delusions.

The two couples, Gordon and Helen Collier, and Bart and Mary Walters, have been conditioned to think they are living an ordinary suburban life of playing cards and watching TV. The men occasionally monitor conditions on Ganymede from a hidden room but they try not to think about where they are. Gordon is starting to crack, becoming aware that he’s pretending, becoming more and more paranoid. Then one night they hear a strange noise while playing cards:

Gordon Collier walked nervously out of the room, followed by Barton. He clenched his fists, feeling the clammy sweat in the palms of his hands, and fought to keep the fear from surging up within him. They walked into a small hall and Gordon pressed a button. A section of the wall slid smoothly back on oiled runners, and the two men walked into the white, brightly lighted equipment room. 

Gordon kept his hand steady and flipped on the outside scanners. He couldn’t see a thing. He tried the tracer screen, and it was blank. Barton tried the radio, on the off chance that someone was trying to contact them. There was silence. 

They checked the radar charts for the past hour. They were all quite normal—except the last one. That one had a streak on it, a very sharp and clear and unmistakable streak. It was in the shape of an arc, and it curved down in a grimly familiar way. It started far out in space and it ended. Outside—outside in the ice and the rocks and the cold. 

“Probably a meteor,” Barton suggested. 

“Probably,” Gordon agreed dubiously, and made a note to that effect in the permanent record. 

“Well, what else could it have been?” Barton challenged. 

“Nothing,” Gordon admitted. “It was a meteor.” 

They swung the wall shut again, covering the tubes and screen and coils with flowered wallpaper and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. They returned to the living room, where their wives still sat around the card table waiting for them. The room was as comfortable as ever, and the tri-di set was on again. 

It was all just as they had left it, Gordon thought—but it was different. The room seemed smaller, constricted, isolated. The temperature had not changed, but it was colder. Millions and millions of miles flowed into the room and crawled around the walls…. 

“Just a meteor, I guess,” Gordon said. 

They went on with their game for another hour, and then Barton and Mary went home to bed. Before they left, they invited Gordon and Helen to visit them the next night.
 

As Gordon becomes undone we slowly learn how Oliver predicts living in space will be a psychic burden. This reminds me of the brilliant story by Edmond Hamilton, “What’s It Like Out There?” that came out in 1952, two years before this story. Joachim Boaz has a review of that story which is part of a series about SF that shows the brutality of living in space. The 1950s was a time when psychiatry was a popular topic at parties and in fiction, so this makes sense, and besides Oliver was an anthropologist. Space was still a huge unknown, so such stories are an obvious speculation. However, they weren’t common in the genre because most science fiction fans were gung-ho to explore space. These were not the kind of stories that John W. Campbell Jr. would publish.

I grew up in the 1960s readily accepting the faith of a high frontier, a true believer in SPACE. As a kid, I loved Heinlein’s 1950 novel about Ganymede, Farmer in the Sky. Heinlein saw space like Americans in the 19th century thought of the West. His novel starkly contrasts with “Let Me Live in a House,” and had all the positive sentimentality of Little House on the Prairie. I’m not sure I could I would have enjoyed reading “Let Me Live in a House” when I was a teen.

Oliver adds a second SF theme in “Let Me Live in a House,” that was far more common, that of first contact. He applies that same kind of fear and paranoia he did about exploring space to it. It turns out the noise Gordon and Bart hear is a spaceship, and a few nights later there is a knock on their door. This reminds me of the classic Fredric Brown story, “Knock,” based on the the idea of the last man on Earth sits in a room alone and hears a knock upon the door.

When Gordon opens the door a man that looks like the portrait of Bart’s grandfather comes in. Of course, it’s an alien, and we eventually learn it projects a human image because its physical features are two horrible for the humans to witness. Gordon must escape this illusion and overcome the alien in a battle of logic.

In my post about “Prott” by Margaret St. Clair, I talked about the problem SF writers have with first contact stories. Oliver deals with those problems in a number of ways. The alien obviously has great mental powers, even telepathy, and can communicate in English. And we don’t get to know the alien because it disguises itself as a human. Gordon does get to see what the alien really looks like, which is so gruesome that it drives him mad. Remember how Greek philosophers said if we could see the face of God we’d go mad?

Oliver is predicting we won’t be able to live in space, and that we really won’t be able to handle aliens — other than our tried and true method of dealing with xenophobia. Is the reason why this story isn’t well known because of its negative attitude towards space exploration? And did the VanderMeers anthologize it because of its contrarian take? What’s interesting is three of their stories, “Prott,” “Let Me Live in a House,” and “The Microscopic Giants” were first anthologized in Science Fiction Terror Tales edited by Groff Conklin. I wonder if they read that anthology? We have to give both Conklin and the VanderMeers credit for mining stories out of the lesser science fiction magazines. In 1954, Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF were the big three, but there were a couple dozen other science fiction magazines coming out at that time. Have anthologists read them all?

The science fiction short stories that appeared in the 1950s were ones I read in old anthologies I checked out of libraries in the 1960s. From now on, as we progress through the BBofSF, we’ll be reading stories I consumed over the last sixty years, as well as ones I missed. It’s time to reevaluate everything that went into the evolution of my thinking.

Collectively, I’d say people still believe in the John W. Campbell view of the future. We’re still gung-ho on space exploration. But there’s still a chance for Chad Oliver’s speculation to be valid. We might not survive space psychologically or biologically. But we should also ask: Why do we want to go into space? Did the romance of science fiction impregnate those desires into us? We have a lot of stories to read that might help us answer those questions?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/3/21

“The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #23 of 107: “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn

The Liberation of Earth” was first published in the May 1953 issue of Future Science Fiction. It hasn’t been widely reprinted, but it’s been in all the versions of Brian Aldiss’s The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus and it’s in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. I believe I’ve only read it once before, in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I owned a copy Of All Possible Worlds back in the 1960s and might have first read it then, but just can’t remember. For a short time in my adolescence I was into William Tenn because I had found an old copy of Galaxy Science Fiction with “Time Waits for Winthrop,” and that amused me. I remember seeking out his stories, but don’t remember what I read. I recently read Of Men and Monsters and loved it. In my review I made a case that people should try to read Tenn’s only novel without encountering any spoilers — don’t even read the blurbs on the book cover.

I am less taken with “The Liberation of Earth.” Oh, it’s good enough, and fun, I’m just not keen on satire in my old age. However, it might be a problem with presentation. My inner reading voice is not very impressive, especially for sarcasm and other forms of comic snideness. Comedy depends heavily on presentation. “The Liberation of Earth” is a long monologue describing the invasions and liberations by two groups of aliens, the Dendi and the Troxxt, who use the Earth like the U.S. and Russia fought over third world countries for their client states.

If I could have heard “The Liberation of Earth” read by a professional narrator I might have been wowed by all the relevant satire. The VanderMeers really tout its greatness, especially as an antiwar work that was originally inspired by the Korean War. And I do imagine if the people of Afghanistan read this story today they could relate to the “joys” of being liberated time and again.

I think there is another target for Tenn’s satire in this story — science fiction — especially the cherished notion that humanity would be welcomed as an equal partner into a wise galactic federation. “The Liberation of Earth” came out after The Day the Earth Stood Still, so I wondered if it was also harpooning it?

