The Classics of Science Fiction v. 2–(Archived)

By James Wallace Harris

[Note: This is an essay I wrote about twenty years ago, and was last updated in 2003. I’m saving it here at Auxiliary Memory for long term storage. This blog really is my external memory bank.]

What are the classic books of science fiction? Who decides which book is a classic? Do the critics and scholars know best or in the end, are the readers the real judges? What qualities define a classic book?

All these questions began haunting me in 1985 when my friend Mike asked me what were the classics of science fiction. He knew I had read hundreds, if not thousands of SF books, and figured I would gladly state my opinion. However, I decided that I wanted something more concrete, more quantitative, more authoritative to give him. So I went searching for the classics of science fiction. This project started life as an essay in the now defunct Hugo Award winning fanzine Lan’s Lantern #30. The essay was revised and became an ongoing project for the web. So I’m still trying to find the answers to these questions.

I got the idea to look up a number of “recommended” or “best of” lists to see what other people had to say, and then compile a database that would represent a consensus of opinion. For the original essay I had found nine such lists. For the first web version the lists increased to thirteen, and for this new 2001 version, Anthony Bernardo has jumped in and brought the total to 28 lists. [This is the fifth edition of the Classics of Science Fiction. It’s very difficult to modify this site because it refers to constantly changing numbers. I’m trying to rewrite this essay so it reflects all the changes and adapts well to future revisions.]

Using the lists I “assembled” the Classics of Science Fiction list by selecting books that were on a minimum number of refering lists. The original Classics of Science Fiction list produced 69 titles (3 or more out of 9 references), the newer 1996 list produced 162 books (3 or more out of 13 references). If I had made a list of books with two citations each, it would have produced a list with hundreds of titles–too many. At the time, 69 was a decent size list to consider. The 162 titles on the 1996 list, are really too many, but it was the only way to get books like Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea onto the Classics of Science Fiction list. It also help add a few newer books like Hyperion and Neuromancer.

With Anthony Bernardo’s additional references growing the total to 28, and using the cutoff of 7 or more references out of 28, the list has grown to 184 titles. This is a very long list, but I’ve decided to keep it. Otherwise I’d lose books like The Dying Earth and The Skylark of Space, both with 7 references. They are books which I think are important and I think deserve to be on the list.

That’s where my influence comes in. Deciding the cutoff point. However, to be fair, it’s easy for readers to ignore my influence and choose their own cutoff points. Just look at Classics by Rank and make your own decision. Around 12 or more references it gets to be very hard to disagree with the list.

By combining the critical opinions and popular fan polls I expected the resulting Classics of Science Fiction list to contain books that stand the test of time. However, there are many flaws in my experiment. Many books on this list are no longer read by fans. They aren’t reprinted. They are being forgotten. So why are they classics? That’s what this essay is all about.

The resulting Classics of Science Fiction list contains mostly novels, a few collections and anthologies. Can these books be called the real classics of SF? The Classics of Science Fiction list represents SF books loved by both critics and fans, but does that mean they are classics? And what exactly is a “classic?” In collecting, comparing and analyzing these lists, I have come to ask: why do certain books become great? My focus here is on SF, but the same general questions and answers could apply to all types of literature. This search brought up many questions, and made me think about why and how I select books. Why read any old book, when you can read a great one?

Can one person know enough about an area of literature to be able to select its best books? Is a survey of readers, no matter how large, an appropriate way to assemble a list of the best books? Are there any objective ways to determine if a book is a classic? For example, if a book is still read and kept in print one hundred years after it was first published, does that make it a classic? SF is a rather young genre. Many have said it started in the twenties with the publication of Amazing Stories. It can be argued that SF isn’t old enough to have “classics” in the way an English Professor would use the word. One hundred years from now, SF may turn out to be just a footnote in literary history.

Popularity and Classics

On the Internet there are lots of message boards dealing with SF. When people, especially young people, list their favorite SF books, most of the time, they list books I haven’t heard of, and are not on the Classics of Science Fiction list or even the lists from which it was assembled. Their favorites are recently published books–the ninth book in a forgettable series. And to them, their list of books may be the absolute best books they have ever read. Of course, it might be the only ones too.

Which brings up the question: should new SF readers be encouraged to read the classics of SF? Many people who first discover SF, especially while young, find it to be a neural rush. SF fans refer to SF as having “a sense of wonder.” A case could be made that it doesn’t matter what specific book a neophyte chooses to read, because it’s the genre itself that has the impact, and individual classics are irrelevant. However, I think that certain SF books have more “sense of wonder” than others. Regarding the Classics of Science Fiction list, I would say these books are not necessarily the absolute best books in the genre, but they are a group of books most remembered by fans, critics and writers.

There are many books not on this list that I personally rate higher and feel deserving of being called a classic. And before someone writes or says, “but what about this book, you idiot, it’s better than all the ones on your list combined!” – please remember I didn’t select these titles, but assembled them. If I was making my own list, it would have been different. Sure, I can say a certain hundred novels are great, because of their impact on me, but I can’t pretend to judge their value for other people by my own narrow standards.

From the 1996 162 Classics of Science Fiction, it can be seen that a good degree of consistency exists between critics, fans and prizes. The list can be broken down into the following information:

Statistics By Individual Lists
List Total Cited On SF Classics Total Missed Hit Rate Miss Rate
Astounding 1952

32

23

9

71.88%

28.13%

Astounding 1956

29

25

4

86.21%

13.79%

Analog 66

29

24

5

82.76%

17.24%

Locus 75

26

26

0

100.00%

0.00%

Locus 87

45

42

3

93.33%

6.67%

Internet 100

102

51

51

50.00%

50.00%

Barron

404

142

262

35.15%

64.85%

del Rey

110

59

51

53.64%

46.36%

Gunn

68

53

15

77.94%

22.06%

Hartwell

181

104

77

57.46%

42.54%

James

242

116

126

47.93%

52.07%

Panshin

101

75

26

74.26%

25.74%

Pringle

100

59

41

59.00%

41.00%

Totals

692

162

530

  • Total Titles = Total number of books the critic recommended or total books on fan poll
  • On SF Classic List = The number of books that made it to the final Classics of Science Fiction list
  • Hit Rate = Percent of books on list from those on Total Titles
  • Percent of List= Percent of books on Classics of Science Fiction list

The critics made more recommendations and had a greater number of books on the Classics of SF list. Fans polls have better hit rates, but they were usually from smaller lists. Many people call the 1940’s the golden age of science fiction, but I’m not so sure 1965-1975 wasn’t the golden age, or a second golden age.

