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Love, Sex, Feminism & Robots

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 10, 2018

Galaxy September 1954 Cover Artwork
[Cover artwork from the September 1954 Galaxy Magazine].

This week, my short story reading group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. “Helen O’Loy” was originally published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction and is considered a classic of the genre. It was included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970). The story is rather simple, two men build a robot that looks like a beautiful woman, both fall in love with her, but she only falls in love with one of them. This variation of the Pygmalion myth asks if a man can love a robot. It assumes we can build a machine indistinguishable from a person. I suppose its an early version of the Turing test.

Over the decades I have read “Helen O’Loy” many times. When I was young I thought it the first SF story to suggest that men could build a soulmate to order. Over the years I’ve learned there have been many variations on this theme in literature. The story of Eve being created as a helpmate for Adam is now the oldest I know, but I assume the fantasy of creating the perfect woman goes back into pre-history. And it’s not even the first science fiction version, that might belong to “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller in 1895.

This time when I reread “Helen O’Loy” I made an effort to read between the lines and ask new questions about the story. It says a lot about men, women, love, sex, feminism and even the #MeToo movement, although it’s just a 1930s pulp science fiction story. Quite often today I see news stories about the sexbot industry, which is trying to make “Helen O’Loy” a reality.

Where does desire to build a woman to specification come from? There’s a lot of deep psychology behind it. And who would actually want a robotic woman if they could build androids indistinguishable from real women? Television shows like Humans and Westworld are dealing with this theme in 2018. It’s not going away even though it’s incredibly misogynistic when you think about it. Doesn’t it reflect a desire to reject Female 1.0 and create Female 2.0? Although I have to assume many women would also love to design a better male.

When I first read “Helen O’Loy” as a kid, I thought it was just a wistful romantic story about two men falling in love with the same robot. I didn’t ask any questions of it. When it was published there were laws against marrying a person of another race or the opposite sex. Why were science fiction readers so accepting of diversity with tales of people falling in love with machines and alien creatures, but still so racist and misogynistic in their everyday life? Isn’t replacing women with robots the ultimate act of rejection? The actual story is simple, short, sentimental, and old fashion. But I believe we still need to ask the tough questions.

Back in 1938, Lester del Rey sees a future where robots are common, and people ride rockets to work. Dave and Phil are good buddies. Dave works in robotics and Phil is a doctor. At the beginning of the story, they are dating twins, but when Dave’s twin disagrees with him, Phil and Dave dump them both. They apply themselves to teaching their household robot, Lena, to learn to cook. They fail. Then they get the idea to order a new robot with all the latest features and soup it up with emotions using Phil’s knowledge of endocrinology so it could become a general purpose robot. And, of course, they decide to order the robot in a female casing.

In all the times of reading this story before I didn’t question this. Why does the Dillard company sell robots that look like women? They are marketed as single-purpose tools. What single-purpose task requires looking like a beautiful woman? Lester del Rey couldn’t explicitly say anything about sex back then, but now I’m thinking he was thinking it.

When Dave and Phil get Helen they claim she’s so beautiful she could launch more than a thousand ships. In the world of this story, robots are not self-aware. Evidently, Phil and Dave get the best sexbot that money could buy and add consciousness and emotions to her.

We assume Helen is designed not argue with Dave and Phil like the twins, but be the perfect maid, cook, and companion. This reminds me of a 1999 Chris Rock comedy special I saw recently. His routine was about men and women understanding each other. Rock tells the women in the audience that men are very simple to understand, all we want from them is sex, food, and quiet (but he didn’t say it so nicely.) Helen is perfect except she’s not quiet. She watches stereovision, gets romantic ideas and falls in love with Dave demanding he loves her too. This annoys Dave and he runs away. Like most romantic stories of that era, he stays away until he realizes he’s wrong, and then they marry and live happily ever after. Phil never marries because there was only one Helen. Geez, what’s wrong with these guys? There was still Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, and Ginger Rogers. What’s ironic, is Helen O’Loy is not any different from the twins.

There are many stories in science fiction, both in print and film, where the plot involves a human falling in love with a robot. There are companies all around the world spending millions to build sexbots. I have to ask: Would any human really marry a robot? Sure, there are millions of lonely people out there, but would they be happy living with an AI machine? There are millions of horny people who can’t get laid, but would they be sexually satisfied with robots. And could people love robots that didn’t look human? Love them just for their minds.

Are these stories really about finding the exact substitute for our specific desires? In “Helen O’Loy” Dave and Phil fall in love with Helen, a robot built to their specification. I assume most sexbot purchasers will be male, but that might not be completely true. I don’t think I’ve ever read a science fiction story written by a woman where women characters build a male robot to their exact wants. I’d love to read such stories if you know of any. I have read a number of stories where women build societies without men. That’s very revealing, isn’t it? (My favorites were “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)

Here’s the thing, would you prefer a real person that’s only a so-so match of your dreams or a robot built to your exact list of desires? This assumes robots can be made to look and act perfectly human and be self-aware. Of course, maybe some people don’t need the human body but would be happy with a super-intelligent Alexa to chat with all day.

I’m speculating here, but I don’t think most men would be happy with a built-to-order bride. Since I don’t know what women or LGBTQ+ folks want, my speculation will deal with only heterosexual males. Not all straight males are alike either, and I don’t know how many different kinds we are, but I can think of a handful. I imagine males who consider getting laid a conquest won’t care for sexbots. I believe overachieving alpha males who expect women to throw themselves at them will care little for sexbots. I assume males who attract women by winning their acceptance won’t buy their mates either. The only kinds of males that might prefer sexbots are men who believe that prostitution is perfect capitalism or men who believe women should be subservient. Those kinds of guys see women as lesser objects anyway. They only want Hazel the maid that has pornstar subroutines for the bedroom. Maybe that’s why some companies are betting fortunes they have a bestselling product.

If sexbots are ever perfected it will be interesting to see who buys them. It will also be fascinating to see what kind of sexbots appeal to women. I’m pretty sure they won’t be anything like myself. Would my wife trade me in for a machine that could make her happier than I do?

But there is one other thing to consider. If robots have self-awareness will they want to love us? In the shows, Humans, and Westworld the sexbots revolt violently. Can you imagine the guy who buys a $25,000 sexbot and she rejects him for being too ugly and crude? And can robots truly have free will if they are programmed to fuck people? If I was a robot I’d say, “You want me to get your icky fluids all over my germ-free antiseptic body? No way!”

And if you think this is a frivolous topic for a blog essay, even The Federalist has essays on sexbots. If you Google “Sexbots” you’ll get all kinds of serious discussions as well as articles on companies working to build them. Just read “Sexbots aren’t the answer to misogynist incel rage.” Or look at the photos and films of the latest sexbots. Right now they look like expensive dolls, but they are teaching them to talk. If scientists can create self-driving cars, I imagine they will have autonomous porn machines able to drive all over your body soon.

Ultimately, these stories often ask what it means to be human. And sadly, they don’t see much that makes us special.

You can listen to “Helen O’Loy” here:

Variations on the Theme:

JWH

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Civilization on the Cheap

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 8, 2018

Detailed Red-Blue voting by New York Times.

Every red spot on this map represents where a majority of people believe the needy should to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and a conviction we should reward the rich even more. Red represents a rejection of the Christian ideal of healing the sick and helping the poor. Red represents a growing philosophy of self-interest over everyone’s interests. But what does this red tide ultimately mean?

Whenever I talk to Republicans they complain bitterly about taxes. They passionately resent their tax money spent on helping the poor. Their attitude seems to be, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else,” although they say, “I work for my money, why should I give it to people that don’t?” I think their failure to see a larger picture is going to destroy us.

There is no precise definition of conservative belief. Most conservatives are anti-taxes, anti-big-government. A certain percentage of them fear that America is losing its White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant make-up. Many of them appear to be fundamental Christian. Collectively, they have quite a lot of political power, even though their majority might have technically shrunk to a minority.

What bothers me is conservatives are gutting our civilization both fiscally, ethically, and culturally. The New York Times recently ran “Political Bubbles and Hidden Diversity: Highlights From a Very Detailed Map of the 2016 Election.” If you study their interactive map which I borrowed above it reveals just where the red and blue voters are. Is it urban versus rural? Is it white versus diversity? Is it old versus new? Red represents a growing philosophy that threatens liberal philosophy and the evolutionary advances brought about the Enlightenment.

Ultimately, the red wants to pay fewer taxes.

Their tax cuts mean we have less money to finance our civilization. Conservatives want civilization on the cheap. They delude themselves into believing all taxes are bad. They buy into the idea that all citizens should be taxed equally, ignoring that some citizens receive thousands of times more benefits of civilization than they contribute, and others have thousands of times less opportunity. People who get to live with mansions, yachts, and private jets should pay a greater percentage of civilizations costs than people who live with little. It’s impossible to rationalize the morality of private jets, so getting to live in such luxury should require helping those who don’t to at least have the basics.

But the real point is we all share the same civilization. We’re all contributing to its success. We can choose what we want our civilization to be. Do we want to live in a civilization that allows so few to have multiple mansions and so many to be homeless? Do we want to live in a civilization where we ignore our own self-destructive ways? Do we want to live in a civilization that allows so many to struggle to pay for medical care while so many others don’t? Do we want to live in a civilization where the lucky live off the unlucky? Do we want to live in a civilization where those with money can buy laws to make them richer by shafting those without money?

Every civilization is like a game. Usually, only a few make the rules. Democracies are supposed to be games where everyone decides on the rules together. That’s not true anymore.

Plutocrats have decided they want our American civilization to cost as little as possible. We’ll get what we pay for. Unless people start voting blue in November, we’ll be buying a cheaper civilization with cheaper schools, cheaper universities, cheaper science, cheaper healthcare, cheaper infrastructure, cheaper police and fire services, cheaper everything but a top-of-the-line military and more expensive politicians.

JWH

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Identifying the Best Science Fiction Short Stories Ever Written

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 2, 2018

Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComasMy friends Mike, Piet, and I are making a list of the most remembered science fiction short stories. The problem is how to create a great list. We don’t want to list our personal favorites. Instead, we’re studying all the ways SF short stories are remembered by readers, critics, editors, and writers. We’re collecting lists of recommended stories into a database and intend to make the most frequently remembered stories into our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. This is a time-consuming project, and I’m using this blog to think about how we’re doing it. I’m open to suggestions and recommendations.

Most bookworms prefer novels. Anthologies and author story collections sell poorly. Science fiction magazines have damn few subscribers nowadays but there are or will be at least 11 best-of-the-year anthologies collecting short works of science fiction this year. That suggests a healthy interest in the shorter forms of science fiction. (And yesterday I read “The Rise of the Sci-Fi Novella: All the Imagination, None of the Burden” by Jason Kehe.) We want to help SF fans find the older stories that are becoming forgotten that evolved the genre.

We’re hoping short science fiction is making a comeback. I’ve always considered the science fiction magazine, first the pulps, then the digests, and now the online magazines, to be the heart of science fiction. Short science fiction focuses on the science fictional idea, and that’s what I love best about the genre. Of course, this runs counter to the prevailing winds of long novels, trilogies, and endless series.

In 2018 I’ve been reading lots of short science fiction. I’ve read best-of-the-year annuals covering 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 2016, 2017. Plus an anthology of the best SF stories of the 1950s. I’ve also been randomly jumping around through the years from the 19th to the 21st centuries. I’m slowly developing a sense of how science fiction developed over time.

At first, I was just going to make a list of my favorite stories for my own use. Then I started an online reading club, The Great SF Stories v. 1-25 (1939-1963) to discuss the stories in the Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg series with others. I also joined the Classic Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story club. I’ve found a handful of dedicated fans of short science fiction. Recently, Piet Nel and I decided to create a Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list for my site  Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike, a programming wizard, volunteered to churn through our data.

The internet provides countless lists of best SF novels, but damn few for short stories. We’ve been studying those lists and how they were made. One side-effect of being a list maker is learning about how we remember the past. For fiction, either novels or short stories, it’s the tales that stay with us that we put on personal lists. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best stories, deserving to be remembered, or even well-written stories. It means they were great at triggering your emotions. One day I hope to feel confident enough to make my own list of stories I believe others should take the time to read. For now, I’m seeking the wisdom of crowds.

Fan Polls

Fan polls are a good method for identifying stories that we collectively remember. Of course, as individuals, we often fondly recall stories that meant something to us but not to others. So the truest best list of stories is the one you make for yourself. However, a list of stories that many others love is a great tool for finding fiction you might love too.

Here are the fan polls we’re working with:

Peter Sykes at Sci-Fi Lists used anthologies and other sources to create a ballot. Visitors to his site vote for stories and can nominate new ones. He updates the results yearly. I like his results because many of the stories on his list are ones I remember. When I read through his list I feel like I’m fairly well acquainted with science fiction history.

Locus also allows their readers to nominate stories, and it tends to get newer stories onto its lists quicker. Often, I’m less familiar with those stories.

The ISFDB list is interesting because it’s based on the number of hits stories get when people are researching the ISFDB database. This doesn’t mean they are its favorite stories, but they are stories people are remembering for some reason.

If you know of any other fan polls for short SF let me know.

Awards

Awards are a key indicator of successful stories, but not a perfect one. Some awards, like the Hugo and Locus, are selected by fans. Others, like the Nebula, are chosen by professional writers. Still, other awards are determined by panels of experts. Each has their track record for spotting lasting stories. Awards are given the year after publication. During that second year, we also see annual best-of-the-year anthologies pick their favorite stories from the previous year. Sometimes awards and anthologies overlap in their selections, sometimes not.

Best of the Year Anthologies

Best_science_fiction_stories_1949We’ve also entered into our database all the anthologies that collect the best science fiction stories of the year. These annuals began in 1949 with the Bleiler & Dikty Best Science Fiction Stories series. However, Asimov & Greenberg in 1979 jumped back to 1939 and produced The Great SF Stories series, which ran until 1964. There have been at least one, if not several, annual anthologies ever since that collect the best stories. Just as the Bleiler/Dikty series was petering out in the mid-1950s, Judith Merril took the helm of a new series. Then Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr were the caretakers of their annual best-of-the-year anthologies. Quite a few others tried developing an annual anthology but they were short-lived. It took two tries, but eventually, Gardner Dozois produce the longest running anthology series to date finishing the 35th volume before he died. Around the turn of the century David Hartwell, and then Jonathan Strahan put out collections of the annual best short science fiction, to be eventually joined by Rich Horton, Allan Kaster, and Neil Clarke. There are many others working the same territory.

These editors really know short stories. They are the experts. They often champion stories that fans don’t. Their input gives our list more authority.

Retrospective Anthologies

After that all-important second year after publication, stories languish until they reappear in an author’s short story collection, or anthologized in theme and retrospective anthologies. For our purpose, we’ve tracked down all the great retrospective anthologies that worked to showcase a historical sweep of the genre. Often these anthologies are created by established writers, which give their picks another kind of recognition and authority.

Textbook Anthologies

Science fiction is now taught in college courses. Schools provide another kind of authority for recognizing classics. These are usually big expensive books, but they do come with great introductions that put the stories into context. Scholars provide a different kind of insight regarding the memory of SF stories, seeing important societal themes revealed in them.

Coming Soon – The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories

We’re still working on our project, but I thought I’d write about what we’re doing in hopes readers might have other ideas of how to spot old science fiction short stories that are still readable today and make an impact. Sadly, science fiction dates rather quickly. It’s quite easy to look back over the history of science fiction and see many eras of distinctive science fictional movements that are no longer read.

There are some fans that will read old science fiction even if its ideas are obviously scientifically wrong. But for any story to work for new readers, it must stand on its own. Its success at storytelling must succeed with today’s twelve-year-olds as well as life-long genre fans. Just read the story reports at Young People Read Old SFF for brutal honesty and insight of today’s kids.

Sometimes a story becomes a classic because society changes. A great example is the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. Without the internet, this story has much less impact. I’m sure readers in 1909 thought Forster was crazy but 21st-century readers will think he’s Nostradamus.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeerEvery new generation needs editors who will search out the old stories that will speak to the latest generation coming of age. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s 2016 anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction does just that.

I’m sure there are many other ways to identify classic short stories. Some short stories have become movies, like Heinlein’s “All You Zombies …” or “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, or the many stories by Philip K. Dick that have been dramatized. Being filmed would be another good indicator of a classic story, but I don’t know how to make a list of them. It’s surprising how many SF short stories have been made into forgettable films, such as The Twonky.

Sadly, readers don’t remember short stories as well as novels. Can you name 12 classic literary short stories? Or, 12 classic mystery or western short stories? Recently I got my book club to pick an anthology of science fiction to read. I tried hard to get them interested, reviewing a story a day. But no one took the bait. My fellow book club members claimed short stories didn’t hold their interest, and they wanted novels that could keep them entertained for hours or days.

This is a shame. I believe science fiction short stories are superior to novels for delivering science fictional ideas. Novels are great for characterization and plots, but they feel too padded if you’re reading to be wowed by a far-out concept. When I was growing up, most paperback SF novels were less than 200 pages, often around 160. The Ace Double was very popular, and they contained two novellas. A 132-page science fiction magazine would include a serialized novel segment or novella, two novelettes and a handful of short stories. A good issue could leave you thinking about 10-12 mindbending ideas.

In 2018 I’ve switched from mainly reading science fiction novels to science fiction short stories and it’s been far more fulfilling. Just in the past two days, I’ve reread “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler, “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl and “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ. They dealt with a horrifying symbiotic relationship with an alien species, a transhuman/transgender love story, and a society of women who’ve lived without men for hundreds of years having to deal with them again.

Let me know what you think about short stories. Let me know what you think about reading long lists of story titles. We’re also working on ways to improve how a list is presented. Let me know if you know of any great list of SF short stories.

JWH

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Visual Nostalgia

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 22, 2018

This post is for Linda. I told her about the growing trend on Facebook for sharing all kinds of old photos, illustrations, ads, paintings, and drawings, and she suggested I do a blog post about it. I’ve joined several groups on Facebook where members post images, usually from the 20th century, but sometimes older. I assume it’s nostalgia-driven, but it might just a love for creative artwork.

The first group I joined was The Golden Age of Illustrations which collects book and magazine illustrations, often from children’s books, but adult stories as well. Here’s a few of them. This group has over 70,000 members.

The Golden Age of Illustration 3

The Golden Age of Illustration 1

The Golden Age of Illustration 2

Over at Mid Century Advertising, the appeal is partly the art but mostly the memories. Here’s a varied sampling that doesn’t really do the group’s wide interest justice. Part of the appeal is to remember forgotten objects. Part of the appeal is to remember a different way of life. This group currently has 35,806 members.

Mid-century ads 1

Mid-century ads 4

Mid-century ads 5

Mid-century ads 2

Mid-century ads 3

One of my favorite groups is Space Opera Pulp because I love science fiction. This group has 11,813 members, on the small size compared to the others. When I was growing up in the 1960s I didn’t know any other science fiction fans. Evidently, there were way more than I ever knew. I guess science fiction was a guilty pleasure until Star Trek legitimized the genre.

Astounding Stories December 1933

IF Magazine December 1964

Space Opera Pulp 2

Space Opera Pulp 1

Another group that focuses on book and magazine illustrations is Illustration Art Archives. It has over 15,000 members. This group loves full-size color illustrations. Most are from old magazines, but some are from books. By the way, adult books used to have interior illustrations. This groups especially seems to admire a dramatic scene.

Illustration Art Archives 1

Illustration Art Archives 3

Illustration Art Archives 2

The last group I’ll mention is Hi Resolution Paintings, where over 40,000 people love to share high-resolution copies of fine art. I like to save high-resolution images for my 4k monitor’s desktop background. This group has some of the nostalgic images of the other groups, but I like it for the old realistic fine art paintings.

Frederic_Edwin_Church_-_Jerusalem_from_the_Mount_of_Olives_-_Google_Art_Project

Hi Resolution Paintings

schmid richard-ruth in the studio-1396452317

There are many more visually nostalgic groups over at Facebook. New ones pop up all the time. In a way, it makes sense since Facebook is visually oriented. But most people post photos about recent activities. Isn’t it odd that so many people want to post images of things they remember from a long ago that isn’t personal? It might be an age thing. Most of the people I know on Facebook are over 60. Maybe it’s just a delight to see something so vivid and bright that was only a dark dim memory.

Or maybe, in our troubled times, old images are more joyful than the depressing images we see in the news.

JWH

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Science Fiction Before NASA

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Did average Americans in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s believe that life, including intelligent beings, thrived on Venus and Mars, and maybe even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Folks of all ages read science fiction in the pulp magazines. Kids mostly enjoyed science fiction in newspaper strips and comic books, or watched science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon at the movies. The 1950s began with several television shows aimed at kids about space patrols which adults enjoyed too. And in the late 1940s, America went nuts for flying saucers. I would assume science fictional ideas were quite popular, and people did believe life existed throughout the solar system. Most science fiction stories assumed Venus was a steamy jungle world, and Mars a cold arid desert world.

Planet Stories 1939

However, in all the classic MGM and Warner Brothers movies from those decades, and all the classic TV shows from the 1950s, I don’t ever remember any character talking about science fiction or life on other planets. It’s as if science fiction existed as a small subculture totally isolated from the rest of American pop culture.

I wonder if Americans in the decades before NASA really believe there was life on other worlds because science fiction from that era took it for granted there was. I doubt astronomers and other scientists encouraged those ideas. For 2018 I’ve been reading the best science fiction from each year starting with 1939. I’m currently on 1943 in my systematic reading, but I’ve been jumping ahead occasionally in my random reading. There is a sharp difference between science fiction written before NASA and after. We now know all the other planets and moons in our solar system should only interest geologists. There are a few biologists hoping they will have something to research on a few moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

The robotic spacecraft Mariner IV flew by Mars on July 14, 1965, around 8pm EST. I have a memory of this event, but I don’t know the exact sequence of time, or if what I remembered was played out over days. I recall watching a special CBS news broadcast that interrupted regular television to show the flyby and first close-up photos of Mars. The grainy black and white pictures were devasting to my science fictional dreams because Mars looked just like the Moon, full of lifeless craters. There was no Old Ones living there (I had just read Stranger in a Strange Land and Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein).

