The Science Fiction in The Martian

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 5, 2015

Most folks call The Martian science fiction, even when most of the articles I read about the book and movie praise its science. After I thought about it, I find it very difficult to find anything science fictional about The Martian. When does fiction mutate into science fiction? Science fiction has always been notoriously hard to define. Does rocketships and a Mars setting automatically make The Martian science fiction? Is being set slightly in the future make it science fiction? In terms of publishing categories and movie marketing labeling, it’s pretty natural to call The Martian science fiction, but I’m wondering if that’s old habit or lazy convenience.


Don’t get me wrong, I love super hard science fiction that doesn’t stray far from scientific laws. But from the vantage point of when I grew up back in the 1950s and 1960s, our lives in the 2010s are already science fictional. So it’s hard to discern everyday far out from imaginative far out. The Martian would definitely be science fiction if it was written back when Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were telling stories about going to Mars hoping to inspire humanity to really go. Isn’t Andy Weir and his work a child of science fiction, but not necessarily science fiction? Aren’t we too close to going to Mars for stories about going to Mars to be called science fiction?

One reviewer said The Martian should just be called fiction. Even if we haven’t gone to Mars yet, it doesn’t mean a story about going to Mars is science fiction. Science fiction speculates about the possibilities of what science might discover, and The Martian uses science that engineers routinely apply now to existing space missions. About the only fantastic speculation I can see The Martian is the belief that the United States will spend trillions of dollars on a Mars mission sometime in the near future. The only area where I see Ridley Scott pushing believability is the scale of his Mars rockets, rovers, habitats and equipment. It’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t remember if Andy Weir imagined everything so big.

Science fiction is about a sense of wonder that pushes the limits of knowledge. Sure it’s often unbelievable and even ultimately unscientific, and although science fiction is fantastic like fantasy fiction, science fiction is something we want to believe is possible even though it’s probably not. The Martian is far out, and has tremendous sense of wonder, but isn’t it too mundane to be science fiction? Isn’t it really just fiction? We could do everything in The Martian if Uncle Sam would write NASA a big enough check. And I say again, that’s about the only thing I think is science fictional in The Martian.

I’m wondering if there are qualities to science fiction that we don’t understand. That it’s too easy to call anything about the future, or anything that takes place in outer space as science fiction. Maybe we don’t know what to point to when we’re looking for the essence of science fiction. For 99.9% of people, science fiction is the perfect label for The Martian. The book and movie are wonderful, inspiring and filled with a powerful sense of wonder. I think they make people feel like they used to when they were kids reading science fiction for the first time. However, I think there is something more to science fiction. Something elusive that we can’t easily pin down. Something that we long for when we’re old, and wish we could find it again. I’m not sure that’s in The Martian. I believe it has too much science for that ineffable quality.


Are We Going To Mars Because of Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 24, 2015

The new movie, The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name, is generating tremendous buzz, for the movie, for science fiction fans who love books that inspire space travel, and for NASA types who feel Mars is the place to go next. Last year I wrote a review of the novel, “When I Was Martian” where I gushed about the book but wondered if I really wanted to go to Mars. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought Mars must be a wonderful place from all the science fiction I read. However, over the decades, all those robotic missions have convinced me Mars is only a suitable destination for robots and geologists.


Millions of people still want to go to Mars, and NASA recently released gargantuan plans to visit Mars by 2039. On the other hand, yesterday I read three essays questioning our desire to go to Mars. The first, by Ed Regis in the New York Times, “Let’s Not Move to Mars” is probably the most critical. Regis wonders why anyone would be willing to live in a capsule with the living space of a SUV for seven to nine months, only to get to a destination with little atmosphere, the scenery all rocks, and far colder than any place on Earth.

Over at The Guardian, Chris Chambers writes about the psychological impact of travel to Mars. He makes going to prison an appealing alternative to traveling to Mars. And this blogger compares colonizing Mars to going to Hell. I’m not sure how many people have The Right Stuff to get to Mars—to actually enjoy the experience. I doubts its many.

I have to wonder if most people who dream of going to Mars do so because of science fiction. I’ll admit I wanted to go to Mars because I pictured Mars like the novels of Robert A. Heinlein (Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Podkayne of Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land). I’ve known guys older than myself who dreamed of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But is even the Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova any less romantic? Compared to reports sent back by NASA robots, can any work of fiction convey the true brutality of living on the Red planet without being escapist?

Mars can get as cold as -225F, and the surface air is as thin as being four times the height of Mt. Everest here on Earth. Why would anyone want to live there—or even visit? My best guess is science fiction. How can stories make us so irrational? Fiction is appealing. Fiction is an alternative to reality. If we analyze ourselves, does reading reveal a desire for adventure and travel? Or does reading reveal we’re bored with our lives and just want to go somewhere different? Or even want to be different people? Kids used to want to be astronauts when they were famous and legendary, but now all the people who fly up into space are mostly nameless. If I was young I might still want to go to Mars, even knowing what I know now. It’s appeal is that strong. Why?

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, The Martian is creating a lot of excitement, both for the movie and the desire see manned missions actually go to the Red planet. Since the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomy has been going through a renaissance larger than what it went through in the time of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo. I think space exploration gives some people a sense that existence has great meaning. Does that sense of purpose come from a love of science, or science fiction?

Aurora KSM

Yet, even science fiction is becoming more realistic about the possibilities of space travel. In his new book Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson questions the wisdom of leaving Earth. If science fiction is guilty of overselling space travel should it now be responsible for removing the false romanticism its given the final frontier? How many people would remove their names from the Mars One mission if they read Aurora?

I still think it’s possible that some humans will want to colonize the Moon and Mars. Whether they are thrill seekers or final frontier missionaries is another issue. To live on the Moon or Mars will require living mostly underground, in highly controlled environments that are always one technological failure from extinction. All the science fiction stories we now read about cities on the Moon and Mars are 99.99% unrealistic fantasies. Too much of science fiction is about transferring Earth living to space life, and it won’t be like that. Should science fiction be held responsible for false advertising?

I must admit, even my hopes for the realistic possibilities of space travel are still driven by the science fiction I read. My guess is anyone who hasn’t been enchanted by the genre would see that space is only suited for robots. 


Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.


I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.


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?


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.”


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.


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. —


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?