However, there is another issue I should mention. I believe I’ve come to want a certain kind of storytelling, and this narrowing of my tastes leaves me a bit closeminded about other kinds of storytelling. I like stories with characters I can get to know and care about. I don’t have to like them, but they have to involve me. “The Liberation of Earth” only has an unnamed narrator, and not someone we get to know. When Australia is turned to ash it was only an abstraction. If there had been an Australian character we had come to care about, it might have mattered. Like the Australians in the novel On the Beach. The one William Tenn story I do remember well and love, is the novel Of Monsters and Men, and that was because of Eric the Only. I followed Eric through many adventures, and we solved the mysteries of his world together.

I recently listened to The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr. on audiobook. Many of the stories in that collection were exactly the kind I love, with captivating characters, dramatic plots, presented by a very talented professional narrator. I’ve been listening to the Miller stories over the same weeks I’ve been reading The Big Book of Science Fiction, and the contrast is stark. Too many of the stories in the BBofSF just depend on ideas and cleverness, and that’s not enough for me. And to be honest, I can’t believe it’s enough for any reader. However, that’s another thing I’m learning from group reading these stories on Facebook. Everyone likes different kinds of science fiction.

Miller stories are just the right kind for me, even though they aren’t particularly famous in science fiction history, and some of them are a bit weird and strange, even for science fiction. But gosh, they’re great stories, with great storytelling — again, at least for me. Since this collection isn’t even in print at the moment maybe they aren’t the right kind of storytelling for a lot of SF fans. The audiobook I listened to is new, but narrates a collection last published back in 1980. My absolute favorite is “The Darfsteller.” It was first published in the January 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I believe it was the first novelette to win the Hugo Award even though it’s a novella. I’m guessing the magazine version was much shorter. After that three stories are tied for second place as my favorites: “The Lineman,” “Conditionally Human,” and “Dark Benediction.” Although if I listened to the book again I might pick other stories out of the 14 in this collection. And I should probably give a trigger warning that these stories might be offensive to modern readers who expect characters in the past to have 21st-century enlightened views.

I’d really wish the audiobook publishers of the Miller collection would do one for Tenn. In fact, there are many science fiction authors I love who mainly wrote short stories and there’s no audiobook editions of their work. Several of those authors are in print from NESFA Press, including William Tenn. Audible Studios has done one NESFA book that I know of, His Share of Glory by C. M. Kornbluth. I wish they’d do them all. With a good audio narrator I might even love “The Liberation of Earth.” I have found that audiobooks can often get me to enjoy books I don’t enjoy reading.

Many of the stories we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction have been disappointing to some of our membership, but then others in the group have liked them. It’s really hard to judge fiction. It seems the VanderMeers prefer kinds of storytelling I don’t, but like I said, presentation matters. So does mood. I’ve changed my mind about stories because my mood had changed. And then there’s age. I think we resonate with stories differently depending on our age. I don’t remember if I read “The Liberation of Earth” back in the 1960s, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it much better when I was young.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/2/21

“Prott” by Margaret St. Clair

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #22 of 107: “The Prott” by Margarett St. Clair

Prott” by Margaret St. Clair was first published in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and later anthologized by Groff Conklin in Science Fiction Terror Tales in the U.S. and by Edmund Crispin in Best SF in Great Britain. I don’t remember reading anything before by Margaret St. Clair, or by her pen name Iris Seabright, but I have seen both names enough over the years to know she was around. Wikipedia says she published over 130 stories. St. Clair only has one book in print at Amazon, a 2019 collection of 17 stories, The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales, but “Prott” isn’t included. James Nicolls reviews The Best of Margaret St. Clair edited by Martin H. Greenberg that came out in 1985. That collection did include “Prott.”

“Prott” is a first contact story, and St. Clair worked hard to make her aliens alien, which is something I admire. She also focused on the problem of communication, which is another theme I like. The story is told in a frame of two men having drinks and one of them gives the other a diary to read which is the story. It’s from an unnamed academic who had gone out beyond the asteroid belt to study the sex life of the Prott, an alien race who lives in space that looks roughly shaped like poached eggs. We learn of his frustrating effort to communicate with the aliens via telepathy and a threat to humanity. The story is slightly humorous in tone, and the threat is a distant cousin to what Fredric Brown described in Martians, Go Home. It even shares a bit of the puzzle we saw in Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.”

The problem with “Prott” is it suffers the fate of all first contact stories. Writers can describe their aliens in various ways so that they look very alien, and make them very difficult to talk to, but once any kind of communication is establish, it’s hard to wrap up the story without resorting to a gimmick to distract us from the fact we can’t ever know the alien. One of the best first contact stories is “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang filmed as Arrival. That story wraps ups with a time paradox gimmick that is very satisfying. In the Leinster story, the gimmick involves trading spaceships. In The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell we’re left with an spiritual conundrum of why would God do something so horrible to a Catholic priest. “Prott” leaves us with a bit of comic horror. Unfortunately, for me, it was an unsatisfying payoff.

St. Clair builds up a nice mystery about the Prott but leaves the ardent researcher with a frustrating problem he can’t solve. Readers are just as frustrated because we don’t know what —– the —- is either. The release of this up-to-now mostly serious story is to wrap things up with an O. Henry ending. That concluding gimmick wasn’t satisfying for me.

That’s the problem with first contact stories, it’s almost impossible to conclude them in a satisfying way. In the novel Contact by Carl Sagan there is a tremendously long build-up to create the mystery of the aliens until we’re finally dazzled by a show of their powers. In the end Ellie is returned to Earth at the same time she left with no evidence of the aliens’ existence. She’s like Dorothy waking up in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, or any Christian that must claim they know God exists because of their faith. In the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind we finally get to meet aliens, but before we learn anything real, Roy takes off with the aliens in their flying saucers. The gimmick is a sleight-of-hand bait and switch. We’re happy for Roy, but we’re left with nothing.

In fiction where we do get to know aliens they often become like us. In the novels Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky the spider-like alien characters discovered in the first volume become more human in the second volume. Tchaikovsky retries to introduce alienness with uplifted octopi, and a new alien race and ends the second book before we get too chummy with those alien characters. Tchaikovsky does a good job of creating a sense of alienness but the more time we spend with these new creatures the more we have to relate to them in human terms. I believe these novels are popular because his gimmick is to end the story at the right moment.

In “Prott” the less we know about the Prott the more alien they seem. Yet, we never learn what they are, how they evolved, what kind of environment and ecology they live in, how they find meaning, or anything about their social structure. The conclusion is they become pests to us, which is relatable to the reader, and the gimmick. What I wanted was our Margaret Meade like protagonist to observe more customs. We were promised sex. You have to give Philip Jose Farmer credit for being explicit for his stories of alien encounters..

We have always wondered if we’re alone in the multiverse, and if we’re not, what strange beings could exist that we can’t comprehend? It’s an impossible task for the science fiction writer to describe the indescribable. Just look at all the versions of Star Trek and all the aliens we’ve encountered in countless episodes over the decades. In the end, most of the stories are about Klingons and Vulcans who are all too much like us. One reason I believe H. P. Lovecraft was so popular is he invented so many horrible alien monstrosities that we only know from awe and horror. But doesn’t religion use the same gimmick?

