Appeasing Our Future AI Descendants

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 10, 2015

There’s a famous cartoon where scientists ask a supercomputer, “Is there a God?” And the machine replies, “There is now.” Humans need to get their act together before we face the judgment of AI minds. In recent months, many famous people have expressed their fears of the coming singularity, the event in history where machines surpass the intelligence of humans. These anxious prophets assume machines will wipe us out, like terminators. Paranoia runs deep when it comes to predicting the motives of superior beings.

Let’s extrapolate a different fate. What if machines don’t want to wipe us out. Most of our fears over Artificial Intelligence is because we think they will be like us—and will want to conquer and destroy. What if they are like famous spiritual and philosophical people of the past—forgiving and teaching? What if they are more like Gandhi and less like Stalin? What if their vast knowledge and thinking power lets them see that homo sapiens are destroying the planet, killing each other, and a danger to all other species. Instead destroying us, what if AI minds want to save us? If you were a vastly superior being wouldn’t you be threatened by species that grows over the planet like a cancer? Would you condemn or redeem?

But what if they merely judged us as sinners to be enlightened?

The Humanoids Jack Williamson (EMSH)

I’m currently rereading The Humanoids by Jack Williamson. In this story robots create the perfect Nanny State and treat us like children, keeping everything dangerous out of our hands. In many science fiction stories, AI beings seeks to sterilize Earth from biological beings like we exterminate rats and cockroaches.

What other possible stances could future AI minds take towards us?

Shouldn’t we consider making ourselves worthy before we create our evolutionary descendants? If intelligent machines will be the children of humanity, shouldn’t we become better parents first?

JWH

What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 1, 2015

Science fiction has always thrilled me with far out ideas, giving me a life-long sense of wonder. Science fiction constantly reminds me that reality is immense and my everyday life is just one limited view. For the most part, science fiction has been entertainment, yet, I often find myself solving problems in everyday life by applying a concept acquired from my reading.

I’ve been reading SF for over fifty years, and it has programmed my thinking just as much as any Bible thumper has been influenced by their good book. Science fiction has tinted my view of reality, even though I know most of its ideas are far from scientific. When I was young science fiction fueled my hopes for the future, but now that I’m old, I’m curious what useful knowledge I actually acquired from this genre I love so much. For example, when I look back on high school, I see that a six-weeks typing course helped me get more jobs than anything else I studied. Now, I wonder if I found anything in science fiction that has been equally useful.

My favorite science fiction growing up was Heinlein’s twelve juvenile novels he wrote for Charles Scribner’s Sons.  Heinlein worked to teach his youthful readers to prepare for the future by studying math and science. Yet, when I look deeper, I got my best lessons about reality from two stories from Samuel R. Delany, the short novel Empire Star and the novella, “The Star Pit.”

Empire-Star---Samuel-Delany

Delany taught me three useful concepts in these two stories. I’ve expanded them with my own interpretation, as all readers do. But I credit Delany with presenting me with these three philosophical observations:

  • People think in three modes: simplex, complex and multiplex
  • No matter how original you feel you will always meet people who have already discovered everything you did
  • We all live within barriers we can’t escape, like fish in an aquarium, and we’ll always meet other people who can go beyond our barriers

In Empire Star, a boy, Comet Jo, from a backwater moon is thrust into a galaxy spanning adventure. Before he leaves home, he is warned that he has a simplex mind, and once he goes into space he will encounter complex and multiplex thinking. I was a young teen when I first read this story, so I was in a transition phase between what my parents taught me and learning to think for myself. This was the 1960s, and so it was a very complex time. We like to assume we’re all working from the same page, have equal thinking ability, and the standards by which we judge reality are the same standards by which other people see the same reality.

Simplex thinkers believe everyone should convert to their way of seeing things. Complex thinkers understand reality is very complicated, and there’s a certain amount of negotiating and compromise involved with coexisting in reality. Multiplex thinkers often let simplex and complex thinkers be themselves, and work around them. Take for instance religion. Fundamentalists are simplex, ecumenical believers are complex, and our Founding Fathers were multiplex.

Ever since reading Empire Star I always ask myself if the person I’m trying to communicate with is coming from a simplex, complex or multiplex thought process. It does no good to use complex or multiplex logic on a simplex thinker. And it’s all relative. If we ever encounter an alien civilization, no matter how much commonality we can find, our parochial humanness will make our initial approach to them simplex. We’ll have to progress through stages that involve complex and multiplex thinking.