Looking closely at all the information in these lists show fans and critics seem to agree the most on books published between 1965-1975, and many of the most memorable books were written just before or during this period. Science Fiction was a smaller subculture back then. The SF market today is gigantic compared to that time, so it will be much harder for a book to stand out and become widely popular in a lasting way.

All six critics agreed on these 10 books:

The Long Afternoon Of Earth
Brian Aldiss
The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
Stand On Zanzibar
John Brunner
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
Dune
Frank Herbert
The Left Hand Of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter Miller
The Space Merchants
Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon

Eliminated the two fan polls from the fifties because so many books were published after those years, the four fan polls from 1966-1996 agreed on the following 12 books:

The Foundation Trilogy
Isaac Asimov
The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
The City And The Stars
Arther C. Clark
Mission Of Gravity
Hal Clement
Starship Troopers
Robert A. Heinlein
Dune
Frank Herbert
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter Miller
More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon
The Time Machine
H. G. Wells
The War Of The Worlds
H. G. Wells

Critics and fans both agreed on five books:

The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
Dune
Frank Herbert
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter Miller
More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon

In essence, must these books be the best of the best? Surprisingly, The Long Afternoon Of Earth was never on any of the reader polls. It was harder to judge the agreement among reader polls, because many books were published after the different polls were taken. However, 33 books out of 69 books on the original Classics of Science Fiction list written in 1988, were on the Locus 1987 poll. That same poll represents 42 titles of the 162 on the 1996 list. Adding more sources of citations, and more titles makes it harder to agree on what’s popular.

To show how quickly fans forget, The Time Machine, The War Of The Worlds, Childhood’s End, Mission Of Gravity and Starship Troopers have fallen off the current 1998 Internet Top 100 Sf & Fantasy list. Which show that fans, and opinion polls are very changing, probably due to what books are in print, and factors like the age of people agreeable to taking polls. Starship Troopers may have been on the earlier poll because of the recent movie.

Recent scholarly interest aside, I believe that SF is a branch of literature which has mass appeal, but for the most part, the general SF reader is someone who consumes SF books rather than studies them. This is why publishers market so many of them, and depend on “brand names” and good cover art. Over time, most hardcore SF readers will develop an overview of the field and come to recognize some SF books as “classics.”

The critics and scholars who write books about SF, probably have decades of reading experience to draw on. Most fans buy current books and depend on word of mouth to make their reading choices. Some SF books get frequently reprinted so that older titles are always available to younger readers. A SF reading generation may only be a 7-8 years — from adolescence to college. Any book not reprinted that frequently will never catch on with a SF generation, and thus will not become popular.

If a book misses out on continuing popularity, it will probably become forgotten, never to become a classic, no matter how many critics continue to write about it.

Can Books Be Judged?

There are a lot of ways to select a good book, and even more ways to judge a book. Judging books is open to a lot of disagreement.For example, many books first read by fans in their adolescent years, like the kids on the Internet, have an impact, but if reread ten years later, might not make the same impression. This suggests that there should be two types of great books: youth classics and adult classics. (This idea is worth a separate essay itself.) When we are older, it may turn out, we will like a different type of book all together, a type we can’t foresee in youth. Then again, we might regress as we get older, and start rereading our youth classics. So one factor in judging a book is the age of the reader, thus making judgment relative.

Another factor in judging books, is how well read is the reader. Someone who has read thousands of books will draw up a different list of classics than a person who has read ten SF books. I feel that because of the nature of the genre, most people’s first ten SF books will all be mind blowers, and fondly remembered. This problem is solved by having large number of people vote in a fan poll.

Because there are no absolutes in judging a book, I feel my approach has produced a reasonably good list of titles. Sure, people will argue over these titles because of varying tastes, but on the whole, I think most people will find some merit in each of these books.

A more important question to ask: why judge books at all? Our society usually measures success by sales, where weekly charts are published about the gross sales of books, records, movies, etc. We also have yearly awards for everything under the sun. And magazines and newspapers are quite fond of running end of the year summaries. But once a year is up, a work of art is pretty much forgotten. Oh, occasionally someone will do an All Time Top 100 album/movie/book list, but many times it is still based on sales, or on the recent memories of editors and writers.

There’s no systematic method of judging artwork, other than does it stay around. This is all is discussed later on in this essay, but it doesn’t answer the question, can a book be judged? Critics and literary essayists try, but what real impact do they have?

There is no one who has the power to issue an ultimatum, “this book must be remembered and read!” Think about how many books you have had to read because of a teacher in school. Now, how many did you really enjoy? Just because an authoritative figure made you read a book, doesn’t mean you will like it. The closest thing to a power that keeps books alive is the school system. They can make children read books because they justify it by believing reading certain books are part of a good education. But does such beliefs make a book a classic?

The concept of a “classic” book is an arbitrary one. Best sellers are books that are popular in the present. Classics are books that stay popular over time. A variety of factors work to keep a book around in the mind of culture, but not because someone can judge their value.