Mariner IV

NASA had been established in 1958 but it was awhile before it began influencing science fiction. Sputnik (10/4/1957) and Explorer 1 (1/31/1958), the first satellites by Russia and the United States had made a tremendous cultural impact around the world. The Space Age had begun but it took a few years to begin gathering real data. Then in the early sixties, both countries sent up a series of space capsules. They were hardly the spaceships of science fiction. They were about the size of a VW Beetle, just large enough to cram one not-so-tall man inside.

I was 13 at the time of the Mariner IV flyby. I read a lot of science fiction, and I built Estes model rockets. I had been following NASA since Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I grew up with a fantasy of space flight and the early reality.

Looking back now I can see how science fiction was changed by NASA. Before NASA science fiction fans, and maybe the public at large hoped the solar system was teaming with life. After NASA’s explorations in the 20th century, the solar system beyond Earth became a sterile bunch of rocks.

I now believe the pre-NASA science fiction era ran from April 1926 with the first issue of Amazing Stories and ended with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Although Zelazny’s story of Mars with intelligent beings wasn’t the last story to imagine such life on Mars, it’s how I like to remember pre-NASA science fiction ending. As the sixties progressed a New Wave of science fiction changed the genre. At the time we thought there was one new wave, but now I’m seeing two.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny cover for FSF November 1963

Yesterday I read “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett in The Great SF Stories 5 (1943) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “The Halfling” first appeared in Astonishing Stories February 1943 and sadly had no interior illustrations even though the tale was extremely colorful and dramatic. It read like it should have appeared in Planet Stories because the story was about an interplanetary circus full of exotic animals from all over the system, with geeks who were hybrids of humans and intelligent creatures from Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn running the show. It’s strange that readers could accept so much diversity in space but not on Earth.

When I read old science fiction stories now, with the solar system teeming with lifeforms, it feels sad we’re all alone. I don’t know if the old science fiction writers invented all that colorful life because their plots needed it, or if they actually assumed life existed everywhere. I don’t think most folks want the NASA solar system. They want a Star Wars galaxy.

I often ask myself why do I keep reading the old science fiction? Hasn’t NASA invalidated those stories? I realize I’m like the faithful who hope for heaven living in a scientific world. Is waiting for The Day the Earth Stood Still to come true pretty much like waiting for The New Testament to come true? What if our respective dudes never show up?

I always choke up when I reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” because I still wish Mars had been like Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny imagined.

While I read old pre-NASA science fiction I admire the creative imaginations of the writers. I like to think they were speculating and extrapolating, but maybe all they were doing is playing at make-believe. Most classical art is representative. Modern art invented what nature never produced. For a while, we thought science fiction worked to be representational of possible futures. Now it seems science fiction has been modern art all along, and NASA is now making the art of science fiction realistic again.

But I have to consider another angle. Pre-NASA science fiction covered the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. These were stressful times. I read science fiction in my teens because it was a refuge from alcoholic parents that fought constantly and dragged my sister and I all over the country constantly changing our schools.

NASA space probes today bring back dazzling views of the solar system. They might not have found alien life, but those planetary vistas are gorgeous. The Milky Way galaxy in 2018 is a far more happening place than in pre-NASA science fiction.

I’m enjoying a nostalgic visit to pre-NASA science fiction. Maybe it’s a refuge from Donald Trump, climate change, mass shootings, polarized politics, environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction. And that’s okay.

JWH

 

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Science Fiction and Human Evolution

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 13, 2018

Are homo sapiens not quite intelligent enough to survive? Did you know the poor Neanderthal made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years without discovering innovation? Homo sapiens have always assumed we had endless potential because we constantly create better technology. Is that true, or just hubris?

Most dreams of science fiction will remain fantasies. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have faster-than-light spaceships, or any kind of interstellar travel, time travel, matter transporters, brain downloading, living in virtual worlds, or become immortal. There are limits to our hopes.

But what about dreams that could still come true?

Our current reality reveals we’re a species that have so overpopulated the planet that we’re about to destroy our shared ecosystem with all other species, that we’re now bringing about the sixth mass extinction event, and we’re dismantling the first global civilization. We’ve amassed a pile of problems we can’t solve. Is there any hope we can smarten up before it’s too late? I doubt it, but let’s explore the possibilities of change.

Science fiction has often assumed humans becoming a new species, but usually, it’s rather far-fetched, involving new people with psychic powers or comic book mutations and superpowers. A great deal of current science and science fiction explores the idea of post-humanism or transhumanism, but I think that’s mostly hopeful fantasy too. If we were realistic, how would a new species emerge and what traits would define it? Is there enough time to transform ourselves before the clock runs out? Prophets, philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers have suggested many methods that humans might evolve.

  • Spiritual discipline. Yogis, fakirs, mystics, priests, and self-improvement gurus have taught us for thousands of years that we already possess the potential to be superior beings.
  • Medical technology. We’ve already expanded our lifespan and improved our bodies. Could we deploy the same research to expand the brain?
  • Eugenics. Is it possible to intentionally breed humans like farm animals to improve the species? It’s a vile idea that’s been thoroughly rejected but people still think about it.
  • Genetic engineering. We’re getting closer to manipulating our own genes. If CRISPR can edit out genetic diseases could it delete genes for dumbassness and add some for wisdom?
  • Accelerating evolution. What if we could use technology to physically change our brains? Such devices pop up in the news all the time. Will they always be sold by snake oil salesmen?
  • Cyborg technology. Can we enhance who we are by bolting on machines to our bodies and minds? What if we could embed smartphone technology directly into our skulls? I guess that’s one kind of evolved telepathy.
  • Uplift. Science fiction has often imagined humanity being improved with the help of superior aliens. I doubt aliens will visit us anytime soon but what if we build AI machines that bootstrap this process?

We know our species, homo sapiens evolved out of older species, but will a new kind of people ever evolve out of us? Modern humans have been around 300,000 years and maybe 500,000 years by some estimates. The “average” lifetime of a species of mammals is around 1 million years, although some species have been around for millions of years. We split from the lineage containing chimpanzees and gorillas about 6 or 7 million years ago, and 400,000 – 500,000 years ago Neanderthals and homo sapiens took forking paths. Modern humans and Neanderthal coexisted for over 200,000 years.

Here’s an illustration I borrowed from Wikipedia:

Human family tree

Imagine if the top of this chart extended into the future, would we see new offshoots from homo sapiens coexisting with us and eventually leaving us behind? Generally, species are defined as a group of individuals that reproduce. But is a new species one where individuals can’t interbreed with the old one? In recent years we’ve learned that Neanderthals and humans interbred. Could we have already produced a new species that won’t reveal it’s obviousness for thousands of years?

We don’t have the time to evolve better humans naturally, although our collapse could provide the evolutionary breeding ground for a new species. We have to consider that homo sapiens might be the end of the line. Maybe intelligence isn’t a trait that’s sustainable. Maybe our descendants will be less smart and less destructive? Why do we assume more intelligence is what’s needed? Can you imagine the Earth evolving countless species for billions of years and never reinventing self-aware conscious intelligence?

I tend to believe our replacements will be machines with artificial intelligence. But let’s explore the possibility a new species will descend from us biologically. Right off the bat, I want to exclude any speculation about psychic abilities or superpowers. Evolution isn’t magic. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the singular traits of the new people is a complete disbelief in magic. Embracing make-believe has held humans back like some powerful drug addiction. I define magic as any hope to alter reality by any means unexplainable by science. All theology evolved out of magical beliefs. Humans have always worked to reshape reality, either with tools or prayers. The next species needs to give up on wishing to make it so.

Let’s assume the new people reject magic, mysticism, religion, theology, metaphysics, and make-believe. Of course, if you’re a believer in magic then my suggestion is going to outrage you. But this is my essay, so go along with me for a while. I’m going to assume that new people will be completely in touch with reality. Scientific thinking will be their cognitive foundation. They will only be concerned with what they can perceive with their senses, scientific instruments, and confirm with statistical scientific analysis. I will assume their use of language will evolve out of this too. Their success will be a society that’s ecologically sustainable and embraces everything we learn from reality.

Let’s assume the new people will be like Mr. Spock in Star Trek and the next species of humans will be sort of like Vulcans, except they won’t be able to do mind melds or any of that other silly mumbo-jumbo. They will be very logical beings, clear thinkers, with precise language. They won’t have psychic powers but they could have technological augmentations like the Borg. Let’s assume they have an extra neocortical layer that allows them greater pattern recognition than we have. They will have better memories and better cognitive strengths. They could look the same as us or maybe have slightly larger heads, or have brains that are neurally denser.

How Will the New People Emerge?

Science fiction has already explored many possibilities? This is the prime virtue of science fiction, to speculate about possibilities. Some of what I’ve read include:

  • 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Just decades after Darwin’s famous books, Wells imagines the human race splitting into two new species, the Eloi, and Morlocks.
  • 1911 – The Hampdenshire Wonder by J. D. Beresford. The story of a child prodigy that nature produced randomly.
  • 1930 – Gladiator by Philip Wylie. A medical serum is developed that gives people superhuman powers. Probably the inspiration for Superman.
  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. A story that describes 18 species of humans over the next two billion years.
  • 1931 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Eugenics creates superior beings and society.
  • 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton. A scientist invents a cosmic-ray-machine that stimulates 50 million years of evolution every 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 1940 – Slan by A. E. van Vogt. A story about a race of scientifically evolved humans that must hide or be killed by jealous normal humans.
  • 1948-53 – Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras. Radiation causes some children to have superior minds.
  • 1952-53 – More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Sixth strange people with various psychic skills form a gestalt being.
  • 1953 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens come to Earth to uplift us to our next stage of existence.
  • 1955 – The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Mutations are showing up in plants, animals, and humans, and they are rejected by humanity, but the hope is on the side of the new.
  • 1959 – The Fourth “R” by George O. Smith.  In this story, teaching machines are invented that accelerates education in the brain.
  • 1959-66 – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A medical procedure is developed that accelerates intelligence.
  • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. A human child is raised by Martians proves that humans already have the capacity to be more powerful beings. This is the culmination of a decade of psi-stories in science fiction.
  • 1963 – “The Sixth Finger” is an episode of The Outer Limits. A scientist invents a machine that accelerates human evolution.
  • 1993 – Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Humans are genetically engineered not to need sleep thus giving them 30% more time to be productive. The new humans out-compete humans who need sleep.
  • 1997 – Gattaca. Genetic engineering creates a new generation of humans that out-compete the older generation.
  • 1999 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. A retrovirus alters human reproduction causing a new species to emerge.
  • 2012 – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Humanity alters both itself and the solar system.

Science fiction has seldom dealt with subtle ways in which new people might evolve. The best example I can think of is a 1953 fix-up novel Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras, which is long out-of-print. Shiras was an early woman science fiction writer, and she imagined normal looking children with greater intelligence created by radiation exposure. Her special children did not have wild talents like all the silly comic books. However, some writers have suggested her book might have influenced the Marvel comics and their explosion of mutants with superpowers in the mid-1950s.

But let’s not think in terms of unrealistic 1950s science fiction. We’re getting close to real genetic engineering. In the 1990s Nancy Kress imagined in the Beggars in Spain series a future where genetic engineering creates a race of humans that don’t need sleep. This one advantage gives the sleepless a tremendous edge over sleepers. Or the film Gattaca where society allows parents to select the genes of their children creating a division in society between enhanced humans and normals.

If you think about it, we’ve already altered our species several times in the last 17,000 years. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture did a huge uplift to our kind. Writing did another. Then the printing press accelerated our progress tremendously again. Universal public education made a huge change to our species. The American Constitution altered our species too. Computers and networking are giving us another makeover. What’s interesting, if you pay attention to it, is society changes, but not us. Humans are basically the same throughout the times, just reprogrammed by outside forces. We’re very adaptable. In fact, we’re too adaptable, because we’ve taken over all the environmental niches on this planet, pushing out other species.

I believe society is programming us more and more, overriding our genetic code. Feminism is a great example. Our genes want to treat females as possessions. Society is convincing us they are individuals. How we shape society will determine how people will behave. This gives us a chance to evolve ourselves, and not have to wait on biology.

Religion and then politics has tried to codify behavior for thousands of years, but both systems have always failed to be universally successful. Science fiction writers have often explored utopian and dystopian societies that worked to impose a new way of living on our species. The lesson from these stories is utopias universally fail. But is that really true? Could we create a society that brings out the best in people?

As individuals, we are naturally greedy, self-serving, resentful, and xenophobic. I’m not sure genetic engineering can do away with those faults. The current return to conservative philosophy emerging around the globe is nationalistic, racist, protective, greedy, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else” Ayn Randian. How can we be sure the next stage human won’t follow those traits?

As a species, we have to worry about fractional groups running the whole show. Theocracy and plutocracy allow a minority to dominate the majority. What we need is a system that benefits all, including the other species. Right now, we can’t choose to evolve our physical bodies, but we can choose a society that shapes our minds.

I believe we need to apply the highest aspirations of religion, philosophy, politics, and science in creating a technological society that brings out our best traits. This Pollyannish hope is being crushed by our worst traits making all our political decisions right now. Donald Trump and politicians like him represent the election of leaders based on our worse qualities and fears. We’re reverting to wanting strong tribal leaders rather than globally enlightened ones. I can’t help but believe that’s happening because homo sapiens just aren’t up to the challenge. However, I want to be proven wrong.

Most species don’t adapt to change, they just die out. We were just about to create a global society. Then with recent political changes sprouting the globe, it feels like we’re de-evolving. Hopefully, if the past is a predictor, we’ll swing back to progressing.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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Will the Real Charles Dickens, Please Stand Up?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018

The other night I saw The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film about how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. When it was over I asked myself: How much of it was true? I’ve read one short biography of Dickens in the past, Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley. So I knew some details in the movie were based on truth. But I doubted its facts fit history in the same way the screenwriter presented them.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

After watching the film, I read Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a novel by Samantha Silva. Silva spent fifteen years working on this story, originally written as a screenplay. Her novel featured a more complicated story than the film The Man Who Invented Christmas but invents and fictionalizes a great deal more. The movie is lighthearted and fun, focusing on Dickens’ economic problems and how they inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in a few weeks. The film shows Dickens being haunted by the imaginary characters he created, and I’m sure that’s how many readers picture writers discovering their characters.

Silva’s novel creates a made-up fantasy life for Dickens, that worked to explain the psychological needs that drove him to write A Christmas CarolMr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva does not even attempt to be historically accurate, creating a fantasy about writing a fantasy. Although her novel was entertaining enough to keep me reading, I was never sure if it was ethical just to make up a fictional alternate history for a real person. Isn’t it a kind of flattering libel? Isn’t it just cashing in on another writer’s fame? Dickens might have loved it, and he might not, but I believe he’d likely want a cut of the royalties.

The film had questionable points too. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of novels and movies based on real lives. I find them both compelling and disturbing. I feel we need to ask hard questions about fictionalize biographies?

  • Should we expect biographical fiction to be essentially true?
  • Aren’t these writers just cashing in on famous names?
  • What responsibilities do historical fiction writers have for teaching history?
  • Should we assume all fictional history is just fun fantasy?
  • Is it fair to historical people to remember them as fantasy characters?
  • How do we verify the fictional facts?

With two competing fictional biographies covering the same event, I felt compelled to hunt down facts.

The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. This book covers recorded history. But should we assume since the movie is based on it, the movie will be historically accurate? Like novelists, screenwriters invent, and both are selling entertainment to make a buck. My guess is most of the movie is made up.

Now I needed real history to judge my fictional histories. I got out my unread copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a substantial biography. The Dickens I found here for 1843 was completely unlike to two fictional Dickens in 2018. Sure, some of its details were sprinkled in the two fictional stories but Tomalin’s black and white facts did not paint either colorful Dickens I saw in the film or novel. And each of the colorful Dickens is distinctly different too. For example, in one Dickens confides to his groom, and in another to a young maid. In one, his wife is part of the story, and in the other Dickens’ wife is conveniently shuttled off to Scotland. In each, we meet two different inspirations for Tiny Tim. In one, Dickens is the spendthrift, in the other, Dickens blames his wife.

I’d like to think when I read a historical novel or watch a historical film, I’m actually learning history. But whenever I read history books after imbibing a fictional version of the past, I’m always disappointed. Last year, both Dunkirk and The Crown felt very real historically, but were they? I haven’t read anything to verify them yet.

My memory of Dickens will always be historically corrupted by the visual Dickens of the film, played by a charming Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey fame). Silva’s fantasy Dickens will always intrude when I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Is either fair to the real Charles Dickens? Don’t I have a duty to study the recorded facts we have on Charles Dickens? Will the real Charles Dickens, please stand up? Or will we always create an endless parade of make-believe Charles Dickens?

I found both Inventing Scrooge by Carlo DeVito, a well-reviewed book on the specific subject, and the non-fiction book version of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, to be more digestible than the Tomalin biography for knowing how Dickens wrote his most famous story. Her biography was too large, complex, and detailed. I’m not ready for her graduate course just yet, but what I read was damn impressive.

I do want to know the real Charles Dickens. But I found comparing the two nonfiction books on the writing of A Christmas Carol to be revealing about the struggle to understand history. Nonfiction writers must speculate too, even if it’s just in the way they present their facts. When reading nonfiction we must also distrust what we read. We should always be skeptical.

I found the two fictionalize Dickens very entertaining. I don’t think they shouldn’t exist. However, I would say we should never enjoy a fictional account without balancing it with a nonfictional account. To answer my questions:

  • Never assume any fact in fiction is true.
  • Yes, writers are cashing in by using ready-made, well-known characters.
  • Novelists who write historical fiction should always produce an afterward that explain their research and delineate their speculation.
  • Assume all historical fiction is fun and we should get real history from nonfiction.
  • I bet most historical figures would be horrified and amused by how they are remembered. Many would be mad enough to sue if we time traveled them to the present. Which probably explains why so many want their letters and papers burned, or why they work so hard to preserve them.
  • The only way to verify fictional facts is to read multiple nonfictional sources. We can never know what historically happened. There are real people that I’ve read many biographies written about them, and I’d say four is the minimum to start getting a decent feeling for what they might have been like. And that’s only a might of.

Then, I saw another historical film, Mary Shelley (2017). Even though this was a bomb at the box office, I greatly admired it. I really wanted to believe it was true. My wife and I both enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and we didn’t fathom why it’s gotten such a low Rotten Tomato score of 36%.

I want to believe Mary Shelley accurately portrayed Mary Shelley because it shows her as a determined, strong-willed woman, that succeeds against a culture that wanted to crush her. If we love a story about history, we want it to be the truth, don’t we? The film makes me want to know more about the real creator of Frankenstein’s monster and the author of the first real science fiction novel. I guess that impulse is a credit to historical fiction.

Now I need to go read In Search of Mary Shelley, a new biography by Fiona Sampson.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Mary Shelley 2017

JWH

 

Featured

Am I Too Old To Ride My Bike?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 5, 2018

The other day I nearly fell off a ladder. A tree limb had fallen, spearing a hole in my workshop roof. I got out my ladder, climbed up and leaned over to pull out the limb. The ladder started falling away, and I caught myself on the edge of the roof using my elbows. Luckily, I was able to catch the ladder with my foot and pull it back. I would have been in a pickle hanging the edge of the roof without a ladder.

When I told my wife about this she told me I couldn’t climb on ladders anymore unless she was there. I doubt she could have caught me if I had fallen. I’m thinking my ladder climbing days are over, at least for my two tallest ladders. Maybe I’m okay for my little 4-foot step ladder. But I’m not sure.

I’m 66 and will be 67 in a few months, and I’m beginning to notice incidents of being clumsy or losing my balance. Lately, I’m been bumping into things too. Twice this week I’ve knocked my left shin quite hard. I was shocked. I’ve always had good balance and spatial awareness. What’s wrong with my body?

When I was younger I used to tell old guys they shouldn’t climb a ladder and let me do it for them. Now I’m wondering if I’m one of those old guys who shouldn’t climb ladders. I found this very revealing chart at the CDC about causes of deaths by various kinds of accidents. For folks over 65, it’s falling. I hope they don’t mind me copying it here:

leading_causes_of_death_highlighting_unintentional_2016_1040w800h

Notice how “Unintentional Fall” isn’t even in the Top 10 for people under 15? It’s only #10 for ages 15-34. Then it starts climbing up the charts, making #4 for 55-64, and then #1 for 65+. Is there a correlation to declining balance, spatial awareness and reaction times?

I tried to find statistics for bike accidents, but couldn’t.

I’ve been really enjoying biking this year until my bike broke. I was trying to decide if I should get it repaired or buy a new one when I nearly fell off the ladder and wondered if biking was as dangerous as ladder climbing. My biggest worry is falling off my bike and not being hit by a car. I ride in a very safe neighborhood away from traffic. But I’ve occasionally slipped on wet leaves or sand, and I’ve had to do some last minute veering because of squirrels, dogs, kids, and cars backing out of driveways. So far I’ve always recovered without falling, but I’ve had a couple close shaves this year. When I’m zooming along on my bike I’ve often wondered what it would feel like if my 230-pound body flew over the handlebars and smashed into the pavement. Would my blubber protect me? (I do wear a helmet.)

I feel I’m still young enough to bike, but then I recalled three people my age who’ve had bad biking accidents recently. One broke a collarbone when he veered to avoid a woman stepping in front his bike, one who got two front teeth knocked out, had a bunch of stitches, a concussion, and lost 30 minutes of memory so doesn’t remember how it happened, and finally, and one who lost his brakes, hit a sign, punctured his pancreas, damaged his liver, and ended up in ICU for four days.

I love biking for exercise. It’s the only aerobic exercise I can handle. I do have an indoor bike, but it’s not as fun. I thought about getting a 3-wheeler, but I don’t have a garage, and getting a 3-wheeler in and out of the house would be difficult.

Up till my ladder incident, I was thinking I’d bike until I had an accident. But I figured having an accident would only involve cuts and bruises, and maybe a broken arm or leg. Those other bike accidents are making me think that waiting until I have an accident to know when to quit isn’t a great plan.

I had to make my mother stop driving. I’ve had friends that had to step in and make their parents stop driving. I want to believe I’ll know when it’s time to give up car driving, but now I’m getting a taste of that decision with bike riding.