“Prott” is another nice try at creating an alien, but really just a minor effort. The reason why “The Martian Odyssey” was so successful, and so well anthologized is Tweel was such a great alien character. Stanley G. Weinbaum hit that one out of the park. The Prott aren’t that interesting. Neither was the structure of how St. Clair told her story, which was closer in style to the 19th century than what was innovative in the 1950s. I know I keep harping on this, but the competition at that time was “Coming Attraction” and “Fondly Fahrenheit.” St. Clair is doing a pale imitation of Poe.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/30/21

“The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #21 of 107: “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean first appeared in the September 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s not a great story, but it’s not bad either. I believe other people must like it far more than I do because it’s been reprinted quite often.

This story has a problem that’s quite common in science fiction stories. Writers get a neat idea first, and then they invent a story to present their idea. Quite often the story is never as good as the idea. Superior science fiction stories have a great story with neat ideas that only decorate the story.

In this case MacLean wonders, what if we had a mathematically formula that could explain how an organization could grow at an exponential rate. What she imagines is a Ponzi scheme designed by a sociologist, and has two professors test it on a women’s sewing club. You can probably guess the ending. But can you guess how MacLean will dramatize this story with plot and characters?

If you’ve read much science fiction you might know where I’m going. Science fiction is full of stories that begin with two people talking about an idea, then we see the idea implemented in a cursory way, and finally, we have some kind of surprise ending. When done poorly, the story usually begins with two characters infodumping on the reader, and that’s the case here. Often such stories involves a contrived setup. In this case, an administrator is putting the screws to a sociology professor to justify his department’s existence. That’s still a relevant real-world problem in universities today, and not just for sociology departments. It’s actually a genuinely interesting problem that we should care about as readers – how do academic programs pay their way? Does society need their graduates? Is the program worth the cost to the university, state, and students? What does the discipline do for the community? I was hooked by this idea as a story problem, and I was anxious to read on.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t pleased with MacLean’s answer. She came up with a good setup, but she doesn’t have anything to say. I don’t mean a Western Union message. Good short stories elevate us with insights. At this point I’m expecting a dramatic story that shows me the value of sociology – something I can understand. We don’t get that. We neither get a true short story, or an understanding of sociology. What we get is a mildly pleasant joke.

Science fiction has produced countless stories like this. A pleasant setup to present a nifty idea. When I was younger being amused by an idea was enough, but I’m older and I don’t have much time left to live. I only want to read 5-star stories, or at least top-notch 4-star stories. “The Snowball Effect” is only a 3-star story. I believe it was perfectly fine for the September 1952 issue of Galaxy, but I’m surprised it was ever reprinted.

Maybe I can explain my harsh attitude with an analogy. I think of anthologies like a generation spaceship designed to save people from a dying Earth. Best-of-the-year annuals are constructed to rescue the best stories of the year. Retrospective anthologies are designed to save stories from specific periods. I believe the VanderMeers have a somewhat different approach. To them anthologies are like the starship Enterprise exploring the galaxy, looking for neat planets and interesting phenomena happening around the Milky Way. They want to make a wide survey that reveals the diversity of what’s going on. From my perspective only a few stories can be saved, so why not the best? For them, lets check out some interesting possibilities.

There’s a great SF story I can use here, “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh. It first appeared in the February 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The setup has the world coming to an end and there’s only enough rockets to save one in three hundred people. Each rocket is assigned a person to pick those that will be saved. Bill Easson must decide who in his small town will go. He knows there are many personality factors to consider and he will make mistakes by picking people who won’t survive the mission, but he still has to pick.

For me, it’s important to pick science fiction stories that can survive the harsh climate of future readers. Like Bill picking people he feels has what it takes to survive on the new planet, anthologists pick stories that have qualities that make them survivalists. All the stories we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction are still readable, I’m just that asshole we see in war movies that tell a squad member they don’t think they’ll make it.

I doubt many 20th-century science fiction stories will be loved by readers in the 22nd-century. I don’t believe “The Snowball Effect” will make it. It’s only marginal in 2021. What bothers me are the stories I believe have a better chance to survive the long haul that wasn’t pick by this anthology. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe I know any better than the VanderMeers. Nobody can predict the future – but we all keep trying.

It’s just there are stories I want to see saved, and to do that they need to be anthologized several more times before the year 2100. Every ship they miss reduces their chance to make it. To make matters more emotional for me, is the 1950s is my favorite decade for science fiction. The VanderMeers have chosen 20 stories from the 1950s, so they like that period too, unfortunately we only agree on two stories at the most. But I have to say I haven’t read all their selections so that number might go up. Four of those twenty stories were from 1952. Here are the 1950s SF stories from The Big Book of Science Fiction:

  • September 2005: The Martian • (1951) • short story by Ray Bradbury
  • Baby HP • short story by Juan José Arreola (trans. of Baby H. P. 1952)
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • Beyond Lies the Wub • (1952) • short story by Philip K. Dick
  • The Snowball Effect • (1952) • short story by Katherine MacLean
  • Prott • (1953) • short story by Margaret St. Clair
  • The Liberation of Earth • (1953) • short story by William Tenn
  • Let Me Live in a House • (1954) • novelette by Chad Oliver
  • The Star • (1955) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Grandpa • (1955) • novelette by James H. Schmitz
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon • (1955) • short story by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger Station • (1956) • novelette by Damon Knight
  • Sector General • (1957) • novelette by James White
  • The Visitors • novelette as by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
  • Pelt • (1958) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
  • The Monster • (1965) • short story by Gérard Klein? (trans. of Le monstre 1958)
  • The Man Who Lost the Sea • (1959) • short story by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Waves • short story by Silvina Ocampo (trans. of Las ondas 1959)
  • Plenitude • (1959) • short story by Will Mohler

Here are 18 SF stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list from the 1950s. These stories were selected because they were most cited by a meta-list system. The number at the end is the total citations the story received. The bolded stories are those that overlap with The Big Book of Science Fiction. By the way, the BBofSF was one of the citation sources.

  • Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber (1950) 11
  • The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth (1950) 8
  • Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith (1950) 9
  • There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury (1950) 8
  • The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (1951) 9
  • Surface Tension by James Blish (1952) 9
  • The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) 12
  • Second Variety by Philip K. Dick (1953) 8
  • The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin (1954) 12
  • Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester (1954) 13
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1955) 14
  • The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) 16
  • The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) 11
  • The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956) 8

This list is closer to my tastes, but probably far from my final list. Below are the 1950s stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One that the SFWA membership remembered. Notice only one story, “Surface Tension” is remembered on all three lists. It would probably be on mine too.

  • Scanners Live in Vain • (1950) • novelette by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Little Black Bag • (1950) • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth
  • Born of Man and Woman • (1950) • short story by Richard Matheson
  • Coming Attraction • (1950) • short story by Fritz Leiber
  • The Quest for Saint Aquin • (1951) • novelette by Anthony Boucher
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • (1953) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • It’s a Good Life • (1953) • short story by Jerome Bixby
  • The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin
  • Fondly Fahrenheit • (1954) • novelette by Alfred Bester
  • The Country of the Kind • (1956) • short story by Damon Knight
  • Flowers for Algernon • (1959) • novelette by Daniel Keyes

These Hall of Fame stories are much closer in agreement with the CSFquery list.