The Age of the Book

Most books “die” with the passing of time. How many books published before the 20th century have survived until the present compared to total published? I have no idea. Barron reviews 108 SF books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but try and find them. Some people say classics are those books that survive the test of time. Many books that were on the Astounding polls from the fifties never made it to the Classics of Science Fiction list. It takes awhile for a book to get famous. Then it takes awhile for it to be forgotten. The number of books written or published by decades from the 162 Classics of Science Fiction list shows this trend:

Book Totals By Decades
from 162 Classics SF List
Decade Total

1810’s

1

1870’s

1

1880’s

2

1890’s

2

1900’s

1

1910’s

4

1920’s

6

1930’s

7

1940’s

13

1950’s

37

1960’s

37

1970’s

36

1980’s

14

1990’s

1

Total

162

I had to use the criteria of being on three lists out of thirteen just to get books like Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Looking Backwards on the list. Books some people would say are obvious classics. Most of the lower ranked books are there mainly because critics agreed that they were worth remembering.

Just because a book is old, doesn’t make it a classic. If no one but critics like to read it, then, just how classic could the book be? Some classic books are really read for historical reasons, and it’s the English department at the university keeping the book in print. How many of these 162 books will be read in 2098? Actually, I’m not sure if any of them will be.

The age of a book isn’t a real factor in making a book a classic. A Christmas Carol isn’t a classic because it’s old, but because it is great read, because you won’t forget the story and it will make you think about your life and cry. Just because a book is influential doesn’t mean it will be remembered. It might affect literary evolution, and yet become extinct itself. Look at the lists of Nobel winning authors or the Pulitzer winning fiction awards. Most books on those lists are long forgotten and out of print.

Are Classics Written Only by Prolific Authors?

Another factor in understanding how a book becomes a classic, is how prolific is the author. Heinlein has the most books in the 28 reference list database, but because he has so many good books, none of them stand out using my system. Are his most popular books his best? Most of my favorite Heinlein books didn’t make it to the Science Fiction Classic list. It may be like the Australian ballot, the ones selected are the ones with the most second and third vote positions added in. In the 1987 Locus poll, Heinlein had votes for 30 books, out of a possible 50+ published titles. (An interesting article could be written about what are Heinlein’s least popular books.)

Many of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list are by writers who have written a great number of books, and have had long careers as writers. When we think of classics of mainstream literature, we often think of Dickens, Twain, Poe, Hugo, Tolstoy and other prolific writers. Does being a prolific author imply a factor in whether some of their books will be remembered? In other words: do writers with dynamic personal reputations, and who write a flood of books, have statistically a better chance of being remembered?

Or do authors with a lifetime of practice, develop the skills to tell a story so well, it just burns into your mind? Maybe people like Charles Dickens and Robert Heinlein are very special individuals who come along occasionally and have a knack for telling stories. It’s hard to understand the success of Dickens now, but he was so popular in his day, that for years people anxiously awaited each installment of his novels as they were published in weekly papers. He was like a hit TV show, captivating a huge audience week after week for years.

Another advantage of prolific authors is the “name brand” effect. Stephen King sells books by his name. And without a huge catalog of books, it’s hard to develop a name that sticks in the mind of readers. Look at the covers of books. If the title is printed larger than the author’s name, then he or she doesn’t have that name recognition. Edgar Rice Burroughs is a name that stands out on the book jacket. Burroughs wrote two great novels and dozens of self imitations. But without all those extra books, would Tarzan The Ape Man or A Princess Of Mars be remembered? If you go to a SF book section and look for Burroughs, you are more than likely to find several titles. Something is always in print. The momentum of books in his many series allows publishers to keep his work constantly in print. With only two titles, it would be easy to let his memory slip by.

If you look at the top ranked books, Alfred Bester and Walter M. Miller, Jr. stand out as not being prolific authors. Bester was a two hit wonder with The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, and Miller had one hit, A Canticle For Leibowitz. These authors prove there are exceptions to any rule.

Classics are those Books We Remember

Ultimately, I think a classic is a book that is remembered. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has a plot that is memorable, often imitated, and might even become a future myth. Mark Twain stories have become part of the American mind. Not only are Dickens’s and Twain’s plots remembered, but their characters are remembered by name. Sometimes I think it’s the memory of the characters that make a book a real classic. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and Mr. Spock are very widely known characters, known even to people who don’t know their origins. It also helps to name a book after the lead character, for example, David Copperfield or Huckleberry Finn. Try and make a list of names of characters from all those famous SF novels you remember. It’s hard. SF is a literature of ideas. SF readers remember plots better than characters. How often have you heard a fan say, “I read this far out story…,” and then went on to tell you the plot?

So many of these SF classics are books with great ideas. Looking down the list, I personally find it difficult to remember the character’s names, but I can always remember the stories.

Fan polls are essentially memory polls. Quick, make a list of your favorite books. The ones that you list are the ones you remember. A year from now you might remember a whole different group of books. Why do you remember any book? Because the book was great, or just memorable? Classic books are those books that stay in our collective memory. Critics and book reviewers help reinforce and focus that collective memory.

Just think, there are numerous classic books out there that we can’t remember. For one reason or another, they are just plain forgotten. It is not like the old sound in the forest question. I do believe there is a quality to books even if they aren’t successful or memorable. Think about how many books we miss reading in our lifetime just because we don’t have to time to read everything. Beyond the books you hear about, are unknown books. Some books are completely unknown, just sitting on shelves gathering dust, with no reader to keep their memory alive. Some of those books are still classics.

Keeping those books alive and remembered is the job of critics and reviewers. Look at the lower ranked books on the list. Most of them were never on a fan poll. These are great books, they are becoming forgotten, except for those men and women who have the experience and knowledge to value them and write their histories.

There are many ways to define the word classic. There are many kinds of memory. Publishers can keep popular books in our memories by keeping books in print. Critics and essayists can keep books in our memory by remembering and writing about them. Fans keep books in our memories by voting on fan polls and keeping books remembered by word of mouth.