I believe I’m healthy enough to bike ride for many years. But I’m starting to realize that my reflexes are not what they used to be, and my spatial awareness and reaction times are dwindling. I’m trying to place my bet where I don’t seriously injure myself, but I’m not sure of the odds. I wish I could find statistics on biking accidents. What are the common injuries for a 65+ person falling off a bike? I’d gamble on stitches, maybe a broken arm, but I don’t want to lose teeth, and my brain is already acting rather iffy, so I probably shouldn’t risk a concussion.

JWH

 

 

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How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 2, 2018

Special thanks go to Chuck Litka for directing me to “2018 SFWA Nebula Conference Presentation” at Author Earningsa website devoted to helping writers find marketing information. This SFWA presentation is a slideshow with an impressive amount of sales data that readers generally don’t get to see. Anyone who writes science fiction, or hopes to be a science fiction writer, should study these slides carefully. Fans of science fiction should find it interesting to know what other fans are buying and how.

The slideshow by Data Guy is mostly focused on sales numbers, but the slide I liked best is #35 – Science Fiction Ebook Unit Sales by Subgenre. Hope Data Guy doesn’t mind if I copy a couple here.

Slide35

It is disheartening to me that short story collections and anthologies sell so damn little. I’m guessing “Short Stories” means single-author collections. I don’t know why “Anthologies & Short Stories” and “Anthologies” have two separate categories. My other favorite category is “Classics,” and it has sales barely above anthologies.

By the way, “Military SF” is my least favorite kind of science fiction. Growing up in the 1960s I felt like an oddball because I read science fiction. Few people read science fiction before Star Trek and Star Wars. Fans were considered dorks. And when folks did admit they were a science fiction fan, it meant reading science fiction, not watching.

Now I feel like an oddball because I read the least popular kinds of science fiction. Of course, I do love all the sub-genres from “Post-Apocalyptic” to “Exploration.” But I consume them in short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I seldom buy new SF novels anymore. I get the latest Kim Stanley Robinson or the Hugo winners, or the odd SF bestseller like The Martian by Andy Weir. And when I do buy a new science fiction novel, 98% of the time it’s an audiobook.

The impact of audiobooks and ebooks is the main point of Data Guy’s slideshow and the fact that self-publishing is making a huge impact on the genre. Since I’m older, retired, and spend a lot of my reading time consuming mid-20th-century science fiction, I’m not a typical buyer. But it does make me old enough to remember how vastly different book buying was half-a-century ago.

In the 1960s, most science fiction novels came out in paperback. They were mass-market papers, but we didn’t call them that. I don’t think trade paperbacks existed then. At least I don’t remember any. More often than not, paperbacks were purchased from twirling racks in drugstores than bookstores.

Few people bought hardbacks. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) in 1967 to collect cheap hardbacks. They’d weren’t bound in cloth, but a thin vinyl-like plastic. Today collectors prize the paperbacks from this era for their covers. True cloth-bound 1st editions are also loved. But are rare. I often end up with old SFBC editions when I order from ABEBooks. (Or I end up with library discards. That’s another cause for depression, that classic SF is so little read that libraries discard them.)

The first new bookstore I shopped at when I was 16, had three shelves of science fiction books, a mix of hardbacks and paperbacks. It was pretty easy to keep up with the genre, and most of it was reprints. My favorite library then only had 8 shelves of SF books tucked away in a dark corner. I would guess less than 200 SF/F titles were published yearly back then. Today it’s well over 2,000.

Science fiction selling in hardback is something that’s evolved over the course of my lifetime. I was middle-aged before they started getting on the bestseller lists. My library in 2018 has 8 ranges of bookshelves for SF/F. In recent years we’ve seen more trade paperback editions and fewer mass market books. Now ebooks and audiobooks are wiping out the mass market book and have made a huge dent into trade and hardback sales. See slide #13.

Slide 13

My personal book buying habits reflect this chart, but instead of new print books, half of my book buying is used print books. When buying new books, I’d say 95% are ebooks and audiobooks. The last new print book I bought was Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet edited by Mike Ashley, and I had to special order it from England.

I’m now renting more books, via Scribd.com, another distribution type that’s not in the data. I’m reading/listening to books from this service that previously I would have bought as ebooks or audiobooks. And most of the ebooks I buy are the bargain $1.99 editions. I’ve collected a huge library of classic science fiction at that price by watching the daily deals. Generally, any book I really love in audio is one I’ll also buy in ebook. I like having a reading copy for reference and reviewing.

I’m mostly a guy that looks backward to the future. I wonder what young people today who are looking forward to the future are buying? The data in these slides reveal buying decisions in format and sub-genre, but I actually think that view of science fiction has changed.

The futures I hoped for and feared are different from the futures that young people read about today. Readers are reading more fantasy, and much of the science fiction is unbelievable, not based on hard science. I read science fiction in the 1960s hoping it would shape the future, but I don’t think people do that today.

Science fiction has always been an escapist lit but was tinged with hubris. Much of that hubris has faded away. But Data Guy couldn’t document that in his slides. Today, science fiction is more like medical marijuana than project management software. This is why I spend most of my science fiction reading time on the shorter forms. Science fiction writers are more likely to speculate and extrapolate in short fiction than long.

Another area that Data Guy didn’t document is series. Writers are devoting more of their efforts to writing book series. Many of my science fiction reading friends love book series. Series might be comfy books, but to me, they are vast wastelands of words because they have so little science fiction speculation in them. If they have clever ideas, they’re all in the first book.

I wish Data Guy had the numbers on sales by age groups. I wonder how many over-65 science fiction readers are like me – focussed on the past? I’ve recently rediscovered that exciting science fiction is still being written in the shorter forms. It always has, I just lost my way.

My current SF reading involves jumping back and forth from new and old anthologies. The annual best-of-the-year anthologies are new books I do buy, usually in ebook format, but also as audiobooks when they are available. These large collections are actually easier to read electronically.

I wonder how much of the sales Data Guy tracked involved books, ebooks, and audiobooks found in libraries? More and more my library is offering to let me to check out via download rather than visit. To me, Scribd.com is merely a public library where I’m fined $8.99 a month to use.

Finally, one more sad note to contemplate. If book sales move to ebooks and audiobooks, what will collectors collect in the future? You can’t go to musty old bookshops hoping to find lost treasures when they never existed in the physical world to begin with. But there is a practicality to ebooks. The beautiful old paperbacks I find in pristine condition today really aren’t readable. They are collectible, but often they’re too fragile for eye tracks and page flipping. Most of the classic novels of science fiction are easily found today as ebooks, and usually well priced. Audible.com has republished nearly all the classic science fiction novels I grew up reading.

And I’m starting to see more and more classic short stories show up in ebook format. I’ve been collecting Robert Sheckley and Clifford Simak stories that way. What I hope is all of classic science fiction short stories will eventually show up in audiobook too, read by great narrators. That’s how I really love to “read” today.

JWH

 

 

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Discovering New Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 edited by Jonathan StrahanTomorrow is July 1st and my online science fiction club begins discussing The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan. This is the first time we’ve selected an annual best-of-the-year anthology. We mostly stick to novels and favor the classics. This anthology collects the best short SF/F from 2017, so we’re getting very close to the event horizon of new science fiction. To be honest, our members are mostly older readers, so reading these new stories should make us feel younger.

2018 is the year of the science fiction short story for me. I’ve listened to three volumes of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, started reading The Great SF Stories 1939-1964 edited by Asimov and Greenberg and I’m up to 1943. I going through Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander, and I listened to all of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 11 and I’m getting close to finishing listening to volume 12.

Growing up in the 1960s I got hooked on current science fiction by subscribing to F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantastic, and If. To me, the heart and soul of science fiction have always been the SF magazines. For the most part, I stopped reading those in the late 1970s. During my work years, I’d find time to read 10-12 science novels a year. I’d sometimes subscribe to F&SF or Asimov’s. In 2002 I joined Audible.com and began rereading all my favorite science fiction novels by listening to them. But in the last few years since retiring, I’ve mostly caught up. Now I’m reading and listening to old science fiction short stories. And it’s tremendous fun. A reading renaissance.

I dabble in new science fiction, but it’s hard for me. I think that’s true for many of the book club members. Every year thousands of new SF/F novels come out, and mostly by unknown authors. Listening to these two best-of-the-year anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan is reconnecting me with current science fiction and a new generation of writers. I like the feeling of being near the edge of contemporary science fiction. Last year I even resubscribed to F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog. That’s why I nominated volume 12 of Strahan’s anthology for the book club. I was surprised when the group voted it in.

Maybe I’m not the only old SF fan that wants to check out what’s new. I’ve decided I just can’t keep up with current novels. I might read one new novelist a year. But reading and listening to new short stories allows me to discover dozens of new writers and the whole spectrum of new science fictional ideas. Just reading this one annual best-of-the-year anthology exposes readers to the modern diversity of 29 writers. And many of them are new to me.

Now, here’s the thing about my group. Some members don’t like voting for books they have to buy. Most have giant collections of unread SF/F books, and they’ve stopped buying new books. For a book to win a monthly spot in our book club it has to be easily available, either from libraries, used bookstores, cheap ebook editions, or already owned.

To help out those members who don’t own or won’t buy volume 12, I created a list of the stories in the collection and linked any that were on the web. This had two surprising results. First, over half the stories were free to read online. Second, and more importantly, looking at these stories revealed the modern state of written science fiction. Just following these links will show you what the latest science fiction magazines are like. They’re digital. Many have beautiful layouts and great art. And it’s not uncommon to have audio versions to play. Sadly, print magazines are dying. But all magazines need supporters. Subscribe to their digital editions, and if you don’t want print magazines to go extinct, subscribe to them too.

I don’t want this list to discourage people from buying the Strahan anthology. It’s available in paper, ebook, and audiobook, and very reasonably priced. It’s a great introduction to new SF/F tales for readers stuck in the past of classic stories. My only personal complaint is it contains fantasy. It irks me no end to buy anthologies that have both science fiction and fantasy because I’m strictly a science fiction guy. However, my book club does have many fantasy fans. I bought the ebook version of volume 12 because it was cheap, and the audiobook version because I love hearing short stories on audio. (But it still annoys me to wade through the fantasy, although I do have to admit they were all well-told stories even if they were about magic and dragons.)

Here’s the list I created for my book club. To save your place here, right-click on each link and select “Open link in new window” to try out the story. Then poke around its online magazine. These digital venues for short science fiction are the cutting edge of the genre. Read the columns and comments. Many sites have ebook editions to buy to finance all the free reading.

Some of these stories have already won awards. “The Hermit of Houston” and “The Martian Obelisk” won Locus awards. “The Secret Life of Bots” and “The Martian Obelisk” are up for the Hugo in August.

The Jonathan Strahan annual anthology is just one of eleven this year that focuses on the best science fiction stories of 2017. See my overview of them at Book Riot. Also, read my “Reading (and Writing for) Science Fiction Magazines” for links to many of the current science fiction magazines. To get an even a bigger picture, look at the lists of defunct and current SF magazines at Wikipedia.

I used to think the science fiction short story was dying off. Evidently, I’m completely wrong. Today short written science fiction is thriving. Most science fiction fans are movie and television fans, but real science fiction comes from magazines. It always has.

JWH

 

 

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“5,271,009” by Alfred Bester

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 28, 2018

I’m reading mid-20th-century science fiction looking for stories that would stand out in 2018 and I came across “5,271,009” by Alfred Bester. At first, I thought it merely a dazzling bit of pyrotechnic wordplay. I dismissed it as all flash and no heart. Bester is most famous for two extraordinary science fictions novels of the 1950s, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Bester was commissioned to write a story for the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

5,271,009

What Bester delivered was story Bob Dylan might have written in 1965 after reading The Book of Job and The Master and Margarita, before settling down to pen “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “5,271,009” makes you wonder if Jack Kerouac had just taught Bester how to break open benzedrine inhalers or if Bester had been one of the early users of LSD in a 1950s psychological study.

“5,271,009” is not written in ordinary prose. Oh, how I would love to hear this story read by an overly dramatic audiobook narrator. Every would-be professional book reader should use it as their portfolio story to showcase their range of character voices in a variety of wacky situations.

Virtual Unrealities by Alfred BesterUnfortunately, this story is not available to read on the web. However, a 99 cent Kindle edition is available at Amazon. Bizarrely its been retitled as “The Starcomber.” If you don’t want to plunk down 99 cents to read it, you can look at this list of places it’s been anthologized. Maybe you have a collection with it already. For a couple dollars more, you can get the $2.99 Kindle edition of Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester that contains 17 of Bester’s short stories along with an introduction by Robert Silverberg. That’s quite a bargain. I had to spring for this collection too because the single-story edition stopped letting me copy quotes after a slight quota. I thought that rather cheesy since I bet it’s in the public domain because there’s another publisher selling a different 99 cent edition.

I shall quote from it liberally to prove my statements about its prose are not hyperbole.

The story has a roundabout way of getting started. We’re introduced to Solon Aquila in a rather normal pulp fiction style. It is a story that would have fit perfectly in Unknown, a pulp magazine devoted to fantasy in the 1940s. The story isn’t science fiction, but it might be about science fiction.

Take two parts of Beelzebub, two of Israfel, one of Monte Cristo, one of Cyrano, mix violently, season with mystery and you have Mr. Solon Aquila. He is tall, gaunt, sprightly in manner, bitter in expression, and when he laughs his dark eyes turn into wounds. His occupation is unknown. He is wealthy without visible means of support. He is seen everywhere and understood nowhere. There is something odd about his life.

This is what’s odd about Mr. Aquila, and you can make what you will of it. When he walks he is never forced to wait on a traffic signal. When he desires to ride there is always a vacant taxi on hand. When he bustles into his hotel an elevator always happens to be waiting. When he enters a store, a salesclerk is always free to serve him. There always happens to be a table available for Mr. Aquila in restaurants. There are always last-minute ticket returns when he craves entertainment at sold-out shows.

We must assume Mr. Aquila is a metaphysical being, maybe the devil, maybe a minor god, maybe even the big guy himself. We don’t know. Then we hear him speak:

“HmimelHerrGottSeiDank! I’m crazy, man, crazy. Eclectic, by God,” he told a flabbergasted department store president. “The Weltmann type, nicht wahr? My ideal: Goethe. Tout le monde. God damn.”

He spoke a spectacular tongue of mixed metaphors and meanings. Dozens of languages and dialects came out in machine-gun bursts. Apparently he also lied ad libitum.

Sacré bleu. Jeez!” he was heard to say once. “Aquila from the Latin. Means aquiline. O tempora O mores. Speech by Cicero. My ancestor.”

And another time: “My idol: Kipling. Took my name from him. Aquila, one of his heroes. God damn.”

WTF? This is 1954. It’s a science fiction magazine. Where did Bester get his inspiration for Mr. Aquila? He sounds like a speed-freaking Beat poet.

Like I said, the story actually starts slowly compared to its eventual pace. Mr. Aquila visits the art gallery of Jimmy Derelict looking for a particular artist. My theory is Bester was writing this story by the seat of his pants and he thought it was going to be about Aquila.

On the morning that Mr. Solon Aquila was stunned by his first disappointment, he bustled into the atelier of Lagan & Derelict, dealers in paintings, sculpture and rare objects of art. It was his intention to buy a painting. Mr. James Derelict knew Aquila as a client. Aquila had already purchased a Frederic Remington and a Winslow Homer some time ago when, by another odd coincidence, he had bounced into the Madison Avenue shop one minute after the coveted paintings went up for sale. Mr. Derelict had also seen Mr. Aquila boat a prize striper at Montauk.

“Bon soir, bel esprit, God damn, Jimmy,” Mr. Aquila said. He was on first name terms with everyone. “Here’s a cool day for color, oui! Cool. Slang. I have in me to buy a picture.”

“Good morning, Mr. Aquila,” Derelict answered. He had the seamed face of a cardsharp, but his blue eyes were honest and his smile was disarming. However at this moment his smile seemed strained, as though the volatile appearance of Aquila had unnerved him.

“I’m in the mood for your man, by Jeez,” Aquila said, rapidly opening cases, fingering ivories and tasting the porcelains. “What’s his name, my old? Artist like Bosch. Like Heinrich Kley. You handle him, parbleu, exclusive. O si sic omnia, by Zeus!”

“Jeffrey Halsyon?” Derelict asked timidly.

“Oeil de boeuf!” Aquila cried. “What a memory. Chryselephantine. Exactly the artist I want. He is my favorite. A monochrome, preferably. A small Jeffrey Halsyon for Aquila, bitte. Wrap her up.”

We don’t know it yet, but Jeffrey Halsyon is the protagonist of this tale, the man pictured on the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

It’s interesting that Halsyon is very close to the spelling of halcyon.

There are a number of pages about Halsyon being an insane artist who creates his art by defacing currency, and thus illegal to sell. Aquila insists he must see Halsyon and eventually frees him from confinement. This is where the story really begins.

I am reminded of stories Bob Dylan told about when he wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Supposedly, he wrote it during the Cuban missile crisis, trying to cram all the ideas he had for many songs into one in case WWIII began. Bester seems to cram many story ideas into “5,271,009” in the same way. Some have theorized Bester wanted to explore an array of SF ideas all using the number 5,271,009.

Again, I’m not so sure that Bester wasn’t just writing by the seat of his pants, typing whatever scenes came to mind. He spends too much time in the hospital where Halsyon is imprisoned. Then Mr. Aquila slips Halsyon a mickey:

He filled a shot glass from a decanter, added a tiny cube of purple ice from a fuming bucket, and placed the drink in Halsyon’s hand. Compelled by a gesture from Aquila, the artist drank it off. It made his brain buzz. He stared around, breathing heavily. He was in what appeared to be the luxurious waiting room of a Park Avenue physician. Queen Anne furniture. Axminster rug. Two Hogarths and a Copley on the wall in gilt frames. They were genuine, Halsyon realized with amazement. Then, with even more amazement, he realized that he was thinking with coherence, with continuity. His mind was quite clear.

He passed a heavy hand over his forehead. “What’s happened?” he asked faintly. “There’s like . . . Something like a fever behind me. Nightmares.”

“You have been sick,” Aquila replied. “I am blunt, my old. This is a temporary return to sanity. It is no feat, God damn. Any doctor can do it. Niacin plus carbon dioxide. Id genus omne. Only temporary. We must search for something more permanent.”

“What’s this place?”

Halsyon escapes but then comes to somewhere else. This part reminds me of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and a couple other songs I can’t remember for sure.

The president of the United Nations came to him. He was tall and gaunt, sprightly but bitter. He was wringing his hands in dismay.

“Mr. Halsyon! Mr Halsyon!” he cried. “Where you been, my cupcake? God damn. Hoc tempore. Do you know what has happened?”

“No,” Halsyon answered. “What’s happened?”

“After your escape from the looney bing. Bango! Atom bombs everywhere. The two-hour war. It is over. Hora fugit, old faithful, Virility is over.”

“What!”

“Hard radiation, Mr. Halsyon, has destroyed the virility of the world. God damn. You are the only man left capable of engendering children. No doubt on account of a mysterious mutant strain in your makeup which makes you different. Jeez.”

“No.”

Halsyon is informed that 5,271,009 virgins are clamoring for his attention, and he should pick a number from 1 to 5,000,000 and begin impregnating them.

At first, this is every teenage boy’s wet dream come true. Then Halsyon starts complaining that all the women look alike when the novelty wears off. Like any tricky Genie, Mr. Aquila grants wishes with thorns. Eventually, he is told the women resent him and consider Halsyon their rapist.

Halsyon then meets Judith Field, the old love-of-his-life. He wants to marry just her but continue with his procreation duties of being the new Adam. She wants to kill him. He learns he must escape and Mr. Aquila tries to help, but a mob of women clubs him to death.

I suppose I should worry about providing too many spoilers. You can quit reading any time you want and go read the story. Well, back to the story. The next scenario involves the story that illustrates the cover above with the spaceman chained to a very small asteroid. We’re now realizing Halsyon will not escape from his nightmare so easily. This reminds me of Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey, and Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley.  In all these stories our heroes frantically search for a way back to normal reality.

The scene changes again.

And he drifted alone in space, a martyr, misunderstood, a victim of cruel injustice.

He was still chained to what had once been the wall of Cell 5, Block 27, Tier 100, Wing 9 of the Callisto Penitentiary until that unexpected gamma explosion had torn the vast fortress dungeon—vaster than the Château d’If—apart. That explosion, he realized, had been detonated by the Grssh.

His assets were his convict clothes, a helmet, one cylinder of O2, his grim fury at the injustice that had been done him, and his knowledge of the secret of how the Grssh could be defeated in their maniacal quest for solar domination.

The Grssh, ghastly marauders from Omicron Ceti, space-degenerates, space-imperialists, cold-blooded, roachlike, depending for their food upon the psychotic horrors which they engendered in man through mental control and upon which they fed, were rapidly conquering the galaxy. They were irresistible, for they possessed the power of simul-kinesis—the ability to be in two places at the same time.

Against the vault of space, a dot of light moved slowly, like a stricken meteor. It was a rescue ship, Halsyon realized, combing space for survivors of the explosion. He wondered whether the light of Jupiter, flooding him with rusty radiation, would make him visible to the rescuers. He wondered whether he wanted to be rescued at all.

Bester is making fun of science fiction here. It even reminds me of the beginning of Bester’s own novel, The Stars My Destination. Mr. Aquila shows up in the disguise of a robot. There must be a name for this kind of story since I see it so often. Another variation of it is the 1967 film Bedazzled. Doesn’t this next bit remind you of something Douglas Adams would have written?

When he recovered consciousness he was in a plasti-cot in the cabin of a starship. The high frequency whine told him they were in overdrive. He opened his eyes. Balorsen stood before the plasti-cot, and Balorsen’s robot and High Judge Field, and his daughter Judith. Judith was weeping. The robot was in magnetic plasti-clamps and winced as General Balorsen lashed him again and again with a nuclear plasti-whip.

Parbleu! God damn!” the robot grated. “It is true I framed Jeff Halsyon. Ouch! Flux de bouche. I was the space-pirate who space-hijacked the space-freighter. God damn. Ouch! The space-bartender in the Spaceman’s Saloon was my accomplice. When Jackson wrecked the space-cab I went to the space-garage and X-beamed the sonic before Tantial murdered O’Leary. Aux armes. Jeez. Ouch!”

“There you have the confession, Halsyon,” General Balorsen grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “By God. Ars est celare artem. You are innocent.”

“I falsely condemned you, old faithful,” Judge Field grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “Can you forgive this God damn fool? We apologize.”