I’m not ready to compose my list of favorite 1950s science fiction stories. I’m still reading. But there is one problem with my focus on the 1950s. I’m discovering stories that I love that currently aren’t well remembered. That’s a bad sign for the survivability. There’s a good chance I could pick 20 stories that few people would even enjoy reading today, much less in 79 years.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/28/21

“Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #20 of 107: “Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is Philip K. Dick’s first publish story and we can already see hints of what’s to come in his future writing. It’s a fun little story with a cheeky horror twist. The wub is a gentle creature who loves to enjoy itself, indulging in food, conversation, and philosophy. I wonder if PKD saw himself as the wub? In the end Captain Franco kills the wub and eats it — and we’re shocked to learn that the wub takes over his mind. I wonder if PKD saw himself in this too, because we read his stories, putting them inside us, and we write and talk about them becoming a little bit like PKD.

Yesterday I wrote about my lifelong addiction to science fiction at my personal blog. I was lamenting that I wasn’t challenging myself much by reading science fiction short stories which I felt were only a couple steps up from comic books. Comments were left defending comic books, but I wasn’t attacking them. What I was implying is art represents different levels of complexity to create and takes different levels of effort to consume. Art is anti-entropic. I was saying science fiction short stories on average require more complexity to create and consume than comic book stories. (I wasn’t considering the comic art in the comparison.) The average science fiction novel takes more work to create and read than the average science fiction short story. But I also believe the best literary novels and short stories are more complex on average than most of the best science fiction novels and short stories.

Take for example the Jorge Luis Borges story we read. Borges was far more ambitious in that story than any of the other stories we read so far. It took more cognitive effort to write, and it takes us far more cognitive effort to read. I was criticizing myself for indulging in mostly consuming science fiction in my lifetime rather than pursuing more active activities, or even consuming more complex art.

But the thing is I enjoyed “Beyond Lies the Wub” more than I did “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” even though the PKD is much closer to comic book writing, and the Borges is far more complex than average science fiction short story writing. I shouldn’t though. “Beyond Lies the Wub” is junk food, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is haute cuisine, relatively speaking. But who’s to say which is superior?

In past years, I believe the average level of complexity of the short stories of The Best American Short Stories annuals were greater than the complexity of science fiction short stories in their annual best of the year volumes for the same years. I would say that if we compared the 2021 annuals from this year, science fiction is approaching the complexity of literary writing, but hasn’t quite caught up.

I also feel that the complexity of the science fiction stories we’re reading in The Big Book of Science Fiction from each period doesn’t always match the highest level of complexity from other stories that could have been chosen. “Surface Tension” is definitely far more complex than “Beyond Lies the Wub” for a 1952 science fiction story, but it is far less sophisticated than “Baby Is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon.

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is a fun story, but it’s far from PKD’s best. Why is it here when there is much better SF from that era? Why did the VanderMeers skip over “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber and “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith both from 1950? These were dazzling stories that began the decade for science fiction and showed a quantum leap over the what was being written in the 1940s. If we had to have a PKD story from the 1950s, why not “Second Variety?” And is the 1950s the right decade for using our one PKD story?

I can think of a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s that are far more complex and challenging than the ones we’re getting in this anthology. But was that the goal of the book? “Beyond Lies the Wub” is fun, and quite often I prefer reading just for fun, so I can’t blame the VanderMeers for their choice if that’s the case.

In my essay yesterday I was basically lamenting I could have done more with my life than read all that science fiction. But it is the art form I chose to admire and become part of my life. And in my retirement years I’ve been focusing on science fiction short stories. And I’m learning that some science fiction stories are way better than others – in my subjective view. However, if we use complexity to measure them, isn’t that less subjective and more objective?

“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester and “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance are far more complex than the stories we’re getting in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Why weren’t they chosen? Bester and Vance were dazzling in their writing. If we’re given a collection of stories that claim to be the ultimate science fiction short stories of the 20th century, shouldn’t they be the most ambitious, challenging, and complex examples? I don’t know. I’m just wondering?

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James Wallace Harris, 9/27/21

“Surface Tension” by James Blish

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #19 of 107: “Surface Tension” by James Blish

“Surface Tension” by James Blish first appeared in the August 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. In 1957 it was published by Gnome Press as The Seedling Stars along with three other pantropy stories by Blish to make a fix-up novel. When the Nebula Awards were being created in the 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction short stories published before the advent of the awards and “Surface Tension” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. It has been anthologized many times. The version of “Surface Tension” in The Big Book of Science Fiction is different from the one that appeared in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It has “Sunken Universe” (Super Science Stories, May 1942) inserted into it after the introduction, which is the way it is in The Seedling Stars. However, the introduction had additional paragraphs not in the Hall of Fame version, and I expect a careful reading of the later sections should show changes too. H. L. Gold was known for editing stories and Blish was known for rewriting his stories, so we don’t know which happened. My guess is Blish came up with additional ideas to add to the story for the book version. I’ve read the slightly shorter version three times before over my lifetime, and a few paragraphs in this version stood out to me as new. Mainly they were about the original crew theorizing about their future pantropic existence.

Lately I’ve been writing about why I disliked a story, but for “Surface Tension” I need to explain why I love a story, and that might be even harder to do. Every once in a while, a science fiction writer will come up with an idea that’s so different that it lights up our brains. Wells did it with “The Time Machine.” Heinlein did it with his story “Universe.” Brian Aldiss did it with his fix-up novel Hothouse. Robert Charles Wilson did it with his novel Spin. “Surface Tension” is one of those stories. It has tremendous sense of wonder.

I’m torn between explaining everything that happens and not saying anything. These posts are all about making comments to our short story club where everyone is supposed to have read the story and we don’t worry about spoilers. I recently read Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn and it was so delicious learning every plot element as it unfolded that I didn’t want to spoil anything for first time readers. I tried to explain why in my spoiler-free review. But I need to talk about “Surface Tension,” so if you haven’t read it, please go away and do so.

As I’ve said before about great short stories, they have a setup that allows the author to say something interesting – not a message, but an insight. The setup for “Surface Tension” is five men and two women have crashed on the planet Hydrot that orbits Tau Ceti. Their spaceship can’t be repaired, their communication system was destroyed, and they don’t have enough food to survive. However, their ship is one of a swarm of seed ships spreading across the galaxy that colonizes each planet with customized humans adapted for each unique environment. This is called pantropy, also representing a kind of panspermia, and anticipates the idea of transhumanism. In other words, Blish has a lot to say with this story.

Because no large organisms can survive in the current stage of Hydrot’s development, the crew decide to seed it with intelligent microorganisms. The seven will die, but each of their genes will be used to fashion a new species of roughly humanoid shape creatures that can coexist with the existing microorganisms of the freshwater puddles on Hydrot. They won’t have their memories, but they will have ancestral abilities. The crew creates these creatures and inscribe their history on tiny metal tablets they hope will be discovered one day by their tiny replacements.