Classics Represent Shared Culture

Classics are those books a person should be familiar with, and be capable of discussing and relating to in a general conversation. For example, anyone in the SF field should be familiar with The Foundation Trilogy, The Demolished Man, The Martian Chronicles, Childhood’s End and More Than Human–not just because all of these books were on nearly every list and poll, but because they are part of the foundation of the SF world. These are the giants of the field, and if you are into SF you should be familiar with them. Because without that knowledge you don’t have any sense of the history and heritage of SF. Culture represents shared heritage. And even in a small subculture like SF, a member of the community needs to know its history and have some awareness of the subculture’s common knowledge.

The Classics of Science Fiction list is pretty much an American list, with maybe a few British writers, as was pointed out to me by one of my online readers. It would be fantastic if I could include books from all over the world. I’ve read that Soviet/Russian science fiction has a tradition, history and scope as large as our American science fictional world.

Reading literary histories of science fiction, you realize that science fiction, or the types of literature that it grew out of, have been around for a very long time. Modern, English speaking critics, generally make the case that SF started with Mary Shelley, or Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, and is an Anglo-American product. Other scholars can trace the history of SF back much earlier, and know from their research that SF has existed in many countries and has an almost universal background.

Language and the distance of time keep us for knowing about those books. Because I can not read German, French, Russian, Spanish, Japanese or any other languages, it keeps me from being aware of a larger heritage that the literature of science fiction belongs. The books on the Classics of Science Fiction list represent a shared culture focused in the late 20th century by English speaking readers.

Right now, we don’t have a War And Peace, or Crime And Punishment that stands out on our list like those two novels do in the general English literary world. What is missing from our provincial science fictional world? Language is definitely a barrier, but maybe the Internet can be used to help with this problem. Locus Magazine routinely carries articles about science fiction in other countries. Eventually, I hope to have the time to study my back issues and maybe glean some kind of list.

Even without the knowledge of SF published elsewhere in the world, or the genealogy of those books, the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list represent a shared culture. A culture that’s growing smaller every day. Written science fiction is being supplanted by multimedia science fiction, which belongs to a newer, and different subculture. Ask someone under 25 to describe science fiction, and they will talk of Star Wars or Star Trek. And the youngest will think of science fiction in terms of the latest TV shows, or video games, or comics.

One of the reasons I keep this list going is to promote memory of written science fiction. Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5 are not original creations. They are the active teenagers of a long lineage. I can not even speculate about the newborns.

Classics Stay in Print

Most of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list are easy to acquire. Most of them will be regularly reprinted and offered for sale on the new bookracks. With a little effort all could be bought rather quickly in used bookstores or at ABE Books. A few on this list are reprinted only every few years or decades, which could be an indication they will be eventually forgotten. How many people have read Bring The Jubilee or Pavane? These two deserve a better life, but the mass market appeal may not support their future existence.

The Science Fiction Book Club is good about reprinting older science fiction books. Their efforts might be the reason why some books stay on the fan polls. Universe, the SFBC’s quarterly list, dated Winter 1996 had the following books from the Classics of Science Fiction list:

The Foundation Trilogy
Isaac Asimov
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
Rendezvous With Rama
Arthur C. Clarke
The Man In The High Castle
Philip K. Dick
Stranger In A Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein
Dune
Frank Herbert
The Left Hand Of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
City
Clifford D. Simak

All but City by Simak were on the Winter 1998 list.
The following classics were added:

The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester
Lest Darkness Fall
L. Sprague De Camp
Neuromancer
William Gibson
The Forever War
Joe Halderman
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein

I would think many of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list have appeared in the Science Fiction Book Club at one time or another.

If you look at the titles available from Amazon.com, you can see that a good fraction of the Classics of Science Fiction list are in print.

Classics Are Taught In School

Most people think of classics as the books they must read in school. In recent years, some SF books have snuck into the schools, especially in colleges and universities. I discovered Heinlein back in the sixties because my eighth grade teacher made us read five books during each six-week grading term.She had an approved list, and Heinlein was on it. If in the future, a SF book is regularly studied in the schools, then many people will consider that a “real” endorsement that the book has become a classic.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who could email booklists from courses they’ve taken in science fiction. I’d also be interested in hearing from anyone who teaches a course in science fiction, and especially if they have a web page.

Here are some sites I found from 10,700+ sites listed at Altavista when using the search terms +”science fiction” +syllabus:

Notice how many books that are required by professors are on the Science Fiction Classics list. This is another method to validate the list. Or it could be used as a whole new method for identifying the classics of science fiction. I could build a database of all the books professors require, and then make a cutoff, such as being on four or five syllabuses. Well, I don’t have the time.

Time Will Eventually Tell

In a hundred years will any of these books still be read? Time can only answer that question. There were no one hundred year old books on the original Classics of Science Fiction1986 list of 69 titles. It’s not until I broaden the criteria in 1996 to 162 titles, that older books showed up on the list.

The 1996 Classics of Science Fiction list, with it’s greater coverage, and its more liberal guidelines, expanded the coverage back to 1818 for Frankenstein. Jules Verne is now on the list, as well as The Time Machine. This, in itself, makes the newer 1996 list appear more valid–but is it? How many people are really still reading Jules Verne or Mary Shelley? If it wasn’t for movies, would these two authors even be remembered?

SF is primarily a literature of ideas, but are the ideas in these books ones which will still be fresh and interesting to the people of the future? How many science fictional ideas have died in the light of scientific reality, or even made dull and common by movies and TV? Some books have premises that are obviously outdated, but still people read and enjoy them. Why? I believe a good story is the answer. Edgar Rice Burroughs can still keep people reading, but he will never be considered literary. His ideas and plots were not new when they came out in 1912.