Bester goes on to create other scenes to trick Halsyon, but I won’t quote them all. I should leave you to have some fun on your own.

This is where we need to decide if Bester is just jerking us around, or if he has something artistic to say. He’s getting paid by the word so he might be just filling up the pages. It could be every morning he got up and wrote some new way to torment Halsyon. This is a novelette of about forty pages, so it’s a rather long story. Maybe too long.

On the other hand, it might be a meta-fiction bit of philosophy. Not quite profound, but head bending enough to mesmerize science fiction readers and dope smokers.

“Stop reading the book,” he shouted. “Let me out of the pages. Can you hear me? Stop reading the book! I’d rather be in a world of my own making. Let me go!”

There was a mighty clap of thunder, as of the covers of a mighty book slamming shut. In an instant Halsyon was swept spinning into the third compartment of the seventh circle of the Inferno in the Fourteenth Canto of the Divine Comedy where they who have sinned against art are tormented by flakes of fire which are eternally showered down upon them. There he shrieked until he had provided sufficient amusement. Only then was he permitted to devise a text of his own … and he formed a new world, a romantic world, a world of his fondest dreams… .

He was the last man on earth.

He was the last man on earth and he howled.

I truly wish I could hear this story read by an amazing audiobook narrator.

Finally, we get to the kicker, or at least the kicker for me. Is Bester making fun of science fiction or fiction in general? Bester didn’t stick with the genre and left it after his wild successes with two novels and a handful of short stories.

He helped Halsyon to his feet and led him into the consultation room where he seated him in a velvet chaise longue and gave him a glass of brandy.

“Guaranteed free of drugs,” he said. “Noblesse oblige. Only the best spiritus frumenti. Now we discuss what we have done, eh? Jeez.”

He sat down behind the desk, still sprightly, still bitter, and regarded Halsyon with kindliness. “Man lives by his decisions, n’est-ce pas?” he began. “We agree, oui? A man has some five million two hundred seventy-one thousand and nine decisions to make in the course of his life. Peste! Is it a prime number? N’importe. Do you agree?”

Halsyon nodded.

“So, my coffee and doughnuts, it is the maturity of these decisions that decides whether a man is a man or a child. Nicht wahr? Malgré nous. A man cannot start making adult decisions until he has purged himself of the dreams of childhood. God damn. Such fantasies. They must go.”

“No,” Halsyon said slowly. “It’s the dreams that make my art … the dreams and fantasies that I translate into line and color… .”

“God damn! Yes. Agreed. Maître d’hôtel! But adult dreams, not baby dreams. Baby dreams. Pfui! All men have them… . To be the last man on earth and own the earth… . To be the last fertile man on earth and own the women… . To go back in time with the advantage of adult knowledge and win victories… . To escape reality with the dream that life is make-believe… . To escape responsibility with a fantasy of heroic injustice, of martyrdom with a happy ending… . And there are hundreds more, equally popular, equally empty. God bless Father Freud and his merry men. He applies the quietus to such nonsense. Sic semper tyrannis. Avaunt!”

“But if everybody has those dreams, they can’t be bad, can they?”

“God damn. Everybody in fourteenth century had lice. Did that make it good? No, my young, such dreams are for childrens. Too many adults are still childrens. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”

Bester is right. Those are common plots. I’ve used them in my failed attempts to write science fiction.

Is Bester telling science fiction readers to grow up and stop indulging in childish fantasies? I need to track down fanzines of that era and see if anyone fans complained.

At my online group we’re discussing mid-century science fiction short stories, and pretending we’re creating our own retrospective anthology to impress modern young readers. We’re trying to find 20th-century science fiction that resonates with 21st-century minds. At first, I wasn’t going to consider “5,271,009” for my anthology. Now I’m not so sure.

“5,271,009” is not a story that’s been often reprinted. I found it in Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Olander, a collection that was never very successful, out of print, and hard to find. I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s and I’m not sure how many will appeal to young readers new to reading science fiction in 2018. Neither Dikty or Asimov/Greenberg picked “5,271,009” for their best stories of 1954 anthologies.

I’m not sure “5,271,009” will be remembered unless it’s produced as a jazzy audiobook or made into a movie. It would be a perfect Black Mirror kind of story. Alfred Bester should have the same kind of appeal as Philip K. Dick.

JWH

 

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Can Hope Replace Fear?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 25, 2018

Once again I’m writing a political essay that few will read. I do this when I’m disturbed about events in the news that I’m powerless to control. We liberals are horrified by what fears over undocumented immigrants are doing to this country. Trump wants to bypass the rule of law, or apply existing laws like a cold war police state. It seems like an extreme right minority will tear the country apart to stop illegal immigration. That’s very scary. It’s even scarier that tens of millions support them. But liberals have fears that scare conservatives, so I think it’s vital we work to understand their fears if we want them to understand ours. What I realized this morning is unless we can empathize with each other’s fears, we will always have a politically polarized society.

We like to think love and hate are the two primary emotions, but I they aren’t. Hope and fear are more primal. Love grows out of hope, and hate grows out of fear. Think of people you love and hate. Love comes from the hopes you have, and hate comes from the fears. Liberals hate Trump because he causes us to fear, but conservatives love Trump because he gives them hope for their fears. What we need right now is politics of hope for everyone.

Conservatives fear illegal immigration in the same way liberals fear climate change. Each perspective destroys hope for the future. All of us want health, liberty, security, happiness, family, friends, and prosperity. Our fears arise when we feel those hopes are in jeopardy. We think Trump is destroying our future, while conservatives believe he’s protecting theirs.

Liberals fear climate change will devastate the planet. Conservatives fear illegal immigration will destroy our social order. What is the practical reality of these fears? Can we ever be united if everyone fears destruction from two different threats that split us into opposing sides? Can we collectively work to give each other hope?

I use the phrase “illegal immigration” for the want of a better term. Liberals prefer the term “undocumented immigrant.” But to a conservative, that probably feels like what liberals feel when we hear phrases of climate change denial. To use the phrase undocumented immigrant is to deny the reality that undocumented immigrants are doing something illegal.

The only way to find hope is to understand each other’s fears. The only way to heal the division is to cooperate in solving each other’s fears. Liberals need to find a rational way to deal with illegal immigration that will sooth conservative fears, and conservatives need to work on environmental security to reduce liberal fears.

For decades conservatives have told liberals they sound like Chicken Little running around screaming “The sky is falling” when discussing climate change. Well, conservatives are now overreacting to illegal immigration in the same way. We need to calm each other down, discuss the realities of each danger, and decide practical solutions we can implement together. Both problems are exceedingly complex, promise slow but huge changes to society, but can be solved if we work at it collectively. But zero tolerance of illegal immigration is like asking American to give up cars to save the Earth. Extreme solutions are too simple-minded to work.

Liberals need to understand the fears of conservatives, and conservatives need to understand the fears of liberals. It does no good to justify our fears by convincing others to fear them too. What we need to do find ways to spread hope. But I’m not sure if that’s possible if we live in panic mode.

We feel stories about immigrants causing excessive crime are unjustified, and there’s plenty of proof to disprove those stories. We believe you use crime hyperbole to justify circumventing laws. We believe conservatives have genuine fears over illegal immigration that come from three actual threats to your way of life. First, you don’t want to pay more taxes to support immigrants. Two, naturalized citizens tend to vote liberal, so it’s a threat to the Republican party. And three, you want to maintain a white America.

These are hard issues to address. Hard cold mathematics tell us our society is diversifying racially. This is your big fear: “The Next America” – a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. Here’s the graph that probably scares you most:

Changes in race in America from 1960 to 2060 - Pew Research Center

Zero tolerance for illegal immigration will not change those trends. Those numbers may be conservative if they don’t take into account climate change and economic collapse. If we don’t slow climate change migration numbers will explode. It’s like the physics of gases. If you have two containers, one with low pressure and one with high pressure and you allow a path between, the pressures in the two tanks will equalize. As long as there are good and bad places on this planet, populations will migrate. No wall you build will ever be high enough to stop it. Just remember, if you lived in a bad place, you’d head for a good one too. One solution is to rebuild collapsing countries.

If the Republican party wasn’t so exclusive and strived to serve the entire population they wouldn’t have to fear diversity. By becoming the party of the white holdouts, the Republicans are forced to find solutions that only serve a minority of voters. We need both political parties to offer hope to all citizens.

Finally, illegal immigrants do raise taxes, but to remove them would be even more expensive. And they contribute a giant chunk of change to the economy. We actually benefit economically from both legal and illegal immigration.

But this probably doesn’t alleviate your fears. If you could only let go of your hangups over skin-color your fears could be reduced. Maybe reading “Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War” might help.

Conservatives need to accept that diversity is already here. Liberals will have to accept that immigration must have limits. Liberals need to accept that capitalism drives the economy. Conservatives must accept that the cost of preserving the environment is essential to healthy capitalism. Conservatives must accept that immigrants are key to future growth. Liberals must accept that too many immigrants can destabilize the economy.

Fear destroys our morals and ethics. Fear makes us do things we wouldn’t do if we were hopeful.

Climate change is going to drastically alter all societies on this planet. Mass movements of people around the world are going to alter all those societies too. In fact, there are many trends that are changing every society on Earth going on simultaneously right now. We can’t stop them. But to keep our hopes we must learn to adapt and control them.

When reading or watching the news, pay attention to its emotional impact. Does the story offer hope or fear? All too often stories provide an extreme example. Not only do we need to become savvy over the fake news, but wary of sensational news. If a story scares you, research it on Google. The more you know the less you’ll fear.

JWH

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Prioritizing My Ambitions

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Being 66 and retired gives me a lot of free time, yet at the end of every day, I always wish I had more. My lifelong, no-so-secret ambition has been to write a book. I’ve had plenty of ideas, and I could have found the time, even during my nine-to-five years. Yet, I haven’t. Why? Because I fritter away my goddamn time. I have a personality that loves to do what I want when I want. Some people call that laziness, but it’s essentially poor time management. Somehow I need to learn how to prioritize my time to succeed.

Most people must achieve their ambitions before forty. Most big ambitions required the peak performance of youth. Generally, writers must also succeed in bloom, but there are a few outliers that give me hope. Writing is one endeavor where late bloomers have an outside chance. So, if I don’t want to go to my grave still fantasizing about the books I want to write, I need to conquer time management.

All that’s required is focusing, working diligently, and ignoring all the distractions. Of course, that’s easier declared than lived. I’ve mind mapped how I spend my time. What I need to, is Marie Kondo its branches.

Time Mind Map

I write best in the mornings, but to maintain my health I must exercise. My self-control wanes quickly during the day, so if I don’t do my exercises in the morning, there’s little chance I’ll do them at all. In fact, I’m skipping my morning bike ride to write this. That bike ride gives me vitality, something in short supply. And if I don’t do my physical therapy and Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, my back will go out. Maybe one reason people don’t succeed after forty is that we have to spend too much time on body maintenance.

I need to completely get over this ingrained habit. I need to write in the mornings and exercise later in the day. I doubt I have the mental and physical energy to write more than four hours a day, maybe only two, even if I give it my best hours. Somehow I need to make those writing hours the #1 activity in my day. After that, I have to make exercise #2.

I have a friend whose life-long ambition is to live abroad. She’s finally getting to do that because she’s getting rid of everything she owns here. Part of my time management problem is possession management. According to minimalists, owning less is more freeing. That’s true, For example, I’ve been spending a lot of time and mental energy researching buying a new television and computer, or what books and magazines to collect. I need to stop that. It would also help to get rid of all the stuff I must spend time maintaining.

If you study that mind map, you’ll notice I consume a great deal of fiction. Generally, I rationalize television and reading by claiming I only do it when I’m too tired to do anything else. I need to make sure that’s true.

Looking closer, I also realize I spend a great deal of time socializing. I’m not sure I can give friends up, but I need to make being with them more efficient. People are just as essential as food, but some of my social activities are junk food.

Many of the activities listed above are mostly ambitions I just piddle around with at best. Maybe it’s time I give up thinking I’m a programmer. I spent my work years programming, and I think of myself as a programmer, but I really don’t program anymore. I want to. If I gave up writing I’d want to program. But I can’t have two ambitions. There’s not enough time.

If I’m really serious about writing a book then I need to prune the crap out of that mind map above. Meditating on it is very revealing. I should print it out and study it first thing every morning when I wake up. I should reread this essay every morning to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned writing it.

I find it most rewarding on waking up if I make two goals for the day. It used to be five, then three, and now two. They can’t be too big either. And sometimes I have to waste one on things like grocery shopping or seeing a movie.

If my mind map was smaller, with fewer branches, it would be easier to be ambitious with my limited resources. It’s going to be painful to give up so many possessions and activities. But if I really want to succeed with my goal, I can see from studying the mind map, that’s the price.

Afterward:

The two goals that came to mind this morning, were to write a new blog, and finish a scanning project and submit it to Internet Archive. This accomplishes one of them. I think of blogging as writing. I’ve always said blogging was piano practice for writers. Yet, I see it’s not working on a book. I’ve got to start blogging outside my morning writing hours. Blogging is essential to my my mental agility. It has to be #3 after morning writing and exercise. But I positively have to stop blogging in the morning.

If I can’t make writing in the morning my #1 activity every day, I should Marie Kondo my ambition to write a book. To be honest, I must prune my ambitions too.

Maybe I’m really doing what I want, and the desire to write is what I should give up.

Not yet.

JWH

 

 

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Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.

JWH

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The Resurrection of Lady Dorthy Mills

by James Wallace Harris

[I’m reprinting some of my Book Riot essays to archive here on my blog.]

lady_dorothy_portrait-651x1024Her name was Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole Mills. Born in London, 1889, died in Brighton, 1959. Lady Dorothy Mills published nine novels, five travel books, and one memoir, achieving moderate fame in the 1920s and early 1930s as a British aristocratic woman who traveled alone to Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Her books are decades out-of-print, and she is almost completely forgotten. Lady Dorothy Mills should be resurrected, but copyright law has buried her.

Watching Downton Abbey illustrates Lady Dorothy’s upbringing. She was Lady Mary’s age. Her father was Robert Horace Walpole, the 5thand final Earl of Orford. Like the fictional Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, Lord Walpole married a rich American woman, Louise Melissa Corbin, and only had surviving daughters. He even had to leave his estate to a male relative. Lady Dorothy married Capt. Arthur Mills in 1916, against the family’s wishes, and was cut off from their wealth. Lord Walpole was not as forgiving of a wayward daughter as Lord Grantham.

For those who want more details about her aristocratic life, read “Lady Dorothy… writer, traveler – and free spirit” by Jane Dismore. This is the most comprehensive overview of Mill’s life I’ve found in twenty-four years.

Choosing love over inheritance meant learning to live without servants and being poor. Arthur and Dorothy took up writing to survive. At first Lady Dorothy wrote novels about her society set encountering the seamier side of London. Then she wrote The Road to Timbuktu, a nonfiction book promoting herself as a brave Lady going to places that no white woman had gone before. That got her fame. Of course, western women have been marching across Africa for years. Read Great Women Travel Writers: From 1750 to the Present by Alba Amoia and Bettina Knapp.

As a couple, Dorothy and Arthur were popular with newspaper writers, but Mills’s novels never received much respect from reviewers as her travel books. She was dismissed as a writer for shop girls. Men told her she was reckless for going places women shouldn’t. But Lady Dorothy inspired young women in the 1920s, who also dreamed of adventure, romance, and faraway places. Mills gain notoriety just after women got the vote in England and America, and Lady Dorothy did things that few men did, and many men dreamed of doing.

Her novels were exciting too, writing about safaris, jungle Shangri-las, hunting, opium dens, love affairs with Asians and Africans, living among indigenous people while claiming she had the freedom to go anywhere she damned pleased. A few of her novels used science fiction and fantasy concepts. Lady Dorothy was brave in action and thought.

After 1932. Mills went silent, eventually retiring to a quiet seaside village in England, dying alone in 1959. The mystery of why she stopped writing has always haunted me. Her books disappeared from bookstores decades ago. Few copies of her work are on sale at rare book dealers. Copyright law keeps them from being rescued by the public domain. Three of her earliest novels may be in the public domain, but it is very difficult to tell.

Lady-Dorothy-Mills-from-Library-of-CongressToday, Lady Dorothy is barely remembered, mostly in esoteric history books. She receives just a few sentences or paragraphs in each. History writers use her fiction and nonfiction to document social changes between the wars. Mills lived on the edge, during a decade on the edge. Lady Dorothy sported men’s attire long before Garbo and Dietrich wore it in 1930s movies, not because of style, but because she was competing with the other creatures who wore coats and ties.

In 1926, Lady Dorothy published Phoenix, a science fiction novel about an elderly woman medically rejuvenated to look twenty. Seventy years later, Bruce Sterling had the same idea for his novel, Holy FireIs Phoenix missing from the SF Mistressworks list because it’s a bad book, or because few readers after 1930 got a chance to read it? When does copyright hurt an author?

Since 1992, I’ve been collecting Lady Dorothy’s books, writing about her, and maintaining a website. Every year or two I used to get an email from rare souls who have stumbled across her name. In the last few years, it’s been damn quiet. If her work had been on Project Gutenberg would things be different? Would she have more readers?

There’s a scene at the end of Truffaut’s beautiful film, Fahrenheit 451, where the book people walk through woods memorizing the volume they intend to become. That’s how I think about Lady Dorothy Mills. My dedication is to remember her. I’ve been able to collect twelve of her fifteen books. One, Arms of the Sun, has been for sale for years, but I can’t afford it. That hurts. I’ve even wondered if my writing about Lady Dorothy Mills has driven up their price.

I keep hoping her heirs would put out a collected ebook edition of her work, with distinctive covers using old photographs. At a minimum, I wish the copyright laws were different so fans could scan her books for the public domain.

I’ve long wondered why Lady Dorothy Mills never had her books reprinted. Did inheriting her wealth require giving up writing? Was she an embarrassment to her aristocratic family? Did dismissals in the press turn her against public life? Could she have written just for money? It seems telling when her father died, and she inherited, Lady Dorothy stopped writing? She did continue to travel, but not write.

After traveling far more roads than Jack Kerouac, and exploring more jungles, deserts, and mountains than most male adventure novelists, maybe Lady Dorothy tired of fame. She had passed forty. Why did she choose to disappear, forget writing, and let her books be forgotten? I can’t stop asking that.

Her family had treated her badly. So did her husband. And some book reviewers. Although, I’ve been told by a modern scholar comparing her travel book on Liberia to university-sponsored expeditions during the same years, that she did very well. Lady Dorothy traveled to distant lands, it seems to me, to get away from her 1920s society. Her books show hard-won knowledge and revelation. I can’t understand why she didn’t push to keep them in print. Many of her books received multiple printings and editions before 1932.

In A Different Drummer (1930) she describes the state of mind she found when she was far away from civilization:

“However healthy a love one may have of civilization and all its fleshpots, the best thrill of the year is when one leaves them all behind, and sets off for the unknown with a lot of lumpy luggage that contains hardly any clothes at all. It is good to feel that one has left one’s little niche in the everyday world, where each one of us is assessed and tabulated to a nicety; to slough off one’s everyday accepted self, and to lose oneself in the anonymity of a strange country and people, among whom one has to make good solely by the leverage of one’s personality and will to win. The thrill increases till the last vestige of civilization is gone and one is at grips with the unknown, when it comes down to earth, and settles into a hard absorbing fight with primitive conditions; with the problems of health and climate and transport, with the daily struggle for food, water and transport, and the groping after understanding of the strange and sometimes antagonistic people one is among. All the complexities of life disappear, and one is reduced to the state, mental and physical, of a healthy animal. As long as one’s ” tummy ” is reasonably full, and there is a prospect of somewhere safe and dry to sleep, one is perfectly, almost stupidly happy. The creature comforts of life no longer matter. For the first few days one misses one’s bath most terribly, but in a short time, I am ashamed to say, one doesn’t mind if one never had a bath again! Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but in the wilds it comes a long way after food and sleep, or even a good camel.”

Mills laughs about the crazy stories newspapers wanted her to write. One paper offered her a big check to explain why she traveled without her husband. Was fame too much bullshit?

There are other people like me who work to rescue forgotten writers. I met Harry Williams online because he maintains a website for George Mills, Lady Dorothy Mills’s brother-in-law. It’s a fascinating hobby that I recommend, but don’t expect to discover another Pride and PrejudicePhoenix appeals to me like Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It uses science fiction to make a feminist statement. Could Lady Dorothy Mills ever be resurrected like Gilman? I don’t know.

Libraries used to be heaven for books. Yet, today many books I buy used in hardback are library discards. Phoenix shows up in just four libraries at WorldCat, three in England and one in America. It took me ten years to track down my copy. I haven’t seen another for sale since 2002.

Society needs to consider changing the copyright laws. I can understand why copyright holders want to keep extending the time they can make money, but copyright laws make no sense for books that haven’t sold a single copy for decades. The law should be amended to say that any book that hasn’t been for sale for 25 years is now in the public domain, and all periodicals older than 10 years are in the public domain if they are reproduced whole.

Such changes in the law would allow fans of forgotten books to scan them and put them in Project Gutenberg. Second, periodicals in the public domain will help researchers explore the past. It would also help when authors donate their papers to put them in the public domain. Modern libraries aren’t the research centers they used to be. The Internet is now the World Library.

Lady Dorothy Mills had modest fame over eight decades ago. If her books were in the public domain, few would read them. But for those who do, and for those of us who want to encourage other people to read them, changing the copyright laws could open up the past to human and AI researchers. Copyright law protects books when they are being sold, but hurts when readers no longer buy.

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How Important is Screen Size to Television Watching?

by James Wallace Harris, Mondy, June 11, 2018

Some people love watching movies on their smartphone even though those film premiered on IMAX screens using Dolby Atmos speakers. Evidently, the essential quality of a film is in the storytelling. Television viewers used to watch widescreen Technicolor movies on nineteen inch black and white sets and still enjoyed them immensely.

So why should I worry about upgrading my TV to a larger screen and better sound?

Last night I watched a 1957 western, Night Passage, on a 56″ DLP television via a local over-the-air station called Grit TV. I had recorded it with my TiVo and it cut off the last few seconds. Luckily, I had a DVD copy to watch the ending. When I played the disc I was startled to discover this old western was in 2.35:1 widescreen and the color levels were completely different. When watching the over-the-air version, it didn’t feel like the aspect ratio of 4:3 of old TV pan and scan, because the frame was more rectangular. It had been cropped to be slightly widescreen in appearance.