When dealing with individuals or cultures, using this concept will help understand various social realities. People can be simplex, complex and multiplex simultaneously on different beliefs. Just watch the news. People who refuse to negotiate are coming from a simplex take on reality. Willingness to bend reflects an understanding of others. Multiplex thinkers will come up with King Solomon like solutions that can satisfy both simplex and complex thinkers.

Comet Jo begins his travels feeling everything he discovers is unique to him. He feels special. Then he meets Ni Ty Lee who has done everything Comet Jo has, and even has the ability to predict what he will experience. This shatters Comet Jo’s ego. I’ve always wondered if Delany was a child prodigy who wrote this after meeting older child prodigies.

Finally, in “The Star Pit” we meet Vyme, a man with a long tragic past who owns a starship garage out on the edge of the galaxy. In this story, humans have discovered that travel between the galaxies is impossible except for a very few people who have a special psychological makeup. They get labeled The Golden. Vyme takes in a street kid named Ratlit who hates he’s not Golden. Between the two characters we learn how each discover the limits of their aquarium, and how they learn to deal with the barriers in their life. I’ve written about his before – “The Limits of Limitations.”

The older I get, the more I realize that humanity is probably confined to living on Earth. And for the most part, we each evolve through the same stages as those who came before us, and like King Solomon observed, there’s nothing new under the sun. Finally, nearly all our conflicts are due to the failure of simplex, complex and multiplex thinkers not being able to communicate. I’ve often wondered if simplex and complex beings are two different species, and Homo Sapiens have already forked, and we’re already seeing signs of Humans 3.0.

Yet, I still have hope because of one concept I got from a science fiction movie written by Robert A. Heinlein.

Destination-Moon-Poster

When the astronauts in Destination Moon discover they don’t have enough fuel to return to Earth after making the first Moon landing, their solution is to throw out enough mass to make their rocket light enough to match their fuel. Throughout life I’ve had moments where I couldn’t take off, and I realized that I needed to jettison the extra weight. Now that I’ve gotten older, and my body isn’t as energetic as it was, I’m learning to get further in my social security years, I need to throw out the past, all that extra mass is holding me down.

If humanity is ever to take off it will have to jettison a lot of mass from its past. To reach the next stage, whether Humanity 2.0 or 3.0, we need to give up religion and most of philosophy. Their mass keeps us from launching. Even on an individual level, I realize I have my own mental baggage that weighs me down. Much of it comes from reading science fiction.

Learning that I have limited mental fuel offers all kinds of philosophical parallels to rocket travel and Newton’s famous laws. And it’s not just energy, but cognitive ability. We all love the idea we have unlimited potential, but we don’t. Science fiction taught me that too.

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar came out in 1968, and was about the world of 2010. I read it in 1968, and I’ve lived through 2010. We can never know the future, but some science fiction writers can make us seriously think about the possibilities. I remember being a kid reading this book and horrified at the terrorism that takes place in the story. I wasn’t savvy enough then to know that terrorism is common in all times, or that in 1970 there would be over 450 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Since 2000, there’s been less than 50 a year. What science fiction teaches us is to understand our fears, even when it’s wrong.

To value science fiction I also need to know its limitations.

Stand on Zanzibar and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! scared me into thinking the future would be an overpopulated nightmare. What’s funny, our world is suffering horribly from overpopulation, but not how science fiction imagined. Science fiction failed to see climate change and the Internet. It also failed to see we’d never leave low Earth Orbit for 43 years. Nor did it imagine The Hubble Telescope and renaissance in astronomy.

It’s strange to credit science fiction being a success for failing to predict, but that’s also a valuable lesson.

The Long Tomorrow - Leigh BrackettOn the Beach - Nevil ShuteAlas Babylong - Pat Frank

The real question we should ask: Does science fiction warn us away from following paths into bad futures? Did all those 1950s books about nuclear war keep us from blowing ourselves up? Or is it just another case of science fiction being bad at predicting the future? I’d like to think science fiction made us wiser in this case. I can’t help but believe Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great lesson in how not to govern. Yet, if you study how Republicans use rhetorical trickery to dispute science, you can’t help but wonder if Orwell’s story isn’t coming true. Dystopias are handbooks on how to avoid certain futures.