For those people who are not yet born, to pick up one of these books next century, will require that he or she be able to identify and feel for the characters. Because ultimately, classics are those books that send messages across time, they are the real time machines.

The more I read about the history of SF, the more forgotten titles I discover. Some of these forgotten books were best sellers in their day, and went through many printings. These forgotten books would be quaint now, dealing with ideas of their period, dealing with customs and politics that are totally alien to us today. At the end of next century, will people want to read about the cyberpunks that so fascinated people at the end of this century? Not only can’t we imagine what they will want to be reading, we aren’t even sure they will be reading. Will books and book reading for pleasure even be common in one hundred years? Books have remained a popular form of entertainment as long as they had no real competition. Today, with television, movies, role-playing games, video games, and the promise of virtual reality and who knows what else, competing for young people’s free time, how successful can reading be? One of my online readers, a librarian, wrote to ask if I knew any way to promote the reading of science fiction, because the science fiction section was one of the least used sections at her library.

I quit attending science fiction conventions years ago when it was obvious that most of the fans were there because of TV stars or role playing games. Science fiction meant something truly different to them. I’d ask about books, and most weren’t readers, but watchers. Among the young, I could find a few that still liked to read, but they mainly gushed about the latest Star Wars novel.

The same thing can be asked about general literature. How many people have read James Joyce, or even Charles Dickens? Even with a movie with trendy stars and book with a sexy cover, how many kids are going to read Great Expectations?

Dime novels readers are about as common as buggy whip users. Written science fiction may become something historians study like faro gambling in the old west. It was something popular once, and worth a mention here and there, but not really worth spending too much time on.

I love to read, and I find it hard to imagine a future where people don’t still love to withdraw into the mental world of a good book. So instead of asking what is a classic book, I should be asking, what is the value of reading. But that’s a whole other area of research.

Conclusion

I hope the Classics of Science Fiction list will be helpful in finding those classic SF novels that deserve your attention.I plan to read the couple books I haven’t yet read, and reread most of the others on this list and evaluate them carefully.

And finally, let me say, that although I have used a systematic method in selecting the titles for the Classics of Science Fiction list, it is still arbitrary. I could have chosen other polls and critics. I could have manipulated the lists differently. In fact, anyone going over my methods will discover I had to make little decisions along the way to make things fit. So when I give this list to my friend, I won’t tell him these are the absolute best books in SF, but I will tell him a lot of people agree that these are the best of the best.

James Wallace Harris

Revised: 7/6/3

Bibliography: The Reference Lists

  1. ANATOMY OF WONDER, edited by Neil Barron, a very comprehensive reference book. I used the second, third and fourth editions. The original list I combined the “recommended to purchase” titles for the modern period. In the 1996 I used his recommended titles from any period.
  2. THE ROAD TO SCIENCE FICTION edited by James Gunn. An anthology, with commentary, of great short SF stories. Originally, four volumes, it’s now been expanded to six.
  3. AGE OF WONDER by David G. Hartwell, an overview of science fiction and fandom. Again, there’s been an updated version since I wrote the original essay. Hartwell also had two lists which I combined, one long general “best of” list, and another similar list for “… literary talents, highly developed personal styles, character, thematic complexity … in every work.”
  4. SCIENCE FICTION: THE 100 BEST NOVELS by David Pringle, essays about one man’s favorite one hundred SF books.
  5. SF IN DIMENSION by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Although this came out in 1976, I didn’t discover it until after I’d written the original essay. I haven’t read this book yet, just used the list, but the Panshins also wrote THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL, a history of SF through the golden age of SF in the forties. It’s excellent for understanding what science fiction is and how it evolved.
  6. THE WORLD OF SCIENCE FICTION 1926-1976 by Lester del Rey. del Rey was a writer, editor and publisher of SF.
  7. SCIENCE FICTION IN THE 20TH CENTURY by Edward James. This came out in 1994 and is the newest list I use. I still see it in stores, so it might still be in print.
  8. ASTOUNDING 1952 Reader Poll
  9. ASTOUNDING 1956 Reader Poll
  10. ANALOG 1966 Reader Poll
  11. LOCUS MAGAZINE 1975 Reader Poll
  12. LOCUS MAGAZINE 1987 Reader Poll
  13. INTERNET 100 1996 Online Reader Poll

I’m Known for Human Stupidity and Dinosaur Dreams

By James Wallace Harris, August 26, 2016

If you search Google for “humans are stupid” my essay “50 Reasons Why the Human Race is Too Stupid to Survive” comes up in the #1 spot. At least it does for me, and for my friend Connell in Miami. I’ve been wondering why that essay gets 50-75 hits a day. I just searched on “why are humans so stupid” and I’m the #1 return again. If I use Bing, I don’t come up at the top of the returns. It’s weird to think that people are wondering why humanity is stupid, and come to my blog for answers. So far I’ve gotten around 15,000 hits. I feel a little guilty about spreading negativity. I guess it’s a positive sign I’m not getting more hits. Some of my readers who leave comments have been pretty down on the world. I suppose I can use the number of hits I get each day as a barometer to measure unhappiness in the world.

Smoking Dinosuars - Gary Larson

If you happen to search on “dinosaur dreams” I’m the #2 return on Google and #21 on Bing. (Why doesn’t Bing like me?) This is very weird too. Evidently, 30-50 people each day have a dream about dinosaurs, search Google to find out why, and come to my blog to read “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” So far, over 13,000 people have done that. That’s pretty amazing that so many people dream about dinosaurs. Even more amazing – some of my readers have dreams just like mine, where dinosaurs show up, and everyone knows to be quiet and still, but some dumbass always makes a noise near us to attract their attention. I’m always more mad at the noisemaker in these dreams than scared of the dinosaur.