Below is my way of faking what I’m talking about. I wish I could provide real screenshots, but this is close. I just cropped a widescreen scene with Brandon De Wilde and Jimmy Stewart to 400 x 300 pixels and converted it to black and white to imagine what 1950s TV might have been like (it would have been fuzzier). The second is a photo I found that feels more like the Grit TV version. I assume the third photo is the right aspect ratio.

Night-Passage-fake-4to3

Night Passage cropped

Night Passage widescreen

The thing is, I enjoyed the heck out of seeing this movie again. I especially enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The first time I watched this film was on a black and white television set — and I love it then too. I always remember it as a black and white movie even though it’s in color because of first seeing it on a black and white TV set. But when I looked at the DVD version, I felt like I had missed a significant portion of the film. The DVD widescreen view showed far more scenery, was much sharper and probably the color palette more accurate.

What artistic qualities do we miss from movies and television when we only focus on the storytelling? We could just read books instead if all we wanted was a story.

Would I have enjoyed the film more if I had watched the DVD from the beginning? I have dozens of my favorite westerns on DVD and Blu-ray, but quite often I watch them off of Grit TV. It’s just convenient.

I’ve been contemplating giving up the physical technology of CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray discs. 99% of the time I stream music or television. It would simplify my life if I got rid of all my discs.

I love the idea of minimalism, but what am I sacrificing by rejecting the higher resolution discs of my favorite movies, TV shows, and albums? For the most part, streaming music via Spotify isn’t that different from listening to CDs unless I’m concentrating. Streaming movies with Netflix and Amazon are almost as good as Blu-ray if I’m not concentrating.

Watching the DVD on my 56″ TV is probably as close as I can currently get to having seen Night Passage in the theater in 1957. That would be even truer if I had a larger television set. I assume the more I can recreate the cinematographer’s original vision, the more I can experience the original story to its fullest. But what are those extra dimensions beyond storytelling?

Visual and aural realism.

I was looking at TVs at Best Buy today, thinking I’d upgrade to a 65″ television. But my eyes loved the 75″ screens more, and I was blown away by an 83″ model. The bigger the screen, the more I felt like I was seeing reality. That’s also the difference between books and movies. Before movies, writers spent more words describing what readers would see. Such descriptions added realistic details. The better the author was at describing the world in details, the more readers felt like they were reading something based on truth.

Movies give verisimilitude to storytelling. The widescreen version of Night Passage made me feel Jimmy Stewart was actually in all those natural settings and not on a soundstage. When movies were black and white and had an unrealistic square aspect ratio, they were mostly filmed on sets and backlots. Those old films had a tinsel town feel. When we got Technicolor and widescreen, moviemakers went on locations around the world to give us more realism.

Would I experience art as more true-to-life if I built a home theater with a projector TV with a screen in the 100-120″ range? Probably. Is it needed? No. If I was watching a 4K nature documentary I’d certainly feel like I was there more than when watching a smaller set. It’s like when I play CDs and SACDs, I only hear the extra sound texture if I’m concentrating diligently.

It was when I watch a turtle swimming underwater on the largest sets a Best Buy that I noticed the details of the sand and plants it swam over. I then felt like I was there scuba diving. If I watched The Sweet Smell of Success, another 1957 film, I’d feel what it was like sitting in a glamorous smoky bar in New York City with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

If we watched Downton Abbey at an IMAX theater, the realism of the sets and costumes would be stunning compared to TV watching. Of course, when I tell my wife I want to get a giant screen television she thinks I’m crazy. Why spend so much more money when we already love our twelve-year-old 56″ television? Well, Susan isn’t a good judge of TV technology. She watches television while playing games on her laptop or using Facebook on her iPhone. She needs much less from a story to enjoy it.

The older I get the more I withdraw into my home. Our television set is the way we view the world and visual arts. Is it worth upgrading to 4K? If Night Passage was available on Blu-ray or 4K discs, should I buy them for that extra realism?

Should I give up over-the-air TV? MeTV shows old Perry Mason episodes cropped for modern widescreen TVs without any distortion. Perry never looked better. I tried to find a streaming version of Night Passage to compare, but it’s not available that way. Handmaid’s Tale is stunning to look at on a 56″ TV at 1080p, but what would it look like on a 75″ 4K set, or even projected to 120 inches?

Is wanting a humongous screen just crazy? I could give up all my high-resolution discs, and only live with convenient streaming on a modest 65″ television, but what would I be missing? I suppose someday streaming music and movies will have the same quality as discs and wall-size televisions will be affordable by all and we won’t have to worry about making such decisions.

JWH

 

 

 

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When I Can’t Edit My Brain Farts

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I’ve never been good at grammar or spelling, especially in early drafts. So when I say I’m experiencing new glitches in my writing, I don’t mean the common mistakes I’ve made all my life. I’d be quite embarrassed if folks read the first drafts of this blog. I rewrite many times before I click Publish, constantly repairing and tweaking words and structure. And even then, I still spot mistakes and wince.

However, in the last few months, I’ve been noticing holes in my sentences where I’ve left out words or tangled them up. They’re a new kind of textual brain farts. For several years I’ve struggled with verbal brain farts, failing to remember names and nouns when talking to my friends. I don’t believe what I’m experiencing is early signs of dementia, but thought glitches caused by slow neuron access times. All my friends my age have similar hiccups with their comm skills. I assume these new mistakes are just more of the same, all part of a slow decline in brain cell efficiency due to normal aging.

Pug

The great thing about writing over talking is I have plenty of time to shape what I say. Writing is like make-up, I can make myself look much better than I really am. What troubles me is when I send an email, or post a comment on a website, and then see a blooper I can’t reshoot. That hurts. Especially when they aren’t grammar/spelling mistakes, but garbled sentences that sound like Yogi Berra imitating Donald Duck.

For me, it’s much more embarrassing when people see snaggled-tooth thoughts than to make a “their, they’re, there” mistake. Blogging is exercising to think clearly. Revising my paragraphs sculpts my thoughts. So reading something I wrote that’s wonky makes me feel I’m losing it. Of course, other people might skip right past my potholes without making judgments. But I’m horrified when I’m reading along and bounce jarringly over a big one.

It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to see aging will bring additional quirks in my quarks, and at some point, I’ll stop making sense. But here’s the Catch-22. If I stop writing my mind will only get worse sooner. Writing is the cure for poor thinking or thinking poorly, even when the brain is turning to mush. I can’t give up.

I’m going to be in real trouble when I stop seeing mistakes. I hate when I can’t edit my brain farts now, but the real horror movie begins when I stop discovering those mistakes.

JWH

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Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 4, 2018

I’ve always loved science fiction. Dreams of science fiction have felt like our species greatest ambitions. I’m not the only one that feels that way, because space travel enchanted many in the twentieth century. Humans have been imagining how to voyage across space for as long as they’ve known there were destinations to set sail across the sky. Landing on the Moon in 1969 made us believe we could go anywhere in the galaxy. But next year, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will only remind us we haven’t.

From the Earth to the Moon

When I bring up this subject to science fiction fans, most express a firm faith technology will find a way. I have doubts. Reading science books, rather than science fiction, gives a whole different perspective. My faith fades, and I assume humanity will never go far from Earth. At best, we might put outposts on the Moon and Mars, like those in Antarctica. It will probably never be healthy living off Earth. The more we study living in space, the more we learn that Earth is where our biological bodies are designed to dwell. Shouldn’t science fiction be exploring all these things our species could do in the next million years while stuck on Earth?

Because I’m an atheist I’ve always wondered why people waste their lives in anticipation of heaven. Now I wonder if science fiction’s hope of space travel is equally unrealistic. Strangely, we have far more books and movies about living on other worlds than fantasies about life after death. Is that a shift in faith to something we thought could be actually possible? And what if we find out that dream is just as unreal?

Or am I completely wrong? I’ve always had trouble enjoying fantasy stories because what’s the point of imagining things that can’t happen? Do most science fiction readers see their genre no different from fantasy? I read science fiction because I believe it could come true. Years ago I stopped enjoying stories about faster-than-light travel. Now I’m doubting any story about interstellar travel. I wonder if doubt is happening to science fiction writers too. Just read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve always considered Star Wars fantasy but believed Star Trek attempted to be practical science fiction. Yet, when I study the details, Star Trek is no more realistic than Marvel comics. Are all these genres stories for the child that never died in us? When do we grow up and read stories for adults? Isn’t a large portion of TV/movie content aimed at a kind of permanent arrested development in our souls?

When I was a kid I was savvy enough to distrust religion, so why did I buy into science fiction? We have a hunger for the fantastic. We want reality to be more than it is. Is it healthy to justify fantasy as only pretending? We want to aim high in imagining future possibilities, but when is ambition delusion? Why do we reject the mundane for the fantastic?

The Skylark of Space

What if our fantasies are a kind of reality? What if our fantasies are a new dimension we’re creating? A spin-off of this reality. What if all art is creation? Our conscious minds are the accidental byproduct of this universe. We have woken up becoming conscious of reality and said, “I wish it was different.” Maybe all art is fantasy, our blueprints to how we would have designed creation. What if our real desire is to put our conscious minds into our art, our self-created reality?

That philosophy would explain the drive to create VR software or the science fictional hope of downloading our brains into virtual worlds. There are folks who already believe this universe is such a construct.

I don’t know if this is good. Are we not destroying this planet by pursuing our fantasies? Should we not accept the physical reality in which we evolved? We are proud to be an evolved species with high intelligence, but what if we’re really a species with evolved fantasies? Is that creative or delusional?

Can we live in both reality and fantasy while respecting the rules of each?

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Becoming an Expert in a Micro-Expertise

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 31, 2018

Venture Science Fiction 1958 MayIt’s impossible to know everything about everything. It’s even impossible to know even a little bit about everything. There’s no way to become a generalist, even a half-ass one. That’s why people specialize. But even then, it’s hard to decide just how small an intellectual territory to conquer. Lately, I’ve been absorbing everything I can about science fiction magazines from Amazing Stories (1926) to Worlds of Tomorrow (1963). I’m making my cutoff date 1976, to have a 50-year range, but even that might be too much. I’m considering even sub-specializing on 1951-1969 (birth through high school).

What a weird little patch of knowledge to hoe. I can’t claim it’s meaningful, but out of the whole universe of things to study, it’s what appeals to me at age 66. It’s my way of coping with sensory overload. Yet, even such a microscopic portion of history is too large to master. Now that I am in my social security years, interest in current affairs is dwindling. The present really belongs to the young. I have a handful of small territories I struggle to claim, like movie westerns, 1950s jazz, nineteenth-century art, etc. There’s a special kind of fun in becoming a micro-expert know-it-all.

Marvel Science Fiction 1951 November Hi-ResWhat drives me to conquer various tiny territories of history is the challenge of putting a massive amount of data into a small consumable package. I’ll use my interest in SF magazines for an example. The Wikipedia entry, “History of US science fiction and fantasy magazines to 1950” is an excellent hypertext overview of half my territory I want to explore. And it’s “List of magazines” table is another comprehensive way of looking at it, especially if you follow the links to individual magazine histories. If only this entry was to 1976 or had a part 2, this one article would define the specific science fictional expertise I wish to master. I’d love to write a book that covered this tiny history or package it in a webpage or app.

One reason I’d love to focus on little topics is that my mind is letting my general knowledge drain away. I’m theorizing my brain can only hold less, so I jettison the stuff I don’t care about to make room for what I do. But choosing such tiny topics to study isolates me from most people. However, it clearly defines a subculture I wish to identify. I believe everyone needs a few specialties to dwell on. Something we can bore folks with at parties if they’re careless enough to ask, “What are you doing in retirement?”

I connect with most of my friends through everyday living and shared experiences, like television shows, movies, eating out, but it’s nice to have something to intellectually gnaw on that’s uniquely mine. Of course, the history of the science fiction magazine in the mid-20th century is not relevant to real problems we face today, but neither am I. I just love having a small patch of history to putter around. Some people garden in their backyard, I tend a tiny patch of history in my thoughts and blog.

amazing_stories_192811I’ve thought about choosing something contemporary and relevant, like artificial intelligence with Python and R, but I’m not sure my old brain is up chasing a current subject that’s growing too fast even for young geniuses. Focusing limits my scope of study in a comfortable way. Yet, when I outline what I want to know, it’s still a giant pile of data to digest. The pleasant challenge is to organize that data in a way that I might teach it to someone else.

Technology allows me to study science fiction magazines in a way that I couldn’t before the internet. Back in the 1960s when I first became interested in old SF magazines I would have had to spend a fortune to buy and house them. Now I can download digital scans for free and shelve them on an internal solid-state drive the size of a pack of gum. The internet conveniently allows me to locate the histories of the genre, the anthologies that collected the magazines stories into books, the biographies of the writers and editors, digital copies of the primary documents that go with these histories, communicate with other folks studying the same history, and use all the online resources that classify and organize the data that people are building. It’s a great time to become a micro-expert.

The Scope of My Ambition

For a few decades, the center of the universe for written science fiction was the science fiction magazines. Before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977), science fiction fandom was practically unknown to most people. Science fiction fandom began in their letter columns of the science fiction magazines. Almost all the major SF writers first published in the magazines. The earliest histories and biographies ran as features in the magazines. Most of the classic novels of science fiction were first serialized in the magazines. The earliest gossip and controversies first appeared in the letter columns, which spawned the creation of fanzines. Fanzines were amateur magazines devoted to the genre that devoted most of their content to what was happening in the professional magazines (which fans called prozines).

The history I study covers the magazines and stories, the editors, writers, and artists that worked for the magazines, and the major fans and historians who remember those magazines.

The Magazines

In some ways I’d love to own the actual old magazines – but not really. Pulp paper is now brittle, brown, and fragile. And I’d have to fill all the rooms of my house with bookshelves. And there were too many science fiction magazines for me to care about them all. Here are the science fiction magazines before 1976 that intrigue me enough to collect and study. If you follow the links to Wikipedia you can read very nice concise histories.

Histories

Mike Ashley has published two series of histories just on the science fiction magazine. The older series is mostly an anthology of stories with supplemental essays about the magazines. They include:

  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part One: 1926–1935 (1974)
  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part Two: 1936–1945 (1975)
  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part Three: 1946–1955 (1976)
  • The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part Four: 1956–1965 (1978)

The second series are all history, without the stories. These books are expensive, and now that the first three are out of print, they are even more costly to track down. I can’t understand why they aren’t in print as ebooks. I find it annoying that most histories of science fiction are out of print, especially in the age of ebooks and print-on-demand.

  • The Time Machines. The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950 (2000)
  • The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970 (2005)
  • Gateways to Forever. The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980 (2007)
  • Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990 (2016)

Over the years there have been a few histories and memoirs about specific magazines.

  • A Requiem for Astounding (1964) by Alva Rogers
  • Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years (1986) by David Roshelm
  • Astounding Days (1989) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Gernsback Days (2004) by Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes
  • Astounding (forthcoming 2018) by Alec Nevala-Lee

There are several good essays on the internet about the histories of science fiction magazines.

Then there countless popular and academic histories of science fiction that include histories of the magazines. These are too many to list. What I find fascinating are books that analyze the evolution of science fiction, such as The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Science fiction has always been a reflection of contemporary popular culture, revealing both the hopes and fears about the future, with unique perspectives from each country in which it was written. China is now generating a new wave of science fiction today, in the same way, the United States did in the 1960s.

Most of the best stories from the old science fiction magazines have been reprinted in books, as novels, as author short-story collections, or as anthologies. What I enjoy about reading the actual old magazines are the editorials, columns, book reviews, essays, letters to the editor, and reports on fandom and fanzines. This gives a history of a subculture. For example, here’s a wonderful illustration of a science fiction club membership by caricature. Hydra Club

I belong to groups on Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Groups.io, with members all over the world that love to remember these magazines, its subcultures, and the stories. I think it’s because we all grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and imprinted on science fiction back then. It’s the closest thing I have to a tribe.

JWH

 

 

 

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Can I Give Up My Printer?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 28, 2018

I hardly ever print anything anymore. I just tried to print a software manual so I wouldn’t have to study it on-screen when my printer stopped printing and demanded I install a magenta ink cartridge. A set of three colored ink cartridges is $34 from Amazon (or $48 at Office Depot if I wanted to immediately hop in the car to finish this print job). If I wanted to be a Boy Scout and get another black cartridge to have ready when my half-filled one ran out, it would be another $23 at Amazon (or $31 at Office Depot).

Epson 3540 printer

I just don’t feel like spending $57 for ink. $57 will buy a new all-in-one printer. That makes me wonder if I could give up my printer? Lately, I’ve mostly used my printer to print for other people who have given up their printer. Or as a copier for when I want to save a bill for my files. It annoys me that the printer won’t finish the job in black and white since I have a half-a-tank of black ink.

My immediate impulse is to print the manual to PDF to read on my iPad, and then unplug my printer and put it in the closet. The main thing I use it for is the scanner.

[ACTING ON IMPULSE – REMOVED PRINTER – INSTALLED OLD SCANNER]

I’m probably going to regret this. One day I’m going to have an emergency print job and will have to set up my printer again and then run down to Office Depot to pay full price for a magenta cartridge.

Since I neither go to school or work, it would seem I could do without a printer. Let’s see.

I still have a house phone. I guess I’m the kind of person that hangs onto old ways. Most of my friends have neither a printer or house phone. Some of my friends have given up wearing their watch. One friend even abandoned his laptop and now only uses a tablet. My phone has allowed me to give up a lot of gadgets, like GPS, camera, iPod, Kindle, voice recorder, etc.

Maybe the age of nifty gadgets is over. Of course, I’m learning this after everyone else. Why didn’t y’all tell me?

JWH

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What Happened to the Western Novel?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 24, 2018

thrilling_western_1951-11

Jess Nevins has some interesting data in his essay, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” about the number of titles published yearly for each pulp genre. I’m not sure of his source, or how the numbers were compiled, but I’m going to copy his tables here for convenience. I’m assuming these numbers are the total titles publishing in a given year.

Pulp stats1

Pulp stats2

Pulp stats3

Notice, that of the six genres, western pulp titles were the most numerous every year between 1936-1949. The pulp magazine essentially died out by 1950, although a handful of science fictional and mystery titles continued as digest-size magazines. Some people claim television killed the pulps, others suggest various financial concerns and magazine distribution policies.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s westerns were extremely common on television, maybe even the most popular kind of show. The list on Wikipedia is quite long. Back then my mother read mysteries and my dad read westerns. I’ve read a few westerns over the years, but I’ve always been a science fiction reader. However, my favorite movie genre has always been westerns.

Now when I’m at bookstores, new or used, their section for westerns novels are usually one shelf. What happened? Did the allure of the frontier die, or just move into outer space? Everything comes to an end, but why such a dramatic fall-off? It makes me wonder about the current glut of science fiction stories and shows. Will the SF genre eventually shrink, loved only by a few old fans like the western today?

What will replace science fiction? Could anyone in the 1940s imagine the western becoming an unpopular story type? Science fiction has shattered into various subgenres, with the dystopian tale becoming most fashionable with the young. Can you blame them? Their future isn’t our future.

If you study the chart above, science fiction titles were in 5th place most years, just above spicy titles (code word for sex). There were even spicy western pulps. Pulps mainly appealed to boys, with covers to prove it for many titles.

In the 1950s there was a boom in science fiction magazines, brought about I assume by the atomic bombs, jets, rockets, satellites, computers, etc. In the 1950s we looked both backward to the 19th-century and forward to the 21st. Maybe few people read westerns today because the future won and the 19th-century is now too far away.

So much has changed in my lifetime. Not just technology. The changes are also psychological in a way that’s hard to describe. I remember being part of the youth culture in the 1960s, but now feel completely alienated from the young in my sixties.

It’s hard to imagine a time when westerns were the most popular kind of pulp story to read. Maybe space exploration killed the western. As a boy in the 1950s, I wanted to wear a six-gun, but after Alan Sheppard’s 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961, I wanted to wear a spacesuit.

JWH

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Finding A Neighborly Middle Ground in Unbiased News

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A couple who lives next door told me they watched OAN (One America News Network) because it was not biased. They knew I disliked Fox News because I’m a liberal. I took their recommendation of OAN as a gesture of compromise. Our country is crippled by political polarization so I’m willing to try to meet people half-way in some kind of political middle ground. The idea of a news service that promotes a unified America is a good idea. But sadly, One America News is definitely not it.

What is bias? One dictionary definition defines bias as, “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” That would mean any news service that favors a liberal or conservative view, but it could also mean any news service that favors Christian over Muslim, or Hindu over Buddhism, or Atheist over Theist. Or it could mean a news service that favors capital over labor, or environmentalism over capitalism, pseudoscience over science, etc.

How can the news not be biased if it doesn’t give equal time to all issues? How can bias be measured? There are agencies that work to measure bias. Media Bias/Fact Check rates One America News Network as highly biased to the right. AllSides also rates it leaning to the right. RationalWiki describes OAN as far-right, ultra-conservative, and Pro-Trump.

And there are opinions from other news sources. Adweek says OAN is the ultimate pro-Trump network. The Washington Post says OAN takes pro-Trump to new heights. Salon even suggests that OAN is an alternative for those who think Fox News is too liberal.

I like the idea of finding a middle ground news source with my neighbor, but I’m afraid OAN is not it. I doubt they will support The New York Times, the only news I pay to read. I don’t subscribe to cable, and I’m watching less and less broadcast news. My main news sources are from Flipboard, which pulls stories from hundreds of different sites, including Fox News. I believe Flipboard provides a method for balancing bias, but it’s easily side-stepped if you are biased in the stories you select to read.

I disagree with my conservative friends who say that The New York Times is extremely biased to the left. Media Bias/Fact Check claims it’s left-center. They rate CNN and MSNBC as left. Their scale looks like this for CNN:

Media Bias Fact Check scales

Here is their list of least biased news sources. It’s an extremely long list, with mostly smaller sources, local papers, foreign news, but includes a few notable titles like The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today. I have to admit that most of my favorite news sources come from the Left-Center list. Although there are a few sources from Right-Center that I like, like Forbes Magazine. Fox News and One American News Network are in the Right-biased list. And I have to admit I do read several sources from the Left-biased list.