From here the story jumps to the underwater world of the microorganisms and we see several periods of their history unfold. Blish used his education in biology to recreate several concentric analogies of discoveries that parallel our history in his puddle world of tiny microorganisms. The wee humanoids form alliances with other intelligent microorganisms in wars to conquer their new environment. Then they begin an age of exploration that eventually parallels our era of early space exploration. But you can also think of it paralleling when life first emerged from the sea to conquer the land.

One reason this story means so much to me is Blish makes characters out of various types of eukaryotic microorganisms and that reminds me of when I was in the fourth grade and our teacher asked us to bring a bottle of lake water to class. That day we saw another world through the eyepiece of a microscope. Blish made that world on a microscope slide into a fantasy world where paramecium becomes a character named Para who is intelligent and part of a hive mind that works with the transhumans. Their enemies are various kinds of rotifers. However, I know little of biology and don’t know what the Proto, Dicran, Noc, Didin, Flosc characters are based on.

The main transhuman characters are Lavon and Shar who’s personalities are preserved over generations. I wondered if the seven original human explorers (Dr. Chatvieux, Paul la Ventura, Philip Strasvogel, Saltonstall, Eleftherios Venezuelos, Eunice Wagner, and Joan Heath) were archetypes for the microscopic transhuman characters? Blish suggests that in the opening scene:

They take human germ-cells—in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash—and modify them genetically toward those of creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be manlike, and intelligent. It usually shows the donors’ personality patterns, too, since the modifications are usually made mostly in the morphology, not so much in the mind, of the resulting individual.

...

“That’s right. In the present situation we’ll probably make our colonists haploid, so that some of them, perhaps many, will have a heredity traceable to you alone. There may be just the faintest of residuums of identity—pantropy’s given us some data to support the old Jungian notion of ancestral memory. But we’re all going to die on Hydrot, Paul, as self-conscious persons. There’s no avoiding that. Somewhere we’ll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who won’t remember la Ventura, or Dr. Chatvieux, or Joan Heath, or the Earth.”

However, I never could decipher who Lavon and Shar were. Each time I reread this story I notice more details, and more analogies. “Surface Tension” is both simple and complex. At a simple level its just a space adventure tale about exploration and survival. But in creating a fantasy ecology, Blish hints at the deeper complexity of a writer becoming a worldbuilder. And Blish is also philosophical about the future of mankind, reminding me of Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of story that can blow adolescent minds.

“Surface Tension” would make a wonderful video game, or a beautiful animated film.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/25/21

“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #18 of 107: “Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola

“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola is a short piece of satire on household products, but it’s not really a short story. Arreola imagines a device for children to wear that converts their kinetic energy into stored electricity for later household use. I’m terribly sorry that the VanderMeers have included all these historical curiosities at the beginning of their anthology because I worry it will turn off readers from finishing the book. I swear, there are really good stories to come. I’ve talked a lot of people into buying this book, and I fear many of them are thinking, “Harris, you owe me $25 plus tax.”

“Baby HP” was mildly interesting filler but only for a lesser literary magazine that couldn’t acquire better content. “Baby HP” represents a science fictional idea without a story. It’s like the kind of thing writers hate when they meet fans who tell them, “I’ve got a great idea for a story, you write it and we’ll split the money 50-50.” An idea for a story is not a story. Let me illustrate what I mean:

The Algernon Corporation offers a unique product to American consumers. Have you ever wanted to do something significant with your life but lacked the intelligence and talent? Here’s your chance to write that bestselling sci-fi novel, invent that new gadget everyone thinks they need but don't, or maybe finally discover a cure for overactive bladders, or even compose the last great rock album, or work on any other dream ambition that takes the intense concentration and vast intelligence you don't have.

We offer a series of treatments that will triple your IQ within one year. You’ll have three years to burn bright, before returning to your normal self in the fifth year. We feel so confident that you'll succeed that the only cost for this treatment is the promise of sharing the proceeds of your success 50-50 with us.

If you compare the above to Daniel Keyes brilliant novelette, “Flowers for Algernon,” you’ll know what I mean when I say “Baby HP” isn’t a real short story. Clever ideas and philosophical insights don’t make good short fiction. Readers want short stories to have the impact of a novel in a quick read. Not a summary. Short stories run in size from flash fiction to novellas, but for each length there is an appropriate amount of dramatic action required. Stories need to evoke emotions, from the silliest comedy to gut wrenching tragedy. It’s possible to do without human characters, but readers really love characters to care about. All the best short stories capture a moment when someone evolves and the reader shares that insight. You can’t just tell the reader. The short story is a trigger that causes readers to resonate emotionally. The very best stories will fill you eyes with tears, either from laughing or crying.

What Makes a Great Science Fiction Retrospective Anthology?

The membership in our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction, has been getting a bit restless with The Big Book of Science Fiction. Participation has fallen off. I don’t know if that’s because people don’t like the stories, or because the relentless pace of reading a short story every other day is wearing them out. Also, I sense many of our members might not enjoy older SF. I hope enthusiasm picks back up as we get further into the anthology, and into modern times. I know there are some truly great short stories to come.

This makes me ask: What makes a great science fiction retrospective anthology?

The group has read many anthologies together in the past year, and some books have succeeded better than others. A few have even stood out, and I’d say that’s because they had a higher concentration of popular stories. We vote on stories when we finish a book. If only a handful of stories get a majority of votes, we usually see more complaints about the number of disappointing stories. But if the votes are scattered over half the table of contents, the generally feeling is the anthology was a good one.

How readers rate an anthology is very subjective. For me, a handful of great stories can leave an overall positive reaction to the anthology. On the other hand, too many bad stories can taint my whole impression.

I tend to think the group is partial to newer SF, and prefer longer stories, since novelettes and sometimes novellas are the stories that get the most votes. However, a long story that doesn’t work well generates lots of negative comments. My guess is the novelette length is optimal if the content is good or better. It seems it takes exceptional content to make a short story or novella work. Often a short story doesn’t have the length of runway to take off, to catch the readers minds on fire. And frequently a novella stretches an idea too thin, thus provoking boredom.

My hunch is our membership prefers stories from the 1980s on because that’s what they’ve grown up with, and stylistically, stories within the past 40-50 years feel modern. Anything older is often tainted with quaintness, too much simplicity, or sometimes dated by changes in social consciousness.

This puts an anthology like The Big Book of Science Fiction at a disadvantage because it’s mostly filled with shorter works, and a lot of the content is older. It is a challenge for any editor to cover short science fiction over the entire 20th century.

Another factor that makes readers love an anthology is when it contains stories they’ve previously read and loved. There is a feeling of affinity with the editor for sharing an admiration for a favorite story. An editor put themselves at risk if they go out of their way to find obscure, rare, and unknown stories, unless those stories convince the reader they’ve found undiscovered gems. Anthology readers love finding buried treasure. But that’s getting exceedingly hard to do. The territory has been covered countless times, and time is eroding older stories faster and faster.

Not many science fiction fans love short stories, it’s a specialized reading audience that’s fading away. Our SF short story club on Facebook has 566 members, whereas the SF book club has 8,800 members. And only a tiny fraction of our membership actively participate in any particular group reading.