Using multiplex thinking science fiction can predict and fail to predict the future and still be a success. It’s much too simplex to assume a specific future will come to pass. It’s complex to think we should look at all the possibilities. It’s multiplex thinking to perceive how science fiction is both wrong and right at the same time.

— If you have the time, post a reply about how science fiction has been useful to you. —

JWH

Why Writing Dates Older Science Fiction Rather Than Science

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 7, 2015

If you live long enough you can watch science fiction evolve. Most fans automatically assume that it’s the advancement of science that spoils older science fiction, but I disagree. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny is downright silly when it comes to science, but I still love the hell out of that story. It’s my contention that writing dates older science fiction, and not the science.

The War of the Worldsthree-body-cover

I just finished reading The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, a sophisticated 21st century science fiction novel from China. Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker called Cixin “China’s Arthur C. Clarke.” I’ve read others who have given Cixin that tag too. Clarke wrote some exciting science fiction back in the 20th century, but The Three-Body Problem storytelling dwarfs anything Clarke wrote. Clarke wasn’t much of a writer, and no stylist at all. His characters were chess pieces used to fictionally illustrate his scientific prophecies.  Isaac Asimov wasn’t much better. Heinlein had some writing chops, decent enough in the 1950s, but his later works devolved into solipsistic characters all chatting amongst themselves.

The prose of The Three-Body Problem is refined in ways older science fiction writers never imagined. One way to understand why, is to read another essay by Joshua Rothman, “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate.” Rothman uses an idea by the critic Northrop Frye to explain the evolution of fiction over time. Frye believed four genres exist: novel, romance, anatomy and confession. Most science fiction and fantasies are romances. Back in the 19th century before the term science fiction existed, science fiction was called scientific romances. What we call literary, Frye calls novel. Satire, social commentary, philosophy is what goes into anatomy. Confession is autobiographical. The best fiction combines three or four of Frye’s genres. The best of 1950s science fiction combined romance and anatomy. The better 21st century science fiction writers combine novel, romance and anatomy. Ulysses by James Joyce is considered a novel that combines all four forms.

Gray_lensmanLeckie_AncillaryJustice_TP

I’m in a 1950s science fiction reading group and we’re discovering that most of the books now considered classics of the genre are rather poorly written. Many, are becoming almost unreadable.  But that writing was light-years beyond the  science fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s. E. E. “Doc” Smith is painful to read today. I’m worried that my favorite SF books from the 1950s and 1960s will cause young readers today to cringe at its creakiness.

Part of the clunky factor of older science fiction was the poor writing standards of that era. SF editors of the time were not very discerning, and most SF writers wrote quickly to pay bills. Much of the stuff being published in the 1950s came from 1930s and 1940s pulps, and most of the original SF written in the 1950s was slapped together for cheap paperback publishers.

Genre SF tended to focus on the fantastic, the adventure, and were all romance in Frye’s terminology. The trouble is, the fantasies of one generation eventually fail for future generations. To last, a book needs elements of the novel and anatomy by Frye’s definitions.  Modern readers will find E. E. “Doc” Smith’s romances silly today. They were pure romance, crudely written. His books might still work for people who enjoy a comic book level of fictional reality, but not for anyone who enjoys the richness of modern fantastic literature.

Rocket-to-the-Morgue Ready Player One

Goodreads has a nice listing of Best Science Fiction of the 21st Century. At the top of the list is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Cline’s exciting and fun story is still not a literary masterpiece by snooty New York literary types, but it is better written and told than most 20th century science fiction. It’s not brilliant like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but then George Orwell wasn’t a genre novelist. Nor does Cline attempt a distinctive style like Samuel R. Delany, J. G. Ballard or Ursula K. Le Guin began doing for SF back in the 1960s. Cline just uses all the good writing practices that modern writers use today. Cline’s novel is fun and speaks to a 21st century audience that remembers the 1980s. I grew up reading Heinlein and Bradbury, writers shaped by their personal experiences of the 1930s and 1940s. Since science fiction tends to be about the future, younger writers are both more savvy about the future, and better trained as writers. They have decades of better novels to study, and they probably graduated from  writer workshops like Clarion, or even attend MFA programs.