JWH

Tidying Up Beyond Marie Kondo

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The KonMari Method of tidying up one’s life focuses on household possessions, but I’ve been thinking of ways of decluttering my mind, my routine activities, my computer, my physical and digital subscriptions, and what I own in the cloud. In the 21st century, ownership can be quite different from the 20th century, because many of the things we once physically held can be digitized. Then, there’s the whole issue of own versus rent – house v. apartment, car v. Uber, DVDs v. Netflix, magazines v. Texture, CDs v. Spotify.

I have many rooms in the cloud that need tidying up.

minimal1

For example, I have this blog at Auxiliary Memory, but I also have a traditional web site at a hosting service for The Classics of Science Fiction. That site has been static for years because I’ve forgotten how to program in PHP and MySQL. I’ve been meaning to update my data, but that would mean a tremendous amount of work. I recently moved the content from my web site to this site, and that has simplified things. I will soon be able to cancel my hosting service. One less bill, and one less room in the cloud to keep tidy.

My friend Mike and I are working to update the Classics of Science Fiction list. My first plan to simplify was to move from a hosted MySQL server to using Access on my local computer. Then Mike suggested we jettison the database and use a spreadsheet for our data. Even simpler. Then we decided to even jettison the spreadsheet, and keep the data in .csv text files that we process on the fly. Mike is writing a program that will generate HTML code for using on my blog. Once you take the tidying up process beyond mere possessions, it become obvious that clutter is everywhere.

Another way I could reduce the psychological clutter in my life is by focusing my writing. Right now I write about whatever idea grabs my fancy – often because I’m fascinated by everything. The trouble is I can put in hours of work on some ideas and get no readers, and for other topics get hundreds of hits. Auxiliary Memory could be greatly improved if I narrowed the topics I covered. This would spill over to my reading, documentary watching and thinking. I could declutter my mind by deciding which subjects I want to truly learn, and which I should ignore.

Marie Kondo has a lot to say about getting rid of books. For a bookworm, that’s very hard to do. One way I’ve cheated is to stop buying physical books when I can, and bought ebooks instead. Out-of-sight is out-of-mind. But now my Kindle library is becoming cluttered. The same thing has happened with my music. I ripped my CDs and put them in the cloud, but I mostly play music from Spotify, so I have three large libraries of music to deal with – physical, cloud and rented. If I committed completely to Spotify I could simplify things greatly. I got rid of about 600 CDs, kept 600 that were my absolute favorites, and have another 600 I’m trying to decide if I should keep or jettison. I only play CDs on rare occasions. I wonder if it’s time go completely digital?

I moved my photographs to the cloud, so I have two large collections – one physical, one in the cloud. Is it time to commit to just one?

I gave up cable TV years ago, but ended up subscribing to several digital services. I just canceled Hulu, Pandora and The Great Courses Plus. They are all great services, but ones I seldom use. I was also subscribing to several digital magazines through the Kindle. I canceled them. I’m torn about Texture. It’s $15 a month and lets me read 150 magazines, but I hardly use it. On the other hand, it lets me have access to magazines that would otherwise clutter up the house. Then again, maybe it’s time to give up magazine reading. I actually spend most of my journalistic reading via free web content on my iPhone. I subscribe to The New York Times on the web. It’s great content. But I often forget to read it.

I do worry that all this decluttering is impacting the economy. If everyone followed a Zen-like path of simplicity, the economy would go down the drain. Can we create a decluttered economy that provides jobs for all?

The biggest way I can simplify my life would be to sell the house and downsize. I’m tired of repairs and worrying about the yard. I’m tired of furnishing rooms we don’t use. I’d love to move to a retirement community where I lived in an apartment or condo without a yard, but I worry about noise pollution. I love playing my music loud, and my movies in surround sound, and I hate hearing neighbors. I’m sure they’d hate hearing me. I suppose to could live with headphones.

I’m not quite ready to pull the trigger on moving, which means I need to keep tidying up this house. After Susan and I went through one phase of Marie Kondoizing, getting rid of several hundreds pounds of junk, we felt much better. But I think we could still jettisons hundreds of pounds more.

Once you start thinking about clutter, you see it everywhere.

JWH

Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View

cage-talosian

The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction

Pike-holding-Phaser

The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.

JWH

“Humans Are Such Dicks!” Say all the animals.

If animals could talk, can you imagine their trash talk about us? Nothing for children to overhear. Imagine how furious they’d get if they could read books like The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert or Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scanton. Humans are now the cause of the sixth great mass extinction event in the history of the Earth. We’ve fucked this world up so bad that scientists are now naming the geologic age after us – the Anthropocene. And since we’re such collective dumbasses, the age will probably be a short one. To make it even more tragic, scientists are discovering that animals are more aware, more sentient, than we thought. Consciousness of reality, is a spectrum, not a quantum leap. We may be the crown of creation on this planet, but we’re despotic rulers.

After I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, I started feeling very guilty about what our species is doing to all the other species. Then I started reading Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight For Life by Edward O. Wilson, who suggests we can absolve our guilt if we shared the planet fairly. I’m not sure most of my fellow humans feel that way. And then I bought, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal. This one makes me feel even guiltier. Can we even comprehend minds not like our own? For the past year, I’ve noticed in my news reading more stories dealing with animal intelligence and sentience. Most people love animals, but do they love them enough to give them their fair share of the world?

I’m still reading on the last two books, but when I went looking for customer comments about them on Amazon, I noticed these other books. There seems to be a flood of animal awareness books coming out. Can we read enough books to actually mind-meld with animals? Can we expand our awareness of the natural world quick enough to change who we are, before we destroy us all?

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe (June, 2016)

What A Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

Just as water influences the dynamics of vision, so it does for hearing, smell, and taste. Water is a superb conductor of sound waves, where they are almost five times longer than in air, as sounds travel five times faster in water. Fishes have benefited from this since the dawn of bones and fins, using sound for both orientation and communication. Water is also an excellent medium for diffusing water-soluble chemical compounds, and is well suited for the perception of smells and tastes. Fishes have separate organs for smelling and tasting, although the distinction is blurred because all substances are encountered in a water solution.