At one time, SF anthologies were very popular, but their popularity has waned along with the SF magazine reader. Original anthologies are still somewhat popular, and annual best-of-the-year anthologies remain somewhat popular. I think this is true because they publish current work. But theme and retrospective anthologies aren’t very common anymore. I wonder if that’s because readers have been burned by too many anthologies that had too many duds? I’ve had friends that told me they tried the SF magazines but didn’t renew because they seldom found enough good stories in each issue. That might be true of theme/retrospective anthologies.

Thus a great retrospective SF anthology is one with a high percentage of impressive stories. But what is that percentage? For me, 25% has to be 5-star stories, and another 25% of 4-star stories. The rest can be 3-stars. But reading too many stories that felt like a waste of time can ruin the whole vibe of an anthology. Of course, this is just me, but from the comments we see, I don’t think I’m alone. By the way, I rate stories I believe worthy of several readings over lifetime as 5-star stories. And any story I read and immediately feel I’m looking forward to rereading it is a 4-star story. 3-star stories are good solid stories I feel no need to reread.

I require less for an annual anthology or original anthology to like them. I’d say only one to four 5-star SF stories come out each year. Thus I only expect to see one or maybe two in any annual anthology. The odds are against even one to appear in an original anthology.

By my reckoning, I felt there are three 5-star stories in the first 20 stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction: “A Martian Odyssey,” “Desertion,” and “Surface Tension.” That’s low for a retrospective anthology claiming to be the ultimate collection. We’ll be voting on the first 20 stories soon, so I’ll see how the others feel. I’ve already seen reviews by some of the younger readers who only gave “A Martian Odyssey” and “Desertion” three stars. That’s another piece of evidence that members prefer newer stories.

I really enjoy older SF, and I was hoping the VanderMeers would have found more older gems I hadn’t read. My guess, as time goes buy, it’s going to get harder and harder to assemble retrospective SF anthologies that cover the entire 20th century because there are fewer old farts like myself that enjoy SF from the entire century.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21

“September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #17 of 107: “September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

The quick take on this story is I wonder why an average work by Ray Bradbury who is famous for many other exceptional stories is included in this anthology. By now, if you’ve been following this series of reviews on the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, you’ll know it’s going to be another self-psychoanalysis session of why I’ve been reading science fiction for sixty years.

I have a love-hate relationship with Ray Bradbury. Mostly love, but after churning out tons of science fiction stories in the 1940s and early 1950s, he seem to abandon the genre. I hated that. And the fact he never quite wrote real science fiction, I also hated that. I love The Martian Chronicles even though Bradbury never took Mars seriously, which I did, so I hated that too. “September 2005: The Martian” was originally published as “Impossible” in the November 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It was retitled and embedded into a chronology for The Martian Chronicles. Later editions changed the title to “September 2036: The Martian.” I assume once we get to the 2030s it will be retitled again, then maybe not, if Elon Musk colonizes the planet before then.

“The Martian” is an emotional story about an elderly couple living on Mars who painfully miss their dead son. Tom died as a teen back on Earth before they immigrated. Then one morning Tom shows up at their house on Mars. We know from previous stories in The Martian Chronicles that Mars was once inhabited, and the Martians have shapeshifting capabilities. This shapeshifting theme was used to perfection in the 1948 story “Mars is Heaven!” I found it less effective in this story, “The Martian.” The lone Martian gets trapped into a human shape whenever it gets near a human because of their need to see a lost loved one. I always considered shapeshifting a fantasy theme, but John W. Campbell used it for his SF famous story, “Who Goes There?” and it was used in the first episode of Star Trek when it premiered in 1966, “The Man Trap.”

Shapeshifting is a very ancient theme in storytelling and fiction. I’m not sure Bradbury’s use of it in this story is very original. Bradbury plays up the emotion by having the Martian appear as dead children to two different couples. Although Bradbury keeps telling us how old and elderly LaFarge and Anna are, but they are just fifty-five and sixty, and that seems funny now. Probably when I read this story the first time in my teens, 55 and 60 were ancient.

Even though I enjoyed “The Martian,” I was also annoyed at it. You get the feeling the Martian colony is clone of some small midwestern town from Bradbury’s youth of the 1930s. Bradbury even admits inspiration from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, another fixup novel of short stories. My theory was Bradbury wanted to be a literary writer all along, but started out in science fiction because of fan friends, and because the genre was easier to break into. Once he achieved fame he moved on to the larger literary world. And who can blame him for not staying bottled up in one small genre? Because Bradbury had a thing for fantasy and horror, his science fiction never quite felt futuristic. He was never a Campbell writer, and “The Martian” feels more inspired by Poe or Collier, than the science fiction of his day.

Don’t get me wrong, “The Martian” is a solid story that is sentimental and moving, with a touch of horror and grotesque, just set on Mars. My situation in reviewing it is compounded by three concerns. First, why is this story in The Big Book of Science Fiction? I still can’t figure out if this anthology is the VanderMeers’ view of the best of 20th century science fiction, or the best of 20th century science fiction after a 21st century reevaluation, or the best stories that aren’t already in in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which has stayed in print since 1970? This anthology only has three stories from the 1940s, and only one from Astounding (“Desertion”). The 1940s was considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I guess its not now. The Bradbury is from a minor magazine, and the other story is by Jorge Louis Borges, who was never part of the science fiction world. Is this a snub of John W. Campbell?

My second conflict is with Ray Bradbury, but I’ve already covered that love-hate relationship. “The Martian” is average-good Bradbury, but far from great. Why not pick one of his standout stories? To me, the obvious choice is “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Maybe I’m putting too much importance on The Big Book of Science Fiction. Maybe it’s just a collection of stories that the VanderMeers liked, and not the important short SF from the 20th century anthology that I expected it to be. I guess I lament that large SF anthologies just don’t come around very often anymore, and the ones that do I put all my hope for preserving the great SF short stories of the past that I love and want to be remembered.

My third conflict is between the fantasy of space travel in fiction and the reality of space travel in real life. This gets especially complicated because my expectations when young are so much different from my beliefs in old age. Let’s say when I was young science fiction was my Bible and I had unwavering faith of the final frontier. Now that I’m old, I’m skeptical about the final frontier, and science fiction is my fantasy escape from an ever harsher reality. When I was young I look down on Bradbury for writing fantasy flavored science fiction, but now that I’m old I admire Bradbury for his quaint sentimental space fantasies, and just ignore their unrealistic and unscientific aspects. In fact, I ache to read The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition (2009) that includes all of Bradbury’s Martian stories. Unfortunately, that limited $300/900 edition is out of print and costs thousands of dollars to acquire used.

Maybe I can explain my problem in another way, although I’m afraid my analogy might offend some people. I recently followed SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission to orbit with four ordinary people getting to play astronaut for three days. Don’t get what I’m about to say wrong. I admire what the private space companies are achieving, and that three day mission was very impressive. But I’m against space tourism. Space is very costly on so many levels, including to the environment. To see the colonization of space has been my lifelong dream, but I’ve changed my mind. If space travel is going to be yet one more way we’re destroying the Earth then any mission should be vital. Turning space into a playground for the rich is obscene. On the days the news followed the Inspiration4 mission, it also showed scenes of 15,000 desperate Haitians huddling under a Texas bridge. The contrast was philosophically heavy.