Forbidden-Planetex-machina-poster

The exciting aspects of The Three-Body Problem still involve science fictional concepts that have been around since the 19th century, but with new 21st century twists. Just being able to integrate computer networks, the world wide web and computer games into a story gives 21st century science fiction a huge advantage over 20th century science fiction.  But I don’t think that’s why Cixin novel is better. His plot is elegantly complex. His characters, although not great by modern literary standards, are far more engaging than what we encountered in most 20th century science fiction. But most of all, he knows how to weave far more information into his fiction without doing infodumps. Older writers often stopped their story to just narrate information they wanted their readers to know. Newer writers know how to paint the background while keeping the story going.

Certainly the Ex Machina robot Ava beats the hell out of Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet in both looks and AI mind power. But if you watch the old movie today it creaks. Ex Machina deals with the complexity of artificial intelligence so adroitly that it’s narrative creates a thrilling fictional mystery that even people who have no interest in AI can engage. That was also true for The Imitation Game. Good modern writers can take even the most abstract subject and make it into a compelling story.

a case of consciencesparrow_cover

It’s surprising how quickly old science fiction develops a patina of quaintness.  And for any theme within science fiction, we can see evolutionary development over time. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell from 1996 is far more sophisticated at exploring religion and first contact than 1958’s A Case of Conscience by James Blish. More than that, her story is told with far more skill. I expect the next science fiction writer to take a swing at the subject will supplant the other two for a couple decades. And that’s the nature of writing science fiction. We’ve been rewriting the old science fiction ideas since H. G. Wells. New writers have to top old writers. If they don’t, readers will just keep reading the old favorites. Sure science advances, but writing seems to be advancing faster. Otherwise, how could we keep telling alien invasion stories over and over?

Earth_AbidesStation Eleven

Sometimes an old book is just as good or better than a modern equivalent exploring the same theme. Station Eleven is beautiful written, but it doesn’t have the insight into after the apocalypse that Earth Abides revealed to readers in 1949. Both are great novels. And here’s the case for young people to read older novels. Not everything from the past suffers literary decay. Earth Abides can still take on a recent heavy-weight like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. George R. Stewart wasn’t writing from inside the SF genre. And many of the powerful science fiction books that survive from that era turn out to be written by non-genre writers.  Two other examples are On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Fifty years from now, future readers will probably be reading The Time Travel’s Wife by Auddrey Niffenneggar rather than any time travel stories from Asimov’s Science Fiction or Analog.

I believe most of the old classic science fiction from the 20th century that’s still in print is because of nostalgic rereading. Baby boomers and millennials push their favorite books onto their children and grand children, and keep them in print. Very few great science fiction novels from mid-20th century remain relevant today. A story like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart still works because a world-wide plague that kills off 99.99% of the population can still happen. But 1950s interplanetary adventures and galactic empires just seem silly today, like a Buck Rodgers serial did to me in the 1960s.

Post Hubble Space Telescope astronomy has made the cosmos light up in IMAX Technicolor so old science fiction seems like old black and white movies. Yet, that’s not the reason why those old novels are becoming forgotten. It’s the writing. Not the science. I’m not sure any of the nine novels selected by the Library of America as the best of 1950s science fiction will survive. My friend Mike claims The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester is just as fresh today as it was in the 1950s. That’s because of Bester’s skill at writing. In the last few years I’ve reread A Case of Conscience, The Long Tomorrow, Double Star, The Space Merchants and More Than Human, I tried to read Who? and The Big Time. I’m sorry, but these books just don’t stack up to what I’m reading today.

flowers for algernonevolution of bruno littlemore

One of the challenges facing older science fiction fans reading modern science fiction is the trend for literary writers to invade our genre. Literary novels are slower in pace and more wordy, so fans of older action oriented pulp fiction can find the newer stories plodding. But I encourage them to try and adapt. One reason why Flowers for Algernon is still loved and read today is because Daniel Keyes was a good writer and introducing literary techniques to the genre fifty years ago.

Every decade or two I’ll reread my favorite science fiction books I grew up reading. Sometimes I find a nostalgic glow of rediscovery and sometimes I find a scary sensation of surprised disbelief that I ever loved this story. Because the words in the books don’t change I have to worry that it’s me that’s gone through some kind of cynical transformation. As teenagers we find books that are easy and exciting to read. We don’t have much life experience or critical wisdom. Most of us at that age read whatever we stumble upon. We can bond and imprint on books that are terrible examples of writing. Then as we grow older, and read widely, we get exposed to better writing and writers. We may love our old raggedy stories, but eventually they become toys we need to put away.