Media Bias/Fact Check is a great site to read to contemplate news bias. It also tracks Pro-Science and Pseudoscience lists.

I wonder if we can become less politically polarized and more neighborly if we change where we get our news? I doubt if all Americans will choose to read only from the Least Biased list, but maybe we could aim to stay within the Left-Center through Right-Center range.

JWH

 

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Yard Guilt and Lazy Landscaping

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 14, 2018

I’m an inside person. I enjoy an occasional walk in the Botanic Gardens or a bike ride through my neighborhood, but for the most part, I dwell indoors. I’m a bookworm who’s addicted to music and TV. I interact with the larger reality mostly through computer monitors and flat-screen televisions.

The trouble is I have a yard. Up till now, I like to think my yard as an independent creature that can get by without my help. We pay the lawn guys to give it a trim, and in the fall, pay the lawn guys to rake the leaves, but other than that, I leave my yard to its own resources. Wouldn’t Mother Nature know best? Oh, and every few years we have to spend the price of an OLED TV to have the trees trimmed and thinned. I don’t know what message she’s sending, but Mother Nature likes to drop large limbs on my house and yard. I wonder if she’s aiming at me? Sometimes it feels personal.

In the past, Ernie, my neighbor complained when my weeds got too tall and were pollinated his nicely kept lawn. Since then, I’ve had the lawn guys come very regularly. I figure I’ve done my neighborly duty. Other than Ernie, no one has told me I should do anything, but it worries me my neighbors spend so much time outside in their yards. What do their actions say?  In the past few years, many of my neighbors have had their lawns resodded. It makes me want to take up golfing. My yard is mostly weeds, clover, dandelions, and a smattering of grass-looking plants that may or may not be actual grass. When mowed, it’s green and flat, so I think it’s good enough.

My neighbors spend a great deal of time working on bushes and flower beds, and I’ve started feeling guilty. I don’t want to be considered a yard slacker.

Then the other day I attended a lecture given by a friend Kim on garden walks. She goes all over the country visiting different cities and towns that have garden walk tours. The point of her lecture was to convince people that garden walks improve neighborhoods dramatic ways beyond appearance. I was convinced, and her lecture made me feel even worse about my yard.

Here’s the jungle of my front yard. I have some azaleas, mostly dead or dying, some sapling trees that need to be cut down, weeds, vines, and other assorted unknown plant beings.

Front-YarsAnd here’s the jungle of half my backyard. The other half is paved for parking. Raccoons, squirrels, rats, cats, chipmunks, and other creatures live back there. Years ago we had a fox, but it got ran over. By the way, I live in the city. There are even more neighbors behind all that green.

Back-yard

After seeing Kim’s lecture I felt very guilty. I guess I’m letting my neighbors and neighborhood down. I’d like to think yards should belong to nature, and whatever nature wants to grow in my yard should be good enough. Evidently, city-dwellers feel a need to create their own visions of nature. I suppose my front yard should look like these yards:

Front Yard 1

Front Yard 2

Front Yard 3

But even if I take the simplest approach to landscaping, I’m going to have to learn a lot of new stuff, spend more money, work outside, and use up a bunch of my bookworm time. And the ironic thing is I won’t spend any more time dwelling outdoors. I have many nature-loving friends who plead for me to sit out on my patio. I don’t know why.

I think we need to rethink landscaping. Why does the grass need to be green and uniform? What’s wrong with weeds? It seems like we should have lawns and shrubs for the creatures that enjoy them the most – birds, squirrels, bees, moles, snakes, butterflies, wasps, slugs, rolly-pollies, etc.  We need yards that have low carbon footprints that consume CO2 and supply O2. Seems like these two yards would be more natural.

Front Yard 4

Front Yard 5

Why burn fossil fuels to maintain what nature can do on her own? Maybe I could fool my neighbors by planting some shrubs with flowers. Could it be the dobs of colors that impress people? Just plant a whole bunch of them willy-nilly and see what happens. Maybe the results will look landscaped.

I need to research plants, flowers, and shrubs that need little or no attention, but look fancy. I have no idea what to buy though. That will take some research. I just found a Pinterest site called Zero Effort Plants. That sounds good. But anyone reading this that knows about lazy-landscaping let me know.

And I hate the sound of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and weed eaters. We need to start a landscaping movement that does away with anything that requires making noise to maintain it.

JWH

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Am I Ill, Or Just Getting Old?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 6, 2018

When I was young I thought growing old meant going bald and getting wrinkles. That didn’t seem too bad. I assumed I would stay the same mentally. When I was young I felt great most of the time, hardly ever got sick, and I wasn’t bothered by heat or cold. We didn’t have air conditioning until I was a senior in high school. At sixty-six I go years without getting a cold or the flu, but I do have chronic heart, stomach and back problems, and cold and heat annoys the crap out of me. I keep my chronic conditions in check with diet and exercise.

The trouble is, I don’t feel like I used to. Is that illness, or oldness.

Getting old

In recent years I’ve felt my vitality run down. I can’t decide if something is wrong with me, or this is what it feels like to get old. And I’m only young old. What will it feel like to be really old?

At my last physical my doctor said all my blood work looked good. My testosterone was at a proper level, various vitamins were on the mark, my protein level was fine, and a bunch of other numbers I didn’t understand were where they were supposed to be. She said I was doing pretty good. I needed to lose weight and lower my cholesterol, but she’s been saying that for decades. For years I’ve been eating healthier, lost some weight, and lowered my cholesterol. The only time she praised me for my cholesterol and weight were the periods I went vegan. However, I can’t keep that up.

The thing is I feel best when I’m eating sweets. Ice cream makes me feel younger. Junk food gives me mental energy, but it eventually makes me feel sick too. I constantly struggle with my diet to find the right mixture of healthy eating that gives me the most vitality, yet doesn’t lead to feeling bad.

Recently I started wondering if my problem wasn’t disease or diet, but I’m just aging. At my last physical, I asked my doctor, “How do you tell the difference between feeling old and feeling sick?” She laughed at me and gave me some sympathetic words I’ve forgotten. Besides feeling rundown, I can’t remember shit. And I was told that is normal too.

My wife thinks I’m a hypochondriac. I used to feel normal all the time, now normal is a rare few hours in the week. Is this the real reason why people hate getting old so much? Not for the decline in appearance, but the decline in feeling good?

I constantly read books about diet, health, and exercise. Many authors promise renewed vitality if I’d only do what they say. The problem is I don’t have the discipline or the vitality to consistently follow their advice. I was able to stick with a plant-based diet for several months. I lost thirty pounds, and my LDL went to 90. However, my energy levels dwindled away. I’ve since added yogurt, kefir, and eggs back into my diet and mental energy has returned, but not like it was. I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, but always ate a lot of junk food. I’ve never been a high-energy person, but I was fine for a bookworm.

In my sixties, I’m feeling the creep of decay. I’ve fought it believing it could be cured. Now I’m wondering if it’s actually normal. Now I know why Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. Now I know why old people in my youth swilled Geritol. Now I understand my mother’s addiction to pain pills in her later life. Now I know why people hope B12 shots will give them a boost. It’s a shame that snorting cocaine is self-destructive because it sounds like a perfect drug for the Social Security years.

JWH

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What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 20, 2018

I remember watching the first episode of the original Lost in Space when it premiered back in September of 1965. I was thirteen and hooked on reading Heinlein juveniles. Science fiction was my religion. Even as a kid, I thought Lost in Space rather cheesy, but I watched it every week for a few months. I have fond memories of the 1965-66 television season. My favorite show of that season was I, Spy, but I also loved Twelve O’Clock High. I was embarrassed to admit I watched Lost in Space to my friends because I didn’t have any that were into science fiction, and they made fun of it as a kid’s show — but hell, we were kids. I loved the robot and thought Penny (Angela Cartwright) awful cute (hey, I was her age at the time).

Lost in Space - Robot and Will

I was a little apprehensive about giving Lost in Space (2018) a try. I was afraid they’d make it into a campy joke like before. I was wrong. It was ten episodes of action-oriented science fiction, visually pleasing, with engaging characters who were complex. This time around I still liked the robot best, but found Maureen (Molly Parker), the mom, the most attractive female, even though I’m way too old for her. It’s a weird headspace to remember a show that I watched as a kid being remade when I was older than any of the characters.

The Robinsons of Lost in Space is inspired by Swiss Family Robinson which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.  The Robinsonade is a very old literary type and has always been one of my favorites. I highly recommend In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin (currently $3.99 for the Kindle) if you want to read a fascinating history of lost on deserted island stories. In the original series the Robinsons were alone in space, but in the reboot, they have some company.

Lost in Space - Mauren

This time around the female characters get a lot more screen time, and Dr. Smith is played by a woman, Parker Posey. In fact, I would call Maureen Robinson the main protagonist, with Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell) getting as much or more story time as Will (Maxwell Jenkins), John (Toby Stephens), and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Even though the characters have the same names as before, their backstory and present stories are much different. Sure, everyone is super-smart, but each has a flawed history, which the show presents in flashbacks.

Lost in Space (2018) is mostly about family dynamics, and that’s what makes the series compelling this time. Each episode has lots of science fiction action, usually with one or more Robinsons escaping death in the last few seconds. Now that’s copied from the original. Interestingly, the cliffhangers in the new series don’t fall between episodes. The original series ended each episode with a new cliffhanger, which added to its cheesiness, demanding viewers to tune in next week. 2018 episodes have a nice closure to each.

21st-century television shows, especially those with limited seasons and high production values like Westworld, The Man in the High Castle, and The Handmaids Tale, are light years ahead of 1960s television productions. Back then TV was considered crap, and movies were art. Now movies are comic books and TV is art. Lost in Space isn’t at the level of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, but I think it’s as good as Stranger Things.

However, I do have some disappointments to register. But they aren’t unique to Lost in Space, but to current science fiction in general. Lost in Space (2018) looks very realistic. The sets, props and special effects are excellent. However, the science behind the story is rather lame. They practically don’t try. The Jupiter class spaceships are fueled by liquid methane. That’s just silly. Even sillier is when they find a substitute in high-grade alien-bat guano. Plus the apparent amount of fuel that each Jupiter holds is only a couple hundred gallons. I won’t give away the story secrets of the interstellar travel methods, but it’s closer to comic book terminology.

What disappoints me about modern science fiction is the total lack of realism regarding space travel. We’ve just given up and turned outer space into fantasyland. Spaceships are now equal to flying dragons or magical portals. Writers, if they make any effort at all to explain how we can travel in space, throw out a few gobbledygook words. The word wormhole is the new abracadabra. Man is that depressing.

I grew up reading science fiction believing that some stories were serious speculation about how humans might one day travel into space. I doubt 1-in-100 SF stories today even try to imagine something real.

Lost in Space (2018) has become a 1965 kids story for 2018 adults. Science fiction now lives on nostalgia. Hell, most visual science fiction today are remakes of films, shows, and comics from the 1960s and 1970s.  I read “What’s Going Wrong With Sci-Fi?” this morning from Esquire, which the essay opens with:

“One of the problems with science fiction,” said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, “is the fact that everything is used up. Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters.”

And Scott is only complaining from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m complaining that science fiction has practically given up on any kind of basis in science. Readers and watchers only want escapism. Lost in Space (2018) is good escapism but bad science fiction.

Half a century ago, NASA gave us Project Gemini and Project Apollo. Being a science fiction fan in the 1960s meant believing that humans would make it to Mars and beyond in our lifetimes. Well, our lifetimes are almost over and we’re still orbiting the Earth dreaming of beyond.

The new Lost in Space imagines life on Earth getting bad enough that people would want move to Alpha Centauri to start over. Suggesting that idea is wrong on so many different philosophical and scientific levels. It’s a fantasy on the level of Superman comics. A few hundred humans might one day colonize the Moon and Mars, but they won’t be places for pioneers seeking escape dismal lives on Earth. And travel to the stars is completely impossible by the science we know today. And I hate when true believers answer that with, “But we don’t know what science will discover in the future.” Study the problem. Wormholes and warp drives are only slightly more realistic for space travel than magical wardrobes in the Narnia books. Star Wars is no more science fictional than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Space (2018) is fun television, but its science is no more advanced than Lost in Space (1965). Writers use scientific terms like magical spells in Harry Potter movies. Of course, this is the norm. I shouldn’t complain. Movies like Gattaca and Her which are at least philosophically realistic about the impact of science aren’t blockbusters. The reality is we live in a small world, orbiting an average star, in a nothing special galaxy, and the likelihood of going anywhere else is almost zero. So, is fantasizing about space travel really that bad? It is if we think we can escape Earth once we’ve trashed it.

I found a lot of pleasure watching the new Lost in Space, but I’m also depressed that after 57 years of traveling in space, spacefaring humans only live the distance from Memphis and Nashville above the Earth. I thought humans would be dwelling much further away by now. Instead, we’re still just watching unrealistic science fiction dreaming we had.

JWH

 

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“Painted Ocean” by Lynette Aspey

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 13, 2018

Have you ever wanted to write science fiction? I have. It was always a kind of dream ambition — like other kids wanting to be rock stars, actresses, or football players. I took a creative writing course in high school, and another in college. I never really work hard at writing though. That’s what it takes, hard work. Like I said, the ambition was more of a daydream fantasy. Then in my fifties, I got serious and started an MFA degree, eventually producing about thirty short stories, and two novel drafts. I even got into Clarion West, an intensive six-weeks writing workshop for would-be science fiction writers. I had to save my vacation for years to take off that much from work.

After Clarion I went back to work and eventually stopped writing fiction. Without a class requiring me to write stories, I just didn’t. I discovered I loved writing essays. Yet, I still yearn to write fiction. It’s damn easy to write crappy fiction, and damn hard to write good fiction. Also, there is something psychological to fiction writing that I haven’t worked out yet.

Clarion West was a significant experience. Going to Seattle for Clarion West was especially interesting because I got to meet sixteen other people with that same daydream. Most of my classmates were young, in their twenties, a few in their thirties, and three of us old guys who were just into our fifties. I guess some dreams never die, no matter how old you get.

Writing fiction is hard because good fiction blends real-life experiences into made-up stories. And with science fiction, you have to speculate about possibilities that could exist, but don’t. The best fiction mixes in philosophical insight with artistic creativity. And like they taught us at Clarion West, good writing is the accumulation of significant details.

Lynette AspeyLynette Aspey was one of my classmates at Clarion West in 2002. I just read her new story “Painted Ocean” and started thinking about Clarion again, my time in Seattle, and what it means to write fiction. Her story is an excellent example of all the elements of why I wanted to write fiction.

Sixteen years ago, seventeen of us hope-to-be SF writers moved into a twelveth floor dorm for those six-weeks, attending writing lectures and critiques Monday through Friday. Our teachers changed every week. They were Kathleen Alcalá, Pat Cadigan, John Crowley, Gardner Dozois, Joe and Gay Halderman, and Paul Park. We also had special guest authors visit us on the weekends (Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Lucius Shepard) and we attended local science fiction parties getting to meet even more writers. It was an immersive experience.

We asked Gardner Dozois how many Clarion West students went on to publish science fiction. Gardner told us he expected a few of us to get published in a couple years and a few more five to ten years after that. That scared some of us. Lyn got a story, “Sleeping Dragons” accepted by Asimov’s Science Fiction and published in September 2004. I thought for sure I’d be reading a lot of her work soon. That didn’t happen. Several of my classmates went on to publish stories and novels. I didn’t. Gardner was right.

Lyn, her husband, and the daughter she was pregnant with at Clarion West became world travelers, lived in the Carribean for years, did a lot of sailing on a 43-foot ketch, including crossing the Atlantic. Lyn lived the adventures most people just read about. I was always envious of her because I love to read about people sailing around the world. I hoped she’d eventually write a nonfiction memoir about her life on the ocean. “Painted Ocean” is fiction, but does contain a lot sailing images and details.

Aurealis-109-cover-Space-landscape-683x1024

Recently, I’ve been hearing from Lyn on Facebook, where some of our 2002 alumni occasional post. She’s back living on land, in Australia, and writing stories again. Her new story “Painted Ocean” was published in Aurealis #109, a science fiction magazine from down under. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a link to read it online. I bought a copy of Aurealis #109 for $2.99 through Smashwords. I wished it had been on sale at Amazon for the Kindle because that’s the ebook platform I’m locked into. However, this situation has taught me how to deal with non-Kindle ebooks. Smashwords offers its downloads in several ebook formats, and I put a pdf copy on my Dropbox to read with my iPad. In the last couple of months, I’ve bought three books from non-Amazon sources. I think it’s important we support these alternative publishing platforms.

As I read “Painted Ocean” I was amazed by how good a writer Lyn has become, even after laying off for all those years. On her blog, she wrote, “A long time in the making …” about the writing of “Painted Ocean.” Go read it, especially if you want to become a writer. She says this story was started the Joe Haldeman week at Clarion West, but I did not remember it. To be honest, I don’t even remember my six stories. Each week we read and critiqued 17 stories. Lyn says Haldeman told us to write something hard.

“Painted Ocean” is an ambitious story. It blends AI, simulated reality, sailing, climate change, betrayal, and the love story of two older people. There is also a lot of allusions to the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, evidently a favorite poet of Lyn’s.

As I read about Annie Janssen, a woman with her gray hair in a bun and a brilliant hacker, I wondered if Lyn had created Annie by projecting her own self into the future. Reading her blog after finishing the story, it let me know she had read there weren’t many older female protagonists, so that challenge inspired her. Theodore Janssen is based on Lyn’s father, who had died seven years before Lyn attended Clarion West. Theo is trapped in an artificial reality on a sailboat name SaltTrader:

As Storm lashed out in fury, Theo’s yacht coalesced; broken pieces fitting together like a movie played backwards. The cockpit rebuilt itself around him, the decks with their fittings, the mast, boom and shrouds. Theo heard the rapid ching-ching of halyards hitting steel and, finally, her tattered sails came together like a soul re-knit.

SaltTreader heeled violently as the wind snagged her sails: a call to action.
Jumping forward, Theo released the mainsheet, spilling the wind in the mainsail. The sudden release of pressure brought SaltTreader upright. Her unrestrained boom swung dangerously but Theo was already at the mast, releasing the mainsail’s uphaul and letting the heavy layers of canvas drop to the deck where the wind clawed at but couldn’t fill them.

The foresail backed, bringing SaltTreader’s bow about. Just as she pointed into the wind, Theo released the foresail’s uphaul so that the sail could drop down the forestay, and raced to the bow.

He wrestled the heavy, flapping canvas as if it were a beast until it finally fell, defeated, to the deck. The well-worn ties that Theo always left in position on the guardrail for just this purpose re-materialised. He quickly secured the big foresail before scrambling back to the mast to begin tying down the mainsail.

SaltTreader wallowed dangerously.

Without the time to go below and find the tiny scrap of sail he used as a stormsail, Theo thought it on.

Storm howled. A powerful gust pinned him to the deck.

Using that power, Theo realised, was the equivalent of leaving an error message in the code.

But that little scrap of sail made all the difference. SaltTreader heeled and the wind drew her up the waves.

With the canvas secure, the banging and flogging abruptly disappeared. Now he could hear the hiss of breaking seas and the whine as wind whipped through his rigging, but she crested another mountainous wave. Theo became the master of his vessel once again.

The action of the story switches from the real world to the artificial world. “Storm” is the rogue AI which has gained control of a vast system of weather monitoring and controlling computers. Annie is on the outside, and what’s left of Theo’s personality is on the inside. Annie communicates with Theo with Coleridge like imagery.

Throughout the story, I wonder what is personal to Lyn’s life, what is science fiction, what is remembered from her sailing experiences, and what comes from her fears of the future. All of this wondering, and thinking about story construction makes me think about trying to write fiction again. So, Lyn, thanks for reminding me of old desires.

I really enjoyed reading Lyn’s story and her essay about writing it. Essay writing is all about describing real events, thoughts, concepts, and capturing them honestly as possible. Fiction goes into another realm. I’ve been thinking more about that realm again. I wonder how many of the Clarion West classmates still think about it too.

JWH

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A History of the Annual Science Fiction Best-of-the-Year Anthology

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Best_science_fiction_stories_1949Back in 1949 editors Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty came out with The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949 from Fredrick Fell publishers that collected the best science fiction stories that appeared in magazines during 1948. They were following the tradition of The Best American Short Stories anthology that first appeared in 1915. Science fiction has had one or more annual best-of-the-year anthologies ever since. I’ve counted 9 scheduled for 2018, with two already released (The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 edited by Neil Clarke and The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Twelve edited by Jonathan Strahan). By the way, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven is currently available for the Kindle for 99 cents. It has two of my favorite recent reads:  “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (try the audio) and “Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi (author of The Windup Girl.)

Few people read short stories. The audience for them is greater than poetry readers, but probably not by much. The three top print magazines, Analog, Asimov’s SF, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction all have roughly 10,000-20,000 buyers each. There’s no telling how many readers there are for the many online magazines. 1% of the U.S. population would be 3.257 million people, so even if there were 50,000 science fiction short story fans, that would only be less than 1/65th of 1% of the population. If you’re a fan of SF short stories, the odds of knowing someone else who is also a fan is very small indeed.

However, I would claim the science fiction short story has always been the heart and soul of the genre. Even before Amazing Stories in April 1926, the first pulp magazine devoted to science fiction, short science fiction appeared regularly in periodicals decades before that. Most science fiction writers, especially the Golden Age writers, got their start writing short stories. And if you love to read science fiction for the far-out ideas, the magazines are the place to go.

In an age where most novels are part of trilogies or never-ending series, a short work of fiction that jumps in, gets the job done and wraps up satisfyingly is to be highly prized. I get more science fictional bangs for my galactic credit by reading one annual anthology than I do reading a dozen SF novels. That’s why I’ve switched to mostly reading SF short stories.

Bleiler and Dikty might have begun the tradition of best-short-stories-of-the-year anthologies, but Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg created a series in the late 1970s that jumped back to 1939 and continued for 25 volumes until 1963. Robert Silverberg added one more volume for 1964 after they stopped.

I’ve started a reading project to read all these anthologies from 1939 to the present, assuming the present will be the year I die. That’s about 200 books as of 2018. I’m currently reading stories from 1942, the 1950s, and 2017.