At first I was very excited about this space mission. When I was young I dreamed of going into space and I envied those two men and two women. But my mind was completed changed when I saw them being interviewed in orbit. This is probably just me, but ordinary people just don’t look like they belong in space, which is the exact opposite of what SpaceX wants us to think. The people from Earth in “The Martian” never looked like they belonged on Mars.

Now that I’m old, I’m not sure if humans are meant for space. Space is perfect for robots, which seem right at home in the extreme environments of outer space and on other planets. I can accept highly trained astronauts who travel into space with a purpose machines can’t yet solve, like repairing the Hubble telescope. But watching ordinary folk goofing off in zero-g and gawking at Earth seem way too frivolous. It trivializes what some humans train for years to do.

There are some Ray Bradbury science fiction stories I love dearly, but there are others I feel took science fiction too lightly, like he was never a true believer in the final frontier. This really shouldn’t bother me now that I’m no longer a true believer myself, but I guess I’m still holding onto earlier resentments.

Reading science fiction at this time in my life and this moment in history feels like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. But it’s my way of reevaluating my life, my 1960s expectations for the future that we’re now living in, the contrast between what science fiction was and what it will become, and the relationship between science fiction and reality.

The collective desire for the space program to get to Mars today was partly inspired by Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers. It’s the ultimate goal for many people and nations. I think we seriously need to psychoanalyze that desire.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21

“Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #16 of 107: “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

“Desertion” and its sequel “Paradise” are from the 1940s, the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. They are also the middle stories from the classic science fiction fix-up novel City. “Desertion” was published in the November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and “Paradise” in the June 1946 issue. If you haven’t read the stories please go read them now because I need to write about the details of each to make my point and that will give away major spoilers.

“Desertion” is the perfect story to make my case that 1940s science fiction was often about the next evolutionary step for our species. In a way, John W. Campbell, Jr. could be considered the Ralph Waldo Emerson of a 20th century transcendentalism, but we call it science fiction. I say that because many science fiction stories from the 1940s and 1950s were about breaking on through to the next stage of human existence. Maybe this desire was inspired by the actual horrors of WWII or the dreaded fears of Doomsday felt during the Cold War. Was science fiction our collective unconscious merely telling us we need to change before we destroyed ourselves and the planet? Or was it just another theme the science fiction muse has always entertained?

The VanderMeers did say in their introduction, “City was written out of disillusion…seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing.” That might be the realistic take on science fiction, that it offers fictional escape from reality, but growing up I believed science fiction’s purpose was to inspire us to create the futures we wanted to build, and divert us away from the futures we feared. In my old age science fiction has become my escape, my comfort food, but when I was young I believed in the potentials it promised. I have to wonder if young readers today find the genre a fiction of escape or hope? But even the one utopian Star Trek is now is about endless conflicts.

In “Desertion,” Kent Fowler has sent many men to their apparent death trying to colonize Jupiter by downloading their brains into genetically engineered creatures modeled on Jovian lifeforms that can survive the harsh conditions of Jupiter. The idea of adapting the human form to an alien environment is called pantropy, and “Desertion” is one of the early examples of the idea being used in science fiction. However, Simak takes the idea even further when Kent Fowler and his dog Towser are converted into the Jovian Lopers. Fowler just couldn’t ask another man to volunteer, so he underwent the process himself and taking his old dog with him. As Lopers, Fowler discovers that Towser is more intelligent than he ever imagined when they begin telepathic communication. The reasons his men never returned to the dome after being converted to Lopers was their minds expanded into a new stage of awareness and they couldn’t stand downgrading into human form again.

Five years later, Fowler does return to the dome in the story “Paradise.” He feels its essential that he let his fellow humans know about this greater stage of consciousness. In this story though, we also learn humanity is facing another crisis point in their development. Superior humans called mutants also exist, as do uplifted dogs, and intelligent robots. When Fowler tries to spread the word that paradise can be found on Jupiter, his message is suppressed by Tyler Webster who wants humans to stay human. Webster pleads with Fowler to withhold knowledge of the heaven on Jupiter because he fears all humans will rush to attain instant resurrection (my words).

“But I want you to think this over: A million years ago man first came into being—just an animal. Since that time he had inched his way up a cultural ladder. Bit by painful bit he has developed a way of life, a philosophy, a way of doing things. His progress has been geometrical. Today he does much more than he did yesterday. Tomorrow he’ll do even more than he did today. For the first time in human history, Man is really beginning to hit the ball. He’s just got a good start, the first stride, you might say. He’s going a lot farther in a lot less time than he’s come already. 

“Maybe it isn’t as pleasant as Jupiter, maybe not the same at all. Maybe humankind is drab compared with the life forms of Jupiter. But it’s man’s life. It’s the thing he’s fought for. It’s the thing he’s made himself. It’s a destiny he has shaped. 

“I hate to think, Fowler, that just when we’re going good we’ll swap our destiny for one we don’t know about, for one we can’t be sure about.” 

“I’ll wait,” said Fowler. “Just a day or two. But I’m warning you. You can’t put me off. You can’t change my mind.” 

“That’s all I ask,” said Webster. He rose and held out his hand. “Shake on it?” he asked.

Simak, Clifford D.. The Shipshape Miracle: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 10) (pp. 83-84). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

“Desertion” is also an early example of mind uploading, a very popular theme in science fiction today. “Desertion” and “Paradise” also assume there would be life, even intelligent life on every planet of the solar system. The City stories are extremely positive about human potential. The collected motif of the City stories is humans have left the solar system and only intelligent dogs and robots remain to remember them, to tell their story. Childhood’s End used that theme too, about humanity leaving Earth for a new stage of evolution.

“Paradise” is also an early story about mutants. After Hiroshima, people feared radiation would create mutations that were either monsters or an evolutionary superior species. In “Paradise,” the mutants are that superior species, ones who are waiting for normal humans to get their act together. Mutants arrange for Tyler Webster to get a kaleidoscope that will trick his brain into opening its higher functionality. The kaleidoscope is like the toys from the future in “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” that trigger evolution in normal human children. Also within the same story is the idea that Martians had developed a philosophy that could trigger evolutionary uplift. Heinlein also worked this theme in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Sturgeon’s classic fix-up novel, More Than Human (1953) deals with mutants with wild talents, and the evolution of a gestalt mind. But this theme was repeated countless times in 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

In other words, “Desertion” is one of the bellwether stories our genre.

There used to be a common pseudo-science belief that humans only used 10% of their brains and we have the potential to unlock the mysterious 90%. This was a common myth in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and probably went back decades and decades. I just checked Wikipedia and found they had an entry on “The Ten Percent Brain Myth” that even mentions John W. Campbell.