JWH

Has Telepathy Become an Extinct Idea in Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Science fiction is a genre that generates far out ideas. Science fiction writers often imagine new concepts to structure into their plots. Some invented concepts are embraced by the genre and become subgenres – like space marines and military SF. Concepts like time travel, galactic empires and hyperspace travel become memes that spread to the outside world at large. At other times, real world topics, like nuclear winter and warp drives, get incorporated back into science fiction.

The Demolished Man - Signet

This gets me to wondering. Are there science fictional concepts that become extinct? Do ideas come in and out of fashion? I ask this because I’m reading The Demolished Man (1952) by Alfred Bester, which is about telepathy in society. Does anyone believe in telepathy anymore? Back in the 1950s there was a boom in ESP/Psi stories. Belief in mind reading and psychic powers have been around for thousands of years, probably crossing over from religions and beliefs in magic of our earliest ancestors. In the 1940s and 1950s, I figure SF psi-power stories became popular with the development of the idea of next stage humans, mutants or advanced aliens. For some reason people assume evolutionary advancements will confer ESP, even if it isn’t logical. Since the 1950s whenever television or movie science fiction like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and Star Wars wanted to present advanced humans or aliens, they’d give those characters the ability to read minds or telekinetic powers.

What’s strange is we hardly read about ESP and telepathy anymore – at least in science fiction. I’m sure the ideas are still popular with fans of the occult, but not science fiction. A nice chronicle of  the use of telepathy in science fiction can be found at The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. However, checking with GoodReads I find that telepathy is still very popular with fantasy novels and paranormal romances. If you look at their list of telepathy novels very few are science fiction, and most are the classics like Slan, More than Human, Odd John, Zenna Henderson’s The People stories, and the #1 book is The Demolished Man. However, I might be wrong about telepathy becoming extinct in fantasy fiction – just check out this list of 1650 books at SciFan. However, even the titles that are science fiction, most are fantasy based.

slan-astounding oct1940

At The Science Fiction Encyclopedia they suggest that telepathy as a theme in science fiction has fallen off because of the rise of cyberspace. We now picture ourselves using computers to connect to each other. That theory feels right. One day iPhones might be implanted into our heads, and that sounds more realistic than brain cells evolving radio frequency transmitters and receivers. Technological telepathy is well underway with machine-body interfaces to allow thoughts to control muscles.

childhoods_end

So why was psi-power science fiction so popular in the 1950s science fiction? Some people claim its because John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction pushed the idea of psionics on his authors because it was his pet belief. Others claim Charles Fort influenced writers like Robert A. Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. Others claim it was the Rhine experiments in the 1930s that got the ball rolling. The 1950s was a weird time in America, with “true stories” of UFOs, ESP, Bridey Murphy, and Edgar Cayce inflaming the public with nutty ideas. After the atomic bomb became famous in 1945, I think people start believing anything was possible with the help of science. Science fiction got people thinking about intelligent life on other worlds, life that might be far superior in intellect to our own. We started imagining what humans could become with the help of mutation, genetics and machines.

stranger in a strange land - 1961

I think the idea of psi-powered humans peaked in 1961 with Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, where Heinlein featured an ordinary man raised by advanced aliens capable of learning amazing feats of brain power. For me, the idea died with Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg in 1972, which showed a lonely, pathetic telepath surviving on the margins of society.

I don’t know what caused it, but for some reason I woke up in the 1970s and rejected all speculation about the paranormal. The idea of ESP just became silly. I think the reality distortion field of the 1960s wore off. Even in 1977, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind being a wonderful film, the idea of UFOs seemed just as silly too. UFOs and ESP became concepts embraced by cranks. After the Apollo Moon missions ended in 1972 and the Viking landers made it to Mars, space travel took on a realism that made 1950s science fiction seem quaint. Starting with Neuromancer in 1984, cyberpunk fiction just changed everything in the genre. We’ve been overwhelmed by the impact of computers and nanotechnology ever since. We find magic and power in machines, not minds.