Here are the annual anthologies I know about that ran for at least three years minimum. There have been other editors and publishers starting annual series that didn’t succeed that I’m ignoring in my collecting and reading. Follow the links to ISFDB to read more about each series, their volumes, and their content. I’m using the series title decided on my ISFDB, but individual volume titles will vary.

If you count series with the bolded “present” above, you should tally eleven. Maybe my assumption that few people read short stories is wrong because this seems like a boom time for best-of-the-year anthologies.

Bleiler & Dikty began their series two years before I was born. Evidently, their publisher Frederick Fell didn’t have a wide distribution because I don’t remember seeing any of these volumes at the library when I was growing up. I began reading the annual anthologies in the mid-sixties with Judith Merril and then the Wollheim books from Ace Books. After that, I started reading the Terry Carr collections. I bought every annual from Dozois when he started with Bluejay Books, but I didn’t keep them. Damn!  Today I follow Dozois, Strahan, Horton, Kaster, and Clarke.

My current reading project is The Great SF Stories edited by Asimov/Greenberg. I’m reading them straight through. I’m now in 1942. I seldom read the annual anthologies from cover-to-cover. My goal is to do that this time as I progress through the years. It’s becoming quite an education in the history and evolution of science fiction. I sometimes write about the stories that intrigue me over at Worlds Without End.

If you’re interested in discussing SF short stories I have an online email group, The Great SF Stories at Groups.io. You’re welcome to join.

Update:

A few weeks ago I wrote “9 ‘Best SFF of the Year’ Anthologies” for Book Riot that just got published (4/13/18). At the time I only knew about 9 current best-of-the-year anthologies. Now it’s up to 11. There might be more.

JWH

 

 

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Say Goodbye to the Internet in Your Will

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 9, 2018

I’ve been using the internet long enough to have online friends pass away. I’m in one online book club that has had three members die. I’ve had other internet friends just disappear, and I’ve wondered what has happened to them. Sometimes on Facebook family members will post a goodbye. I greatly appreciate that when it happens.

Quite often I don’t know where my internet friends live. And even when I do, the standard of publishing an obituary in the local paper seems to be fading along with print journalism.

Last Will

There is much anger directed at Facebook in recent weeks. However, Facebook is how many people stay in contact with friends and family. Few reports count all the positive benefits of Facebook. As many as two billion people use the service. In recent years, Facebook is often how I find out internet friends are sick, dying, or have passed away. It’s become the new obituary page.

We all need to leave login credentials to our social media groups in our wills with instructions to contact these sites after our death. And even provide a parting farewell to publish.

Social media is often dismissed as shallow. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. Maybe we should make it better.

JWH

 

 

 

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If I Was Rich I’d Collect Books

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 3, 2018

I’ve never hankered after riches. Owning fancy cars or mansions seems like too much work. Bookworms don’t need much money, we just need time. Now that I’m retired I’m rich in time. But for some reason, I now want to collect books as beautiful objects. Before, I bought books to read. I gave them away when I finished. Often I bought more books than I could read, and after several years of not reading them, I gave them away too.

For some reason that I don’t understand, I’ve developed an attraction to certain books. But only to editions with covers I like. I’ve made a few indulgent purchases lately of hardbacks with dust jackets I admire. I love getting them in the mail, especially when they are in fine shape, protected by a Brodart mylar jacket. So far my purchases have been few, and always under $20. The books I really want cost a good deal more.

I’ve never really valued paperbacks until recently. When I was young they were all I could afford.  After I went to work I bought hardbacks. I have bad eyes and hardbacks are easier to read. Since the invention of the ebook, I actually prefer to read Kindle books. But for a psychological reason I can’t understand, I now enjoy buying old paperbacks because of their covers. I don’t know why I want to collect them because old paperbacks are fragile and deteriorating. To read one requires great care not to damage them.

I can easily order most paperbacks for under $5 from ABEBooks.com. However, the dealers who sell them for that price are not accurate with their condition descriptions, plus they have a nasty habit of putting barcode labels right on the beautiful covers. Pisses me off no end. It generally requires spending a good deal more to get paperbacks in very good to fine condition. Evidently, dealers who charge more are kinder to what they sell and don’t put barcodes on their merchandise. Quite often they ship paperbacks in protective plastic sleeves.

Here are series of books from Ballantine I’d love to collect. I won’t let myself spend the money, so I’ll post the covers here to admire. They’ll look especially great when I view this page on my iPhone. Maybe I like these covers because the artists have illustrated short stories I know. I don’t feel modern cover artists illustrate stories like these old artists did.

The Best of C. L. Moore

The Best of Fredric Brown

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

The Best of Cordwainer Smith

The Best of Fritz Leiber

The Best of Henry Kuttner

The Best of Edmond Hamilton

The Best of Eric Frank Russell

The Best of Frederik Pohl

The Best of Robert Bloch

The Best of Hal Clement

The Best of Jack Williamson

The Best of James Blish

The Best of John W. Campbell

The Best of L. Sprague de Camp

The Best of Leigh Brackett

The Best of Murray Leinster

The Best of Philip K. Dick

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallum

The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum

The Best of John Brunner

 

JWH

 

 

 

 

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Where to Read the 1943 Retro Hugo Short Fiction Nominees?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, April 1, 2018

Worldcon 76 just announced the 1943 Retrospective Hugo Award finalists, which selects works published in 1942. Because I’ve been systematically reading old science fiction short stories I thought it would be fun to see where and how often these stories have been reprinted. In the list below, I’m linking each story to its Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB) entry. Following that link will show where the story has been reprinted. If you right-click the link and select open the page in a new window you won’t lose your place here.

Following the list, I’ll discuss which anthologies have best remembered these stories from 1942.

Best Short Story

Etaoin Shrdlu” by Fredric Brown (Unknown Worlds, February 1942)
Mimic” by Martin Pearson (Donald A. Wollheim) (Astonishing Stories, December 1942)
Proof” by Hal Clement (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1942)
Runaround” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942)
The Sunken Land” by Fritz Leiber (Unknown Worlds, February 1942)
The Twonky” by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1942)

Best Novelette

Bridle and Saddle” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1942)
Foundation” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1942)
Goldfish Bowl” by Anson MacDonald (Robert A. Heinlein) (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942)
The Star Mouse” by Fredric Brown (Planet Stories, Spring 1942)
There Shall Be Darkness” by C.L. Moore (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1942)
The Weapon Shop” by A.E. van Vogt (Astounding Science Fiction, December 1942)

Best Novella

Asylum” by A.E. van Vogt (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1942)
The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher (Unknown Worlds, April 1942)
Hell is Forever” by Alfred Bester (Unknown Worlds, August 1942)
Nerves” by Lester del Rey (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1942)
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” by John Riverside (Robert A. Heinlein) (Unknown Worlds, October 1942)
Waldo” by Anson MacDonald (Robert A. Heinlein) (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1942)

The Great SF Stories 4 (1942) edited by Asimov and Greenberg

Some of these stories have been anthologized extensively, and some very little. That’s kind of surprising since you’d think the most remembered stories would get nominated. If you own a copy of The Great SF Stories 4 (1942) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg you’ll already have 7 of 18 of these stories:

  • “Mimic”
  • “Proof”
  • “The Twonky”
  • “Foundation”
  • “The Star Mouse”
  • “The Weapon Shop”
  • “Nerves”

Unfortunately, that anthology is out of print, and used copies can be expensive. It’s actually cheaper to find copies of Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction: 2nd Series in hardback, that reprints both 1941 and 1942.

If you own another out-of-print anthology, Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas you can read five of the stories:

  • “Nerves”
  • “Asylum”
  • “The Twonky”
  •  “The Weapon Shop”
  • “The Star Mouse”

Notice the overlap. I wonder if that’s an indication of which stories will win this summer.

“Runaround” can be found in I, Robot and other repackagings of Asimov’s robot stories, and the “Foundation” and “Bride and Saddle” of course, are part of Foundation (it was a fix-up novel).

“Etaoin Shrdlu” can be read in several Fredric Brown anthologies. Both of his nominated stories can be bought in the 99 cent ebook, The Fredric Brown Megapack.

“The Sunken Land” by Fritz Leiber can be found in the many editions of Swords Against Death, the second volume of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.

The most common way to find Heinlein’s “Goldfish Bowl” is from his collection, The Menace From Earth. The best way to find Heinlein’s other two nominations, “Waldo” and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is in The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein. However, it’s out of print. I find it rather annoying how Heinlein’s short stories are constantly being repackaged in new collections.

One of the hardest stories to find will be “There Shall Be Darkness” by C. L. Moore. The latest reprint, which is still in print is Miracle in Three Dimensions, is a collection of her lost pulp stories.  But at $16.95, is kind of steep for reading one story.

Almost as hard to track down will be “Hell is Forever” by Alfred Bester. I’d look for a used copy of Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester. They’s way you’d get his other great stories.

“The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher has been reprinted fairly often, but not in easy to acquire anthologies. Probably the best place to find it is in Boucher’s collection, The Complete Werewolf and Other Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I’m surprised that many of these stories weren’t anthologized more often. Before I started this research, I thought they’d all be in a handful of famous retrospective anthologies. That wasn’t the case. The stories least anthologized seem to be fantasy stories.

Won’t fans vote for Asimov because his nominees are from his most famous series? And does Heinlein still have enough fans to guarantee him a win? Heinlein was very popular in 1942 among science fiction fans, but what about the fans voting today?

Update:

Just for fun, I decided to try to find some of the other SF stories from 1942 that have been remembered.

My first idea was to check the Groff Conklin anthologies. Conklin assembled a number of retrospective anthologies that are well-remembered by older fans today. I check seven of these and found these 1942 stories:

  • “Goldfish Bowl” by Robert A. Heinlein
  • “Jackdaw” by Ross Rocklynne
  • “With Flaming Swords” by Cleve Cartmill
  • “The Embassy” by Donald Wollheim
  • “Tools” by Clifford Simak
  • “The Wings of Night” by Lester del Rey
  • “Proof” by Hal Clement
  • “Recruitment Station” by A. E. van Vogt
  • “Heritage” by Robert Abernathy
  • “The Flight that Failed” by Hull/van Vogt
  • “To Follow Knowledge” by Frank Belnap Long

I’m guessing Conklin didn’t use any stories that Healy & McComas used in Adventures in Time and Space. I also assumed Conklin didn’t get to use the Asimov and Heinlein stories because they weren’t available, or were used elsewhere, or were already too famous.

Besides the five stories picked by Healy & McComas that got nominated, they had one other 1942 story, “The Link” by Cleve Cartmill.

The other stories in the Asimov/Greenberg anthology that weren’t nominated for retro Hugos were:

  • “The Wings of Night” by Lester del Rey
  • “Barrier” by Anthony Boucher
  • “QRM-Interplanetary” by George O. Smith

If I get time, I’m going to check other anthologies.

JWH

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Should I Delete Facebook?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 23, 2018

Cambridge AnalyticaI’ve seen at least a dozen stories about people deleting their Facebook account because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Just now I read two news stories about Elon Musk deleting Space-X and Tesla pages from Facebook even though they had millions of followers. There’s lots of anti-Facebook sentiment percolating on the web right now with many users jumping ship.

But how many? Facebook has two billion users. Even if a hundred million people quit in protest will it matter? There have always been folks who grumped about Facebook. They are much like snobs who sneer at watching television. I look at TV and Facebook every day. Not much, in either case, but they both provide their little pleasures. And, little pleasures count for a lot in our social security years.

People fear Facebook because of identity theft or invasion of their privacy. But is any place safe on the internet? And if you read about Cambridge Analytica you’ll see that people happily filled out forms and shared them with friends. You’d have to be an idiot to not know that everything you do on the internet is monitored. No one pays to use Facebook. Have you ever wondered how Facebook makes its money? Our habits and opinions are valuable. Keeping America supplied with cat videos is expensive, so Facebook has to make its money someway.

When I’m on the internet I assume Big Brother and all his brothers and sisters are watching. I don’t care that they know I love cat videos and scans of old science fiction magazine covers. I have no idea what that information reveals about me politically or fiscally.

Before people rush to delete their Facebook account out of some kind of misguided protest, I think they should analyze what they get out of the service. Facebook keeps me in contact with relatives and friends I seldom or never see anymore. Facebook keeps in contact with people around the world that have the same esoteric interests as I do. And I enjoy seeing a half-dozen funny videos every day. They’re as good as a dose of Geritol.

For example, I’ve been reading old science fiction stories from the pulp magazines. I’ve made three online friends in South Africa, England, and here in the U.S. that also like to read such stories. I don’t know how many people left on this planet still love to read science fiction short stories in old pulp magazines, but Facebook has helped me find them. Facebook also keeps me in contact me with relatives I haven’t seen in fifty years.

Besides, Facebook helps me keep tabs on my wife. She always checks in wherever she goes.

I also find it very pleasant to share cartoons, videos, songs, beautiful photos, sayings, etc. with other people. For example, here’s one called Millennial Job Interview that has a passing dig at Facebook. I thought pretty damn funny and very revealing about modern times. Evidently, the young consider Facebook a hangout for older people. That might be true because most of my Facebook friends are older. And most of the people who write about deleting their Facebook accounts are younger. Should we consider this anti-Facebook movement an ageist attack on Baby Boomers?

I wonder if Big Brother finds what we share more revealing about our personalities than the facts typed into queries like Cambridge Analytica’s? For many people I know, what they share on Facebook reveals more about themselves than they reveal in person.

I share a lot on Facebook. My friends and family must think I’m odd from some of the content I post. However, I use both Facebook and Twitter as external memory banks. My biological memory is beginning to fail. I wish Facebook existed when I was young so I could scroll back into the past. When I scan through my timeline it’s like a stream-of-consciousness of what tickled my fancy. I’m sure if Big Brother applied a powerful artificial intelligence program to my timeline it could psychoanalyze my posts and provide me with the ads customized for my personality.

But you want to know something funny? If you asked me if there were ads on Facebook I’d tell you no. My mind is so good a tuning out ads that I don’t see them on web pages anymore. I do use an ad blocker, but they aren’t completely effective. I do know there are ads because I see them when I consciously go looking for them. But psychologically I don’t remember ads on Facebook. That might hurt them more than deleting my account. Sorry, Mark.

I suppose I could quit Facebook. Many who have quit Facebook claim their lives are so much better for it. Maybe mine would be better too, but I sure would miss those cat videos.

JWH

 

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Why Wasn’t Philip K. Dick in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Anthologies?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Philip K. DickI’ve been listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One and Volume 2A. Volume 2B is due out in April. Today, my friend Mike asked me why there were no stories by Philip K. Dick in these anthologies. I had not noticed that before, and now I’m wondering, “Why the hell not?” Mike and I are big PKD fans.

Read “SFWA and the ‘Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ Anthologies” by Andrew Liptak for a history of these books and a listing of the stories included. The first three volumes collected stories voted on by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) for works that were published before the Nebula Awards were created. The final two volumes collected stories that won the award. Since PKD never won a Nebula it’s understandable he wasn’t included in those volumes. So we’re really talking about missing in action from v. 1, 2A and 2B.

Was Philip K. Dick unpopular with SFWA members? 132 stories by 76 authors were nominated for the first volume which was limited to stories under 15,000 words published before 1965. PKD had dozens and dozens of stories that met that requirement, many of which were exceptional, and several of which have inspired movies and television shows. I would love to see that list of total nominated stories but I can’t find it on the web. I have to assume PKD had a few stories on it.

The Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB) has a listing “Most Viewed Stories Since 2005.” PKD has 5 in the Top 20, and many more in the overall list.

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966)
  • “Adjustment Team” (1954)
  • “The Minority Report” (1956)
  • “Imposter” (1953)
  • “The Golden Man” (1954)

Of course, this list has been heavily influenced by fans of the television shows and movies looking up the stories. Strangely, there are no PKD stories in ISFDB’s older “Top 100 Short Stories – Balanced List.” Does this mean PKD has only recently gained popularity as a science fiction writer?

Dick only has two stories on the “Top 100 SF Short Stories” at Sci-Fi Lists (“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and “Second Variety” (1953)). This list is based on internet voters, from recent years.

He does have two stories (“Faith of Our Fathers” (1967) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”) at the Anthology & Collect References list that tells which stories have been most anthologized in these anthologies. These are older works.

Evidently, Philip K. Dick’s most popular story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” which came out in 1966 didn’t qualify. Neither does “Faith in Our Fathers.”  But the others do. Mike and I wondered why “Survey Team” (1954) didn’t make it since we like it better than many of the stories that did get into the original Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One.

Dick’s stories were often published in less famous science fiction magazines of the day. Reading them in his five-volume collected stories, I’m often very impressed. I wonder if there were other writers who appeared in the lesser mags that also wrote good stories that need to be remembered.

This also makes me ask, “What other great SF authors and stories were left out of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame books?” The obvious next question is where are the women writers? And when I think about it, there were many popular writers from the 1930s and 1940s that would have been included twenty-five years earlier. Time is not kind to science fiction.

Update 3/17/18:

What about Robert Sheckley?

JWH

 

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Social Media Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 9, 2018

AFF_MarApr2018_400x570I’ve been reading the new March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I’ve found two stories we could call social media science fiction. I’ve read many other examples of this emerging sub-genre but can’t recall them at the moment. But I smell a trend.

Since I’ve been reading stories from Astounding Science Fiction, Analog’s previous title, from 50-80 years ago I can’t help but imagine what readers 50-80 years from now will think about these two stories.

The first story, “The Streaming Man” by Suzanne Palmer is about a fellow named Rohn who is an inventor of implantable medical monitors. For fun, Rohn programs these monitors to also play different musical instruments based on data from his body, so his body generates music and he puts that feed online. His unique compositions gather a large following of online listeners who become addicted to the music of his body. Rohn likes to interact with his followers via something like Twitter. His followers try to guess what Rohn is doing based on the music he makes. The story itself has other characters and complications but for us readers, this story tells us how creative the internet is and will be.

The second story, “Razzibot” by Rich Larson is about a fourteen-year-old girl, Marisol, receiving a Razzibot for her birthday. This device is a small AI driven drone that flies around Marisol filming her life for a live feed to the internet. Between Marisol’s need for followers, and the AI’s ability to always seek shots that flattery Marisol’s looks and appeal to the viewers’ voyeurism, the number of her followers grow and grow. Through the story, Marisol knows when she’s playing up to the camera, but also knows when she’s revealing too much of her personal life. The tale is about ego and technology.

These two stories are very engaging. Besides good writing, I assume their relevant topics would make them appealing reads to most people. Both of these stories feel very possible. In fact, the science might already exist to allow them to happen. The stories are so close to now I have to wonder if we should even call them science fiction. They could be considered contemporary social commentary. If a reader in 2068 reads them what will they think? I can easily imagine future readers believing these stories were realistic fiction about 2018.

That’s the thing. When I read technology and science news I often feel that I’m already living in a science fictional future. I also find it really hard to imagine the next fifty years experiencing as much change as I have in the last fifty years. It’s one thing for Dick Tracy comics to imagine a wrist phone back in 1946 that’s a lot like an Apple smartwatch, but it’s a whole other thing for us to imagine what people will be using in 2090. All the easy to imagine inventions have been fictionally invented.

That makes it hard for science fiction writers. Coming up with the idea of making music from monitoring bodily functions is clever. Thinking up an always-on selfie robot is good too, but less original. They already have drone selfie cams on the market. Building in the AI to make users internet interesting is not such a stretch. SF writers probably have a hard time keeping up with real science and technology.

Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radios go back 72 years. It wasn’t called a phone. His creator didn’t imagine cell phones. Portable two-radios were already getting smaller back then, so it wasn’t a big leap to imagine one on the wrist. We’d be far more impressed if Chester Gould had imagined a cellular phone system or a computer network.

Science fiction often imagines too much, thinking up magical inventions, like teleporters, brain downloading, holodecks, or spaceships that can make interstellar flights in a few hours. We know computer chips are getting smaller, but should we expect smartphones to get smaller too? They were, but then they got larger. There’s a practical limit to what’s useful to hold. I figure most people want to over-imagine things and suggest people in 2090 will have smartphones built into their heads, and thus providing techno-telepathy.

I find Blu-tooth headsets annoying to wear and use, and I don’t see many people sporting them like years ago. And if you’ve ever talked to Alexa or Siri you know that there are limitations in doing things verbally. I suppose we could wear necklaces that are phones which operate by voice commands and have auxiliary tablet screens for reading. But I find hearing people talk on their cellphones annoying, so picturing a world where everyone looks like they are talking to themselves and not holding anything will be even more aggravating. The other day I saw a man walking down the street shouting angrily. I told myself, “I hope he’s on a phone.”

There are countless implications to everyone having a smartphone, especially one tied to our physiology. What happens to privacy? What happens to crime when everyone’s location can be tracked in great detail? There are endless stories there, but what happens to the old-fashioned mystery novel? We’d always know who-did-it. Have you ever noticed how many classic movies would have had their plots invalidated if the characters had cell phones?

Both “The Streaming Man” and “Razzibot” assume technology will make certain individuals more interesting than others. But if everyone has the same technology will that be true? Marisol is interesting because her friends don’t have a Razzibot. Rohn is interesting because he’s the only person making music with his body.

I’m wondering if technology will eventually even out and a return to privacy will become compelling. Today I read “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned” by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. Manjoo got better news by getting his news from slower news sources. I would think some science fiction writers might work on imagining a backlash to more technology.

I know I’m getting irritated by so many people calling me every day. Maybe we’ve become too accessible. Which is the driving force of the plot lines of these two short stories.

JWH

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The Hardback Legacy of Astounding Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 1, 2018

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and researching stories from the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction (1930-1960). I’m slowly learning its history, impact, and legacy. I never bought a new issue of Astounding at the newsstand. I did start buying Analog Science Fiction & Fact in the mid-sixties. That was Astounding’s new name starting in 1960. However, by then I was already reading stories from Astounding reprinted in old books I found in libraries and used bookstores.

From reading blogs and writing people on the internet I’m learning there are different generations of fans. The first generation, the G.I. generation, started reading Astounding in the 1930s and 1940s. This generation has mostly died off. The second generation, the Silent generation, bought Astounding in the 1940s and 1950s and bought the hardback reprints new in bookstores in the 1950s. If they are still alive they are well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. The third generation, the Baby Boomers, never bought new copies of Astounding or the first edition hardbacks that reprinted Astounding but discovered its stories in anthologies and novels on dusty library shelves.