As they did color vision, fishes probably invented hearing. Despite the common assumption that fishes are silent, they actually have more ways of producing sounds than any other group of vertebrate animals. None of these methods involve the main method of all the other vertebrates: the vibration of air against membranes. Fishes can rapidly contract a pair of vocal muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, which also serves as a sound amplifier. They have the options of grating their teeth in their jaws, grinding additional sets of teeth lining their throat, rubbing bones together, stridulating their gill covers, and even—as we’ll see—expelling bubbles from their anuses. Some land-dwelling vertebrates get creative in producing nonvocal sounds, such as the drumming of woodpeckers and the chest pounding of gorillas, but fishes’ terrestrial cousins possess just two types of vocal apparatus—the syrinx of birds and the larynx of all the rest.

“What a Fish Hears, Smells, and Tastes” by Jonathan Balcombe

Makes you wonder what a fish feels and screams when hooked on a line, and then jerked out of the water. Imagine being that fish. Pescatarians probably feel fish are lesser creatures, and thus ethically consumable. But is that true?

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (April, 2016)

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer AckermanFor a long lime, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction.

Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all.

That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so. from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers when it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend bask principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future.

“One – From Dodo to Crow: Take the Measure of a Bird Mind”  by Jennifer Ackerman

My friend Anne raised a baby starling this spring, and I hung out with her when she released the bird. For a couple weeks the bird would come see her. You could see that it had imprinted on Anne, and for a while, that bird lived in two worlds – his natural world, and ours. When you’re that close to nature, you see that nature is more than what we dismiss.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (Sept, 2016)

I can’t quote from the book, but here’s the blurb at Amazon:

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter WohllebenIn The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.

Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.

I’ve been a vegetarian since 1969, and I have always assumed that plants didn’t suffer. This will be a hard book for me to read. Humans are animals, and in the animal world, everything eats some other creature. But I think, because we’re more aware of reality, we have an obligation to be more than an animal. If we used the animal world for our precedent on ethics, murder would be acceptable. We need to be more conscious of what we eat, how it affects our own health, how it effects the biosphere, and its impact on the ethical treatment of other species. If we stopped raising cattle, it would be one route to Wilson’s plan to share the planet. That would give back a tremendous amount of land to the plants and animals, and greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We should also cut back on fishing the oceans, and let the seas recover.

Of course, that means humans giving up something. We’re not really good at do-be-sharers. But if we gave up beef and at least half of the seafood we eat, we could dramatically change the direction of the sixth extinction. Will we? I don’t think so. I doubt many people will even read these books.

And I don’t mean to be cynical.

It’s just everything the animals say about us is true.

JWH

Star Trek Histories at 50

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 15, 2016

My celebration of Star Trek at 50 continues, which began with “Remembering Star Trek—50 Years” and then “Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia.” I was never a Trekkie/Trekker, never went to a Star Trek convention, and I’ve only read a couple of the novels, so I don’t know why I’ve developed this sudden fascination with Star Trek. For decades I’ve had a hard time watching any old TV shows again—they were just too simplistic. Only the latest and best TV keeps my attention. Then something happened, something clicked, and I didn’t hate ancient television anymore. WTF?

It all started when I caught a few episodes of Gunsmoke, and then I read Leonard by William Shatner, which described working in 1950s television. This week I’ve caught episodes of I Love Lucy, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Make Room For Daddy, and Perry Mason, all from the 1950s. And, Annie, my Star Trek buddy, and I, are chronologically going through the 1960s Star Treks. I’m in some kind of time warp, and I can’t get out. Why?

Maybe it started when I was bingeing on 1950s science fiction books, and that somehow altered my consciousness so I could enjoy the old television again. Maybe the 1950s is just a comfortable place to hide out for a while. Living in the 1950s for a while evidently prepared me to enjoy 1960s Star Trek again. After reading Leonard and beginning the systematic rewatching of ST:TOS, I began craving more data about Star Trek.

The Fifty-Year Mission v1The Fifty-Year Mission v2

That’s when I discovered the two-volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years and The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, both by Edward Gross Mark A. Altman. The first volume is even available on audio. These are beautiful books, massive in scope, that includes hundreds of new interviews, that attempt to cover the entire subject of Star Trek and its legacy. What Gross and Altman do is cut and paste thousands of quotations from everyone involved into one long, two-volume, chronological narrative. It’s both a history of Star Trek and a study in how television and movies are made, and how a cult phenomenon was created.

These-are-the-Voyages-v1-CushmanThese-are-the-Voyages-v2-CushmanThese-are-the-Voyages-v3-Cushman

Because there was so much written about Star Trek, I wondered what are considered the most comprehensive books on just ST:TOS, so I started poking around Amazon and found this three volume set by Marc Cushman:

Because these books are an episode-by-episode history of the classic 79 ST:TOS shows, I bought the first volume to read along with my rewatching of the series. These five books should keep me busy for years. Maybe three years. I’ve been thinking of writing a review of each show on it’s 50th anniversary. Of course, that sounds like one of those projects that I’ll start and give up quickly. However, my new fascinating with these old Star Trek shows is different this time. Fifty years ago I judged each show by my then standard for science fiction. Many episodes seemed way too silly to be considered science fiction because the science didn’t seem believable. This time around, I’m seeing the shows as allegories and metaphors, and not concerning myself as much with the science.

From the handful of episodes we’ve seen again, I realize each episode makes a statement about science fiction, the social and political climate of the day, and the ambitions of their creators. Fifty years down the road, I’m using Star Trek to study what we were all like in the 1960s – a kind of cultural anthropology. With 79 episodes, I’m sure Star Trek probably said everything anyone could about what’s possible with science fiction.