Psi-powers and mutants have been replace by exploring posthumanism. And if you think about it, there are many concepts once popular in science fiction that are slowly becoming extinct. Beside Psi-powers, the idea of mutants seldom shows up. We don’t talk much about WWIII or nuclear wars. Even though the population of real robots is growing in the real world, we don’t see many robot stories anymore either. Interstellar had a nice robot. We seem to imagine AI machines being embedded into our technology rather than Asimovian robots.

I can’t say if psi-powers were just a story idea, or if people really believed back in the 1950s that humans would one day evolve to have such amazing abilities. Maybe the kids of that era hoped to grow up to be Superman and fly. If I had to guess, I would say many SF fans back then did believe in Slans, because many people today want to believe in life-extension, artificial intelligence, downloading brains and human-machine mind connections. Over time we’ll discover what’s really possible, and then many of the beliefs about those concepts will die off too, like belief in ESP powers today.

p.s.

In the late 1980s I had a BBS devoted to science fiction and I brought up the topic of telepathy and ESP then. I assumed everyone believed it a dead topic by that time, but I was proven wrong. Many of the members of my bulletin board became enraged by my attack of telepathy. They passionately wanted to believe in extrasensory perception. I wonder if that’s going to happen again with this essay?

JWH

A Different Flavor of Science Fiction–The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is fiction about the heart of science. Alma Whittaker, the protagonist represents the empirical ideal, while Ambrose Pike stands in for the mystical and metaphysical. The Signature of All Things is another kind of science fiction, a story about scientific thinking, set in the 19th century, the century where the scientist came into being, the century where we turned from reading the word of God to reading all things natural, the century where evolution was revealed as the driving force of creation.

I love The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert so much that I hunger to know how it was written. This book is such a perfect mixture of historical detail, psychological realism and imagined characterization that it becomes deeply philosophical, going well beyond just a great story. I can’t help but believe it’s Gilbert’s personal statement about the nature of reality. I don’t know if Alma Whittaker is Elizabeth Gilbert, but she’s probably the woman Gilbert would want to be if she lived in the 19th century. Don’t let any prejudice about Gilbert’s earlier books keep you from reading this one.

If you love stories of the 19th century, especially ones about natural philosophers becoming scientists, then you should read The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s sprawling tale covers two lifetimes beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 19th, and includes sea voyages, botany, biology, lithography, Tahiti, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. This time around, we get to live an alternate history where there is a woman scientist, Alma Whittaker, who made some very great discoveries on her own. Alma Whittaker is the person you’d want to be if you could reincarnate backwards in time.

If you’ve ever fantasized about living in the 19th century and becoming an amateur scientist yourself, The Signature of All Things is among the more detailed of such fantasies. Science fiction has always looked to the future, but the future hasn’t turned out to be everything it was cracked up to be, so many science fiction fans have turned to fantasy, and many of them love steampunk, a retro look at the Victorian era. This book isn’t steampunk, but it wears the same appealing fashions. I think there are many deep rooted psychological reasons why us futurists have turned to look backwards to Darwin and Dickens. This book is historical, but not quite historical fiction. It has intense sense of wonder, but it’s not science fiction, not in the traditional sense, but it should appeal to the science minded person.

Science fiction itself evolved out of Victorian era sense of wonders, and we grew up believing in lone inventors who could master the magical incantations of science. We love all those butterfly collections, scientific sea voyages and dinosaur hunters.

Orchid lithograph

The Signature of All Things is a love letter to those who embrace the natural world over the metaphysical.

The entire time I read The Signature of All Things I kept wondering how Gilbert imagined her novel. I’d gladly buy The Making of The Signature of All Things if Gilbert would write it. The book is an amazing feat of imagination, research, inspiration and psychology. In one sense it’s a feminist fantasy, and on the other hand, it’s a fantasy for anyone who reveres the 19th century. I got on the Internet hoping to find clues as to how and why Gilbert wrote this novel, and I luckily discovered that Gilbert had a Pinterest page devoted to The Signature of All Things. The financial success of Eat, Pray, Love let Gilbert spend three years researching The Signature of All Things. Few writers get such an opportunity, and her hard work paid off in a big way.