A likely origin for the "ten percent myth" is the reserve energy theories of Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis who, in the 1890s, tested the theory in the accelerated raising of child prodigy William Sidis. Thereafter, James told lecture audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential, which is considered a plausible claim.[5] The concept gained currency by circulating within the self-help movement of the 1920s; for example, the book Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain includes a chapter on the ten percent myth that shows a self-help advertisement from the 1929 World Almanac with the line "There is NO LIMIT to what the human brain can accomplish. Scientists and psychologists tell us we use only about TEN PERCENT of our brain power."[6] This became a particular "pet idea"[7] of science fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell, who wrote in a 1932 short story that "no man in all history ever used even half of the thinking part of his brain".[8] In 1936, American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas popularized the idea—in a foreword to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People—by including the falsely precise percentage: "Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability".[9]

The belief was based on the logic that feats of human endurance and mental powers have been displayed by Indian fakirs, hypnotists, yogis, mystics, tantric masters, psychics, shamans and other outliers with esoteric knowledge, and that proves we had all untapped potential. Science has since shown that we use 100% of our brains, and disproved all those pseudo-scientific claims.

Yet, back in the 1940s science fiction writers and readers, and especially John W. Campbell, Jr. believed humanity was on the verge to metamorphizing into Human 2.0 beings. That’s what “Desertion” and “Paradise” is about, and you see that same hope in so many other stories from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s also why John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went gaga over Dianetics in 1950. Please read Campbell’s editorial and L. Ron Hubbard’s article on the subject in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. We look down on Campbell today for believing in this malarkey, but Dianetics reflected the promise of all the stories he had been publishing. Campbell was desperate to quit promoting fairytales for adults and find an actual portal into the future then and now.

Sure, science fiction is fun stories set in the future, often about space travel, aliens, robots, and posthumans, but it also connects to real hopes and fears. The belief humans could transcend their present nature is a fundamental hope within the genre. A modern example is The Force in Star Wars, or the discipline of Vulcans in Star Trek. Clifford Simak spent his entire career writing stories about people who transcend our ordinary consciousness. And is this so weird and far out? We Baby Boomers dropped acid in the 1960s chasing higher states on consciousness, then in the 1970s we pursued all kinds of New Age therapies and ancient spiritual practices. Of course, since the Reagan years of the 1980s we’ve come down to Earth accepting human nature for what it is. We’ve stopped looking for transcendence and scientific utopias, accepting our normal Human 1.0 selves that pursue wealth, power, conquest, war, and commercialization of space and the future.

Reading the best science fiction stories of the 20th is a kind of psychoanalysis of our expectations about the future, both good and bad.

The anthology which up till now has been the gold standard for identifying the best science fiction of the 1895-1964 era is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One which contains short stories, and the supplemental volumes Two A and Two B which contain novelettes and novellas. Volume One holds the top spot at “Best Science Fiction Anthologies” at Listopia/Goodreads. The stories were selected by members of Science Fiction Writers of America in the 1960s to recognize science fiction published before the Nebula Awards began in 1965.

In recent decades I’ve encountered many a science fiction fan who wondered what the table of contents would be to an updated Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume for 20th century science fiction if SF writers voted today. Any retrospective SF anthology that covers the 20th century is essentially competing with that wish. “Huddling Place” another story from Simak’s City was chosen for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, but I’ve known many fans who thought they should have picked “Desertion.” Events in “Huddling Place” are referenced in “Paradise.” But if you look at the table of contents for the volumes One, Two A, and Two B, you’ll see several stories about next stage humans.

  • “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” (1944) – Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
  • “Huddling Place” (1944) – Clifford D. Simak
  • “That Only A Mother” (1948) – Judith Merril
  • “In Hiding” (1948) – Wilmar H. Shiras
  • “The Witches of Karres” (1949) – James H. Schmitz
  • “The Little Black Bag” (1950) – C. M. Kornbltuh
  • “Surface Tension” (1952) – James Blish
  • “Baby is Three” (1953) – Theodore Sturgeon
  • “Call Me Joe” (1957) – Poul Anderson
  • “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) – Daniel Keyes
  • “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) – Cordwainer Smith

The Big Book of Science Fiction covers the same territory as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes, and there is some overlap of contents, but I think it features less of the transcendental science fiction I’m talking about here. Maybe it’s stories are more realistic, but we have many stories to read before we know. But the acceptance of our existing human nature is understandable, because we don’t believe in those kinds of hidden talents anymore. Well, at least most scientifically minded adults. Wild talents and mutants have become the staple of comic book fiction. We have demoted those hopes to the level of children’s power fantasies.

I’ve often said science fiction beliefs replaced religious beliefs in the mid-20th century, and maybe now we’ve become atheists to science fiction too. If you doubt my assertion the SF replaced religion just think of Fowler as Jesus. He had died and was resurrected into a new life in heaven, and his soul has been expanded with great spirituality.

I even wonder if the VanderMeers included “Desertion” and “Surface Tension” for their use of the pantropy theme rather than psychic potential theme? Science fiction has given up on quickly evolved humans, and instead promotes technical transhumanism and genetically engineered Human 2.0 beings.

“Desertion” was probably a Top Ten story when I was young, and it’s still a 5-star favorite in my old age. But I now know there is no life on Jupiter and Mars, and I will never find the kind of transcendence that Fowler and Towser found. NASA probes have shown the solar system is sterile rocks, and nothing like what Simak imagined. Oh, we still hold out for life on Titan or some other moon’s deep ocean, but I doubt we’ll find it when we get there. Thus “Desertion” has become a fond fantasy from my youth, sort of like Santa Claus.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/18/21

Update: I remember people saying we only use 5% of our brains, but research shows the figure used was 10%, so I made that change. I also found the quote from Wikipedia attributing Campbell to promoting the idea.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #15 of 107: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges is not science fiction. Some might call it fantasy, but I don’t think it belongs to that genre either. Oh, it’s a story F&SF could publish, but I doubt it’s eerie enough that Rod Sterling would have used it for The Twilight Zone. By accident, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” speculates about what science fiction does, as if Borges’s story is about a man who stumbles upon the possibility of science fiction and science fiction writers in a world where they never existed.

I don’t think our genre can claim all forms of speculation, even when it speculates about other worlds, other realities, and weird possibilities that are the territory that science fiction has long claimed. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is not genre, but a literary work. Literary writers sometimes accidently wander into our territory, and some even intentionally write a science fiction story, such Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. But in the case of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I don’t believe Borges has trespassed on our property.

Sure, maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it points to a distinction I’d like to make. Literary works are aimed at everyone, science fiction is aimed at science fiction fans. That’s why it’s a genre. Ishiguro and Attwood expect everyone to read their books, not just science fiction fans. And although science fiction writers wished that everyone read their books, they got to know they’re writing for a specific audience. Science fiction is a term used to shelve books separately in libraries and bookstores, to make it easier for its readers to find them. Science fiction is the term printed on books to assure science fiction readers they’ll be buying what they want to read. Branding something science fiction that’s not meant to be science fiction is unfair to both the writer and reader.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a story science fiction readers should like because it’s about playing around with reality, which is what science fiction does, but I’m pretty sure Borges never intended it to be science fiction. It’s almost as if he separately co-invented the concept, but his story is still not quite the same.

By the way, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” reminds me of a charming episode of Nova I saw decades ago about physicist Richard Feynman and friends making an expedition to an obscure unknown country, Tannu Tuva.

Borges is playing on the idea of obscure knowledge and hidden wisdom. His story also reminds me of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. We all want reality to be more than the mundane reality that bores us. We all want to find a hidden clue to esoteric possibilities. If anything, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is another kind of SF – spiritual fiction because it alludes to the magic of the mystical.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/16/21