Star Trek was never my vision of science fiction. I’ve never really liked television and movie science fiction as much as I love written science fiction. Quite often, visual science fiction seems silly, even demeaning to written science fiction. Now, that’s my POV, and I know it’s not a common one. For example, the first four episodes of Star Trek (as seen on Netflix streaming, including the first pilot) have stories built around aliens or humans with god-like powers. Annie and I were arguing about that last night. She claims aliens could have super-powers, because we don’t know what’s possible. I say destroying a space ship and its crew light years away with just a thought is an unbelievable god-like power. I’m an atheist – not only do I not believe in God, I don’t believe in god-like powers. But what does it say when science fiction creators and fans do?

Roddenberry was known to be an atheist, so why does he write about god-like beings? In the first pilot, humans reject any paradise the Talosians promise because we refuse to be their playthings. In the second pilot, Kirk kills the two crewmen who become gods. How symbolic! Are those stories allegories, and Gary Mitchell, and later Q, stand in for something Roddenberry wants to attack? Is this science fiction or theology? What do the Talosians stand for in the story? Are they merely powerful aliens, or metaphor for gods? The crew of Star Trek always rejects, escapes, destroys or outwits powerful god-like aliens. Hell, they have a tough time accepting Spock, and his cold logical mind. This show is amazingly pro-human. Should I even say, humanistic.

If I study these history books about Star Trek will I find out why each show was written? Are their academic books that critically analyze the stories. Or, are the stories merely cribbed from 1950s science fiction. “Charlie X” seems to borrow from Stranger in a Strange Land and “The Good Life” by Jerome Bixby. How often in the original 79 episodes of Star Trek do the the writers reprocess for the current week’s show something they read in F&SF, Galaxy, If and Astounding during the previous decade? Science fictional ideas that were spread to thousands in the 1950s with magazines, were now being spread to millions on television.

I’m currently fascinating by Star Trek for many reasons. I’m rethinking my own brain programming. I rejected God and religion back when I began embracing science fiction. But after a lifetime of accepting my science fictional faith, I’m developing skeptical thoughts. The foundation of my thinking comes from 1950s television, reading science fiction in the 1960s, and absorbing the 1960s counter culture. Strangely, I believe Star Trek did the same thing.

JWH

Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 14, 2016

Star Trek has a wonderful reputation for presenting a positive future, but do we actually see that utopia in the television shows and movies? In the new film, Star Trek Beyond, we get a few minutes viewing life on Yorktown, a space city and rest stop for the crew of the Enterprise. It represents the utopian civilization of the Star Trek universe. However, if the future is what we see from the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s quite bleak indeed. The Earth, the Federation, the galaxy are always under threat from madmen and alien beings that don’t agree with the Federation’s view of how the galaxy should be ruled.

YorkTown

In the documentary Chaos on the Bridge, William Shatner interviews many of the principle individuals who created Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many of the stories told were about Gene Roddenberry’s new utopian vision for Star Trek. Writers found utopia hard to dramatize. The writers wanted violence, and Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to showcase what humanity could be at its best. The creative battle to create ST:TNG was quite dystopian itself, with one interviewee admitting he thought about pushing Roddenberry’s lawyer out an open window. The solution for providing conflict to the utopian Federation of the 24th century, was to create the Borg. A challenge from outside the utopia. This gave the actors something to do physically, and writers an antagonist for their plots. The show became a success.

But what about Star Trek’s reputation for presenting a positive future? To the crew of Star Trek Beyond, the future is hell, even though they’re defending an idyllic civilization. This time the attack is from within, a terrorist with a bioweapon. But if you look at the history of Star Trek shows, why are there so many internal and external attacks on the Federation? It’s hard to justify you’re painting a rosy picture of the future, when so many want to destroy it.

Aren’t there ways writers could show the future with fewer threats and more civilized activities? What if Star Trek Beyond had been a different movie. Imagine no galactic terrorists, but instead, a story about how the crew  spent their time at Yorktown. Could the writers have presented a view of the future that Roddenberry wanted? One where we felt that things would turn out all right. One that gave us hope for the future. Right now, all indications are the future is going to suck big time. My most successful essay on this blog for the last two years has been “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” I’m not sure most of us believe humanity will solve its problems. Is science fiction confirming our pessimism, or generated it?

I don’t ever expect a real utopia. But if we eventually create a sustainable society without violence, want and environmental self-destruction, I’d call it good enough for the label utopia.

If Star Trek is a positive view of the future, should we see so many phasers and space battles in a 24th century? Think about this. How many TV shows and movies do you watch that have guns? And how many that don’t. Guns are an easy way to drive the plot. But there are plenty of entertaining shows without guns. Should we consider The Big Bang Theory utopian? Look at the 100 most-watch shows of 2015-2016 season. If you subtract comedies and reality shows, it’s not easy to find shows that don’t involve violence as a plot driver. And the ones that do, like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, generally don’t appeal to guys. It’s easy to see why writers fought Gene Roddenberry over story ideas.

Of course we have to ask what we really want. Do moviegoers plunking down ten bucks want to see Sing Street, Love & Friendship, Brooklyn, or do they want to see computer generated space battles? (By the way, try and find a blockbuster movie for adults that don’t have violence.) Why are so many escapist blockbuster movies about extreme violence? When we walk into a movie theater we’re paying to leave the real reality and experience an artificial reality. Our society is far from utopian, but many people live near utopian lives. Sure a large segment of our society also live unhappy, miserable lives. But why would either type seek out escapism that involves mass killing?

Do we even want utopias in our entertainment? Fiction is driven by conflict. The easiest conflict to create is violence. That explains most television and movie plots. But what about Roddenberry’s vision? I need to rewatch the first two years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many claim those seasons are the worst of the series, but yet they were the ones when Roddenberry had the most influence.

Other Takes

JWH