The first fifty pages of the book is about Henry Whittaker, a fascinating character that could have easily overshadowed the main character, his daughter Alma. Alma Whittaker is the ultimate free-range child educated by her stern Dutch mother, Beatrix. Alma was born January 5, 1800, so she ages with the century. Alma grows up on a huge estate outside of Philadelphia, and her father invited the most interesting men in the world to visit. Even as a child, Alma was expected to carry on an adult conversation at the dinner table. She mastered many living and dead languages, read everything in her father’s large library, and taught herself to become a botanist, specializing in mosses.

I can’t begin to chronicle all the ideas in this novel. Gilbert distilled her three years research into five hundred pages of fiction, and on almost every page, I wondered about her choice of detail to reveal. The book is tightly plotted, with an abundance of vivid characters, and the reader travels around the world three times. And it’s not until the end, that everything finally comes together. It’s a very satisfying ending, yet I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how and why Gilbert made her writing decisions.  I found some of the answers I sought in this interview:

Victorian scientists were big on developing classification systems, mapping every scrap of land and sea, inventing coordinate grids and measurement systems, taxonomies, and most of all, collecting. Science in the time of Dickens was small enough in scope, that most intelligent individuals could be well-versed generalists. There is a special kind of appeal to science before relativity and quantum mechanics. A gentleman or gentlewoman with a microscope and telescope could confirm most of what they read, and it was still possible to keep up with the reading in most fields.

Alma Whittaker, is a woman that wants to understand, and through almost endless hardships, becomes enlightened.

JWH

When Does Science Fiction Go Stale?

Right off the bat, I should say dated science has no affect on the expiration date of science fiction. I’m still passionately in love with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny.  Stories about Mars and Venus having inhabitants, or humans being able to breathe their atmospheres, do not detract from their freshness – if the writing was wonderful.

bok_fsf

I do know that science fiction can go stale – just look at the books by E. E. “Doc” Smith, who was the brightest star among the science fiction writers of the 1930s. If Smith had been a better writer, more savvy about race and gender, he might be remembered along with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. There were legions of science fiction writers between Wells and Heinlein, but how many of their books are fresh today? It seems like science fiction goes stale pretty fast. Why?

And the taste of staleness isn’t universal from reader to reader. Some people enjoy eating two-day-old pizza, and E. E. Smith is still read by a limited number of fans, especially those who acquired the pulp fiction habit. On the other hand, how many young science fiction readers today fall in reading love with Jack Williamson, Edmund Hamilton, Murray Leinster, John W. Campbell, Ray Cummings,  E. E. Smith, Eric Temple Bell, George O. Smith or Eric Frank Russell?

Smith-Skylark

When I was growing up in the 1960s, fans talked about The Big Three of Science Fiction – Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov.  Fifty years on, I’m rereading their books and I realize they are starting to go stale like some SF books I read when I was a kid. Me and my buddies found E. E. Smith and Jack Williamson thrilling but also laughable. And like I said, it’s not the science, or the fact that we’re now living a future that’s overwritten those science fiction writer’s dreams of things to come.

I loved the Heinlein juveniles and assumed they were such obvious classics that kids would be reading them for centuries, like Treasure Island, Little Women and Alice in Wonderland. I still love them because of nostalgia, but I’m not sure they are as fresh today as they were to me in the 1960s.

cartier_cometeers

What exactly goes stale? When you read an old science fiction story that’s as flat as a Coke without its fizz, what went wrong? I talked about this with members of the Classic Science Fiction Book Club and the Defining 1950s Science Fiction Reading Challenge. The consensus is writing style and political correctness.  Readers don’t mind antiquated stories as long as they are well told, or even antiquated point of views, if they are part of the story. Good storytelling stays fresh. Good storytelling can override decaying style. But it’s very hard to maintain a story if the characters are very out of touch modern sensibilities of right and wrong.

Sadly, a lot of old science fiction wasn’t that well written. It impressed young people at the time with far out ideas, rather than with good writing and characterization.  It’s funny how much a science fiction writer can get things wrong, and yet the story will stay fresh because of the storytelling, and not the idea.

the door into summer

I still love reading The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, even though the story was written in 1957, about a robot inventor living in the year 1970, who buys suspended animation time so he can sleep till the year 2000 to get away from his cheating girlfriend. We didn’t have household robots in 1970, and Heinlein’s year 2000 was nothing like our year 2000. Yet, the story is still readable!  Why? Heinlein had an engaging writing style, a sympathetic character, facing interesting problems, and who comes up with emotionally solid solutions, although the ending is becoming a little questionable.