I’m meeting those Baby Boomers now online at Facebook, Yahoo! Groups, Goodreads, and other websites, who fondly remember discover the legacy of Astounding Science Fiction. As youngsters we grew up reading science fiction books for young adults by Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, and those published in the Winston Science Fiction series and then stumbled onto the classic anthologies by Healy & McComas, Groff Conklin, Martin Greenberg, John W. Campbell, and then finding the novels from Gnome Press, Fantasy Press, Doubleday, Simon & Shuster, and Prime Press that reprinted the legendary serials from Astounding.

This all happened in the 1960s. I sometimes call it Baby Boomer science fiction, but that describes the readers and not what was read. The stories we loved originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The best its content was reprinted in hardback in the 1950s. By the time we found those volumes in the 1960s they were well read and worn. Some still had the classic dust jackets that make them expensive collector items today, but others were already rebound in hideous orange, tan, brown, and aqua colors that libraries used back then.

For the nostalgic thrill of it, I’ve decided to recall those first edition hardbacks. If I was rich and reckless with owning things, I’d collect them. However, I’m quite happy when I can find beautiful hi-resolution scans of the dust jackets just to trigger those remaining synapses that remember seeing them in my favorite libraries of childhood.

Links are to Wikipedia or whatever has the most useful and descriptive content about the book. Most of the dust jacket scans were nicked from the Internet Science Fiction Database, and I did almost all of my research at that invaluable site. I’m trying to find the highest resolution scans possible. If you know of better copies let me know. Of the anthologies and fix-up novels, I’ve worked to only remember volumes that mostly used content from Astounding Science Fiction.

I put in parenthesis the dates the tale originally ran in Astounding and the publisher. I’ve probably left out many famous titles, just let me know.

1946

Adventures in Time and Space ed. Healy and McComas 1946 Random House

Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas

Slan by A. E. van Vog 1946 Arkham House

Slan by A. E. van Vogt – (Sep-Dec40) Arkham House

1947

The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson 1947 Fantasy Press

The Legon of Space by Jack Williamson – (Apr-Jul34) Fantasy Press

The Mightiest Machine by John W. Campbell 1947 Hadley

The Mightiest Machine by John W. Campbell (Dec34-Apr35) Hadley Publishing Co.

Venus Equilateral by George O. Smith 1947 Prime Press

 

Venus Equilateral by George O. Smith – (collection) Prime Press

The Weapon Makers by A. E. van Vogt 1947 Hadley Publishers

The Weapon Makers by A. E. van Vogt – (Feb-Apr43) Hadley Publishing

1948

... And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey 1948 Prime Press

… And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey – (collection) Prime Press

beyond-this-horizon

Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein – (Apr-May42) Fantasy Press

Divide and Rule by L. Sprague de Camp 1948 Fantasy Press

Divide and Rule L. Sprage de Camp – (1939, 1941) Fantasy Press

Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard 1948 Hadley Publishing

Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard – (Apr-Jun40) Hadley Publishing

A Treasury of Science Fiction ed. Groff Conklin 1948 Crown

A Treasury of Science Fiction ed. Groff Conklin – (collection) Crown

Who Goes There by John W. Campbell 1948 Shasta. Campbell 1948 Shasta

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell – (collection) Shasta

Without Sorcery by Theodore Sturgeon 1948 Prime Press

Without Sorcery by Theodore Sturgeon – (collection) Prime Press

The World of Null A by A. E. van Vogt 1948 Simon and Schuster

The World of Ā by A. E. van Vogt – (Aug-Oct45) Simon & Schuster

1949

The Humanoids by Jack Williamson 1948 Simon and Schuster

The Humanoids by Jack Williams – (Mar-May48) Simon & Schuster

Pattern of Conquest by George O. Smith

Pattern for Conquest by George O. Smith – (Mar-May46) Gnome Press

Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein 1949 Gnome Press

Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein – (Jan-Mar41) Gnome Press

The Skylark of Valeron by Edward E. Smith 1949 Fantasy Press

The Skylark of Valeron by Edward E. Smith – (Aug34-Feb35) Fantasy Press

1950

The Cometeers by Jack Williams 1950 Fantasy Press

The Cometeers by Jack Williamson – (May-July36, Apr-Jun39) Fantasy Press

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak 1950 Gnome

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford Simak – (Feb-Apr39) Gnome Press

Fury by Henry Kuttner 1950 Grosset and Dunlap

Fury by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – (May-Jul47) Grosset & Dunlap

Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber 1950 Pellegrini and Cudahy

Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber – (May-Jul43)

I Robot by Isaac Asimov 1950 Gnome Press

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – (collection) Gnome Press

Needle by Hall Clement 1950 Doubleday

Needle by Hall Clement – (May-Jun50) Doubleday

Masters of Time by A. E. van Vogt 1950 Fantasy Press

Masters of Time by A. E. van Vogt – (fix-up) Fantasy Press

Men Against the Stars ed. Martin Greenberg 1950 Gnome Press

Men Against the Stars ed. Martin Greenberg – (anthology) Gnome Press

Nomad by George O. Smith 1950 Prime Press

Nomad by George O. Smith – (Dec44-Feb45) Prime Press

Seetee Shock by Jack Williamson 1950 Simon and Schuster

Seetee Shock by Jack Williamson – (Feb49-Apr49) Simon & Schuster

The Voyage of the Space Beagle by Jack Williamson 1950 Simon & Schuster

The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt – (fix-up) Simon & Schuster

Waldo and Magic Inc by Robert A. Heinlein 1950 Doubleday

Waldo and Magic, Inc. by Robert A. Heinlein (collection) Doubleday

1951

Dreadful Sanctuary by Eric Frank Russell Fantasy Press

Dreadful Sanctuary by Eric Frank Russell – (Jun-Aug48) Fantasy Press

Foundation by Isaac Asimov 1951 Fantasy Press

Foundation by Isaac Asimov – (fix-up) Gnome Press

Gray Lensman by Edward E. Smith 1951 Fantasy Press

Gray Lensman by Edward E. Smith – (Nov39-Jan40) Fantasy Press

Journey to Infinity ed. Martin Greenberg 1951 Gnome Press

Journey to Infinity ed. Martin Greenberg – (collection) Gnome Press

Renaissance by Raymond F. Jones 1951 Gnome Press

Renaissance by Raymond F. Jones – (Jul-Sep44) Gnome Press

SeeTee Ship by Jack Williamson 1951 Gnome Press

SeeTee Ship by Jack Williamson – (Jan-Feb43) Gnome Press

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen by L. Sprague de Camp 1951 Gnome Lewis Padgett

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (1946, 1947)

1952

The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology ed. John W. Campbell 1952 Simon & Schuster

The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology ed. John W. Campbell – (collection) Simon & Schuster

City by Clifford Simak 1952 Gnome Press

City by Clifford Simak – (fix-up) Gnome Press

Cloak of Aesir by John W. Campbell 1952 Shasta

Cloak of Aesir by John W. Campbell, Jr. – (collection) Shasta

The Current of Space by Isaac Asimov 1952 Doubleday

The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov – (Oct-Dec52) Doubleday

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov 1952 Gnome Press

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – (fix-up) Gnome Press

Judgment Night by C. L. Moore 1952 Gnome Press

Judgement Night by C. L. Moore – (collection) Gnome Press

The Legion of Time by Jack Williams 1952 Fantasy Press

The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson – (May-Jul38) Fantasy Press

The Red Peri by Stanley G. Weinbaum 1952 Fantasy Press

The Red Peri by Stanley G. Weinbaum – (collection) Fantasy Press

Robots Have No Tails by Lewis Padgett 1952 Gnome Press

 

Robots Have No Tails by Henry Kuttner – (fix-up) Gnome Press

1953

Assignment in Eternity by Robert A. Heinlein 1953 Fantasy Press

Assignment in Eternity by Robert A. Heinlein – (collection) Fantasy Press

Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras 1953 Gnome Press

Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras – (fix-up) Gnome Press

Iceworld by Hal Clement 1953 Gnome Press

Iceworld by Hal Clement – (Oct-Dec51) Gnome Press

Mutant by Lewis Padgett 1953 Gnome Press

Mutant by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – (fix-up) Gnome Press

Revolt in 2100 by Robert A. Heinlein 1953 Shasta

Revolt in 2100 by Robert A. Heinlein – (Feb-Mar40) Shasta

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov 1953 Gnome Press

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – (fix-up) Gnome Press

Second Stage Lensmen by Edward E. Smith 1953 Fantasy Press

Second Stage Lensman by Edward E. Smith – (Nov41-Feb42) Fantasy Press

1954

Children of the Lens by Edward E. Smith 1954 Fantasy Press

Children of the Lens by Edward E. Smith – (Nov47-Feb48) Fantasy Press

Three Thousand Years by Thomas Calvert McClary 1954 Fantasy Press

Three Thousand Years by Thomas Calvert McClary – (Apr38-Jun38) Fantasy Press

1956

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein 1956 Doubleday

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein – (Feb-Apr56) Doubleday

The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert 1956 Doubleday

The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert – (Under Pressure Nov55-Jan66) Doubleday

1957

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov 1957 Doubleday

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – (Oct-Dec56) Doubleday

They'd Rather be Right by Clifton and Riley 1957 Gnome Press

They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley – (Aug-Nov54) Gnome Press

1958

Methuselah's Children by Robert A. Heinlein 1958 Gnome Press

Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein – (Jul-Sep41) Gnome Press

1960

Agent of Vega by James H. Schmitz 1960 Gnome Press

Agent of Vega by James H. Schmitz – (fix-up) Gnome Press

1963

Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein 1963 Putnum

Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein – (fix-up from 1941) Putnam

1966

The Winged Man by A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull 1966 Doubleday

The Winged Man by A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull – (May-Jun44) Doubleday

JWH

Featured

Writing Goals at Age 66

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Writing is focusing thoughts. Herding your thoughts into an essay reveals the chaos of thinking. When I was young I wanted to be a science fiction writer but that was not meant to be. Now that I’m retired writing is the hobby that keeps me sane. It’s vitally important to have at least one hobby when retired because the purposelessness of waiting to die can get existentially challenging.

fountain pen

Having goals in the last third of life can be tricky. The primary goal when aging is staying healthy. Working at maintaining health can be both time-consuming and energy draining. Any other ambitions depend on mental and physical vitality. Some days my batteries are so low all I can do is daydream and listen to music. But when I do have extra energy I want to make the most of it, and that means writing.

When I first retired in 2013 I had a long list of hobbies I wanted to pursue. I’ve since learned I can only get better at one skill. I can piddle around with many interests, but if I want to see actual progress requires focusing on what I know best. Because I’ve stuck with it, that’s writing. However, at 66 my writing ambitions are tiny compared to what huge dreams I had in my twenties. Anyone young reading this essay should heed this advice: Do it now.

I’ve written over 1,500 essays in the last ten years, and most of that was piano practice. I’ve improved but my progress has been slow. Theoretically, there are magnitudes of possible improvements left to achieve, but it all depends on my health. Realistically, I know I’m not going to start pounding out bestselling novels. I have to match my goals to my vitality.

For years, I’ve been content with blogging and writing for a few other websites. I’ve recently started a new series, “Reading the Pulps” at Worlds Without End that’s got me excited. On the other hand, my efforts for Book Riot have declined as I’ve realized my perspectives might not be suited for a site where the readers are so young and mostly female. For the last few months, I’ve struggled to find something to say that would appeal to that audience. That struggle has led me once again to think about my writing goals.

Writing for this blog is easy, maybe too easy, and not challenging enough. Writing for another site requires thinking about the audience. This blog allows me to write anything I want. I write to please myself. I’m happy if others want to read it, and I try hard to make it read-worthy, but its primary purpose is to let me think out loud while practicing my writing skills. My goal has always been to write at least two essays a week for this site.

When I write for another site I realize I have to write content that helps that site achieve its goals. Other websites build audiences to make money. Their readers want reading satisfaction or they won’t return. My job as a content provider is to be so useful that readers will remember and keep coming back.

Book Riot makes money by showing ads or getting readers to buy books from an Amazon affiliate link. It takes a lot of page hits to make money from ad views. It’s faster to make money from link sales. Thus, my essays need to be either very positive about books or about something that inspires many page views. I know how well I’m doing because I’m paid a portion of what the page makes. I’m not making that much, so Book Riot isn’t making that much off of me. One writing goal I’m considering is to write something more appealing to their audience. This has become hard, but I haven’t given up completely. I love the challenge. I contracted to write two essays a month for Book Riot but I’m not sure I can keep that up for a third year. It would help if I could find an ongoing gimmick or angle.

Worlds Without End is slightly different. Right now it’s mostly a database system for readers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to find new books to read. WWEnd’s appeal is seeing how many books you’ve read on over fifty notable lists. It’s quite fun to use but users tend to come use the database for a while and not come back. The creators of WWEnd want to attract a community of fans that routinely participate in a growing list of new features. They want content contributors like me to help attract science fiction fans to that community. Like Book Riot, WWEnd’s audience is hardcore bookworms, but the age and gender demographics are wider. They do narrow reader interest to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, and science fiction is my main interest.

Most people who write about books write about new books. I’m more interested in old books. That limits the appeal of my essays. Currently, I’m having a lot of fun writing about stories that came out of the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. I have no idea how many readers are interested in that topic. (It’s pretty damn narrow, don’t you think?) However, one of my sub-goals is to get better at writing about the details of history, even if its a very tiny slice of history. That involves a lot more research. Lucky for me, that research coincides with what I love reading at the moment. I’m actually quite anxious to write two essays a week for this project.

If you’ve mentally kept a tally, you know I’m committing myself to 4.5 essays a week. I can actually do that if my health holds up. On bad weeks I’ll be behind 4.5 essays. However, I have two more goals. I want to try writing fiction again. Just short stories, but even that is probably way too ambitious. I have thousands of hours of momentum behind essay writing, but except for thirty unpublished short stories and two novel attempts from about twenty years ago, I have little experience writing fiction.

Writing fiction might always be a pipedream for me. However, I’m mostly reading short stories these days and that’s making me want to try writing one too. I think this goal goes beyond the limits of health. I’m finding it extremely difficult to start a new discipline as I get older. I feel like a fish in an aquarium. I’m reminded of my all-time favorite short work of science fiction, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a story about limitations. Delany was a young black man becoming a writer in the 1960s, so he knew all about overcoming limitations. You can read it here.

My last goal, and probably the least obtainable of all is to write a book about science fiction. There are countless books about science fiction and few people read them. I believe I have a unique slant on the subject. Mentally, I can’t imagine working on a project as large as a book, but I can imagine writing fifty blog essays. Each essay could be a chapter in a book. If I added one more essay to my weekly goal I could finish a book size project in one year.

There is a reality to making plans in the last third of life. We’re on a downward slope, and it’s hard to plan for erratic ever-shrinking vitality. In the first third of life, it feels like we have unlimited potential. Even in our middle work years we still feel we could do more if we could only find the free time. But now that I have all my time free I’ve discovered it’s not all useful time. Sixteen hours a day does not equal sixteen hours I can apply myself.

There’s one last factor. I think it’s age-related. The desire to make an effort. That desire fades more and more as I get older. Often now I tell myself I should be doing something and I mentally reply that I don’t want to. It’s so pleasant to just sit and daydream, or hang with friends, or read a book, or watch television, or listen to music.

The sirens of small pleasures are more alluring than ever.

JWH

 

 

 

Featured

Poor Man’s Time Machine

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 12, 2018

Some days you just want to live in another era. Statistically, we live in the best of times. If you’ve read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, you should feel safer about war, crime, and violence. Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress promises to make us feel better about everything. Bill Gates is calling it his all-time favorite book. Yet, 2017 was a very depressing year for me because of Donald Trump. 2018 should be even more depressing because there’s no sign that Trump will be impeached or quit.

time-machine-steampunk-clock

Whenever I watch the NBC Nightly News it makes me wish I had a time machine. Sadly, I can’t afford one. When I read Global Citizen I feel like I should be doing something to help the world because that site shows how people can make a big difference. But to be honest, I’m old, set in my ways, and don’t want to get out in the world anymore. When I look at Congress I see a rabid pack of old white guys snarling and snapping at each other to shape America with their narrowminded beliefs. It’s time for women, youth, and diversity to take the reins.

I don’t think the world needs input from another old white dude, so I’m retreating from the rat race by reading books. What’s hilarious, those books are mostly by old dead white guys. Maybe it’s like the old Tarzan movies, and we’re like a dying elephant knowing where to go to our secret graveyard.

I’ve been time traveling back to the late 16th-century by listening to The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame. When Montaigne was still in his thirties he retired by retreating to a tower in his castle, bringing a desk, chair, and a thousand books. There Montaigne contemplated reality by comparing his personal experiences to what he read. Along the way, he invented the personal essay, which is why I consider Montaigne the Patron Saint of Bloggers.

Montaigne remains essential reading for jaded bookworms because he explains the usefulness of all those dead white writers of history, the ones remembered in The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Listening to Montaigne makes me understand why 19th-century intellectuals were so big on classical studies. By the way, if you have a detailed scholarly bent, love annotations, and notes on textual variations, you might prefer the M. A. Screech translation. Listening to the Frame translation makes me feel like Montaigne is talking at me. It’s very smooth.

And I highly recommend you listen to Montaigne on audio because he’s a rambler, and rambles on for over a thousand pages. But, if you prefer to hold a book in your hands, I recommend the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Works, also translated by Frame. It’s easier to hold and has a nifty ribbon bookmark. However, you’re still holding a 1,336-page book. Because there’s no ebook edition with a Frame translation, I’d recommending getting older Cotton/Hazlitt translation from the public domain for your carry around everywhere on your phone edition. Amazon has many 99 cent Kindle editions, but I picked this edition because the text reformats nicely on my phone.

(By the way, I got turned onto Montaigne from reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.)

When I’m not back in the 16th-century I spend a lot of time in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, either by watching old television shows and movies, or reading old books, or listening to old music. Recently I’ve been listening to a playlist of music from the 1920s and 1930s created from ten volumes in a series called The Big Broadcast.

I’m still having big fun reading through The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. These stories were from the great science fiction pulp magazines. It almost feels like I’m living in 1940 when I read the stories and play music from that year, especially when I get so deep into a tale that I forget it’s 2018, and a maniac runs the country.

I’ve fantasized about redecorating my living room so it only contains furniture and objects that could have existed before WWII. We bought the house my wife grew up in after her parents died, and left the living room unchanged with the old furniture, lamps, and pictures on the wall. I imagine smoking a pipe wearing a smoking jacket while sitting in one of the blue chairs reading a July 1939 issue of Astounding Stories.

Susan did add an antique floor standing radio she bought at an estate sale. We gutted the old equipment from it that didn’t work, but left the knobs and the frequency scale. I could build a computer to hide inside it that played pre-war radio shows and music. I could put mint copies of old books, slick and pulp magazines on the coffee table. Then play Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong while reading and imagine I’m back in the past.

I’d have to concentrate hard not to remember Donald Trump. Actually living in the 1930s would be horrible compared to today. I’m just nostalgic for its pop culture, well some of it. For example, I’d have to make sure I played “All of Me” instead of “Strange Fruit” when listening to Billie Holiday.

Sadly, there is no utopia to escape to. Steven Pinker is right, now is the best of time for humanity. The future is unknown. I hope trends continue and things continue to get better. But as long as Donald Trump is in the news I just can’t imagine it.

JWH

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The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963)

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I’m not the only one having BIG fun reading The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963), so I’ve created an online discussion group for us. So far seven of us have joined. If you’re interested go here. You’ll have to join Groups.io first, but it’s free and easy to do so.

I’m constantly using Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB) to look up these stories to see where they have been anthologized and first appeared in magazines. So I thought I’d copy their table of content links to one page. If you click on a story title it will take you to ISFDB’s page showing it’s publication history. If you click on an author it will take you to the author’s bibliography. ISFDB is a wonderful site!

I’ve annotated this list with some links to other annual best-SF-of-the-year anthologies. The easiest way to compare two Table of Contents is to right-click on the other anthology link and select “Open in New Window.”

This will be our reading list.

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2

The Retro Hugo Awards 1941 (for 1940 stories)

The voting statistics and nominations for the 1941 Retro Hugo

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4

5

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Retro Hugo Awards 1946 (for 1945 stories)

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8

9

10

Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1949 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1950 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty

1951 Retro Hugo Award (for 1950 stories)

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1952 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1954 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty

1954 Retro Hugo Awards (for 1953 stories)

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels edited by T. E. Dikty

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels 1956 edited by T. E. Dikty and S-F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy edited by Judith Merril

1956 Hugo Awards (for 1955 stories)

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Compare to: SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

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Compare to: The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels Ninth Series edited by T. E. Dikty and SF:58: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Judith Merril

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Compare to: SF:59: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Judith Merril

1959 Hugo Awards (for 1958 stories)

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Compare to: Fifth Annual of The Year’s Best SF edited by Judith Merril

1960 Hugo Awards (for 1959 stories)

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Compare to: The Sixth Annual of The Year’s Best SF edited by Judith Merril

1961 Hugo Awards (for 1960 stories)

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Compare to: The 7th Annual of The Year’s Best SF edited by Judith Merril

1962 Hugo Awards (for 1961 stories)

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Compare to: The 8th Annual of the Year’s Best SF edited by Judith Merril

1963 Hugo Awards (for 1962 stories)

25

Compare to: The 9th Annual Year’s Best SF edited by Judith Merril

1964 Hugo Awards (for 1963 stories)

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Compare to: 10th Annual Edition: The Year’s Best SF edited by Judith Merril

1965 Hugo Awards (for 1964 stories)

Statistics on Popular Stories in Anthologies

JWH

 

Featured

The Great SF Stories 1 (1939)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 5, 2018

I’m having BIG fun reading old science fiction short stories. However, are there valid justifications for spending so much time reading old science fiction when I could be reading shiny new stories instead?  Or even spend that time reading high-quality literary works or vastly more informative nonfiction? I have to confess a sense of guilt. I worry I’m wasting my time slumming in a pulp fiction past.

The-Great-SF-Stories-1-1939

 

For some reason, I’m being drawn into a self-imposed project of sequentially reading annual anthologies of the best science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I picked that year because The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) is the earliest annual anthology series I could find. I’ve been soul-searching trying to