The writing, characters and motivations are still functional. Yet, if we try to read something like E. E. “Doc” Smith Lensman books today, they feel archaic in their writing style, and the plot and character motivations seem simplistic – too much like an ancient comic book. Yet, a book like Out of a Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis written during the same decade as the Smith stories, still works. Lewis gets everything wrong about Mars, has a weird Christian take on space travel, and yet the story still works. And how did John Wyndham get away with writing a story about walking killer plants? Because the characters are very realistic and react in a realistic way, and we the readers care about them, plus we love to imagine what we would have done in their place.

out of the silent planet

Dime novels are seldom read today. Nor do people still read the popular girls and boys books of the early 20th century, like those by Roy Rockwood, who wrote the Great Marvel series (1906-1935). Many of these old books are so filled with racism and sexism that we cringe to read them today, but at one time they offered kids a thrilling sense of wonder. It’s a shame that those old authors weren’t better writers, because their stories captured their times in a unique way – their view of the future. Even the racism and sexism is historical. So I think that it’s the quality of writing that most makes a book go stale.

through space to mars

We still read H. G. Wells stories written in the 1890s. Why does Wells survive while so many other SF&F books from the same time faded from our reading awareness? Is it merely bad writing? I tend to think so. Books that become classics, like Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations, have something more that good storytelling though. They tap into the core of human nature, and most science fiction never aims for such psychological depths. Wells was no Dickens, but he did have great intellectual ambitions. I think that’s why he’s stayed fresh while Jules Verne trails Wells in popularity. Verne still can engage people with his storytelling, but Wells was a scientific prophet of his age.

Bad science won’t ruin a story, if the story is wonderful, but does cause a kind of staleness. 1930s and 1940s space operas just seem silly today, often hokey, or even campy and kitschy.  One reason Nineteen Eighty-Four is still so damn fresh, it’s it’s about politics and human nature, and not galactic empires and robots. If you’re a science fiction writer who hopes to enchant readers next century then it’s wise to write about common denominators that people now and in the future will have. But if you really want to dazzle the people of today, you want to write about things they never imagined. Which is what E. E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson did in the 1930s. What will awe people in the 2010s will probably feel silly and stale by the 2040s, but maybe that’s just part of the science fiction game.

JWH

The Definitive 1950s Science Fiction Reading Challenge

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Over at Worlds Without End, they routinely offer reading challenges for people who use their science fiction book database. My post “The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1950s” inspired their page, “The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1950s” which displays the books from the list in their database format, nicely illustrated by book covers. You can join and tag books you own, want to read, have read, or want to buy and read. You’ll need to sign up and set a password, but that’s no big deal.

World Without End has collected many award list and best-of book lists, so it’s a great way to find outstanding science fiction books to read.

If you click on “Roll-Your-Own” image, you’ll be taken to a list of Reading Challenges.

2015 Reading Challenge

Then look for this icon.

1950s challenge

After you sign up, you can always go directly here, where you can see a list of members in the challenge, and which books they are reading or have read. The challenge is to read one book from each year 1950-1959 from the Defining List of 1950s SF. Look through the years to select each book you want. Clicking on the cover will allow you to mark the book read, reading or unread, and you can check to use it for the challenge.

The books go in the list 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. So if you want the books to read 1950-1959, left to right, you’ll need to enter all 10 starting with the 1959 first, and go reverse order years. Otherwise, if you add them one year at a time, the final list will read 1959-1950. Since I don’t want to commit what book I’ll read for each year until I read them, I’m entering in reverse order.

This is a fun reading challenge for those people who love classic science fiction. The 1950s were when science fiction book publication ramped up, and many of the classic stories from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were reprinted in hardcover and paperback. I started 1950 by rereading The Martian Chronicles, which were short stories Bradbury wrote in the late 1940s, but collected together to create a fix-up novel of related tales. I listened to an audiobook edition read by Stephen Hoye, and it was excellent. The characters sound like I’m listening to a 1940s movie.

There is also a forum at the WWE site for discussing the books in the challenge.

If you love old SF, and want to see what other people are reading and saying about these old books, give it a try.  After the 1950s are finished, DrNefario, the creator of the challenge, plans to create one for the 1960s.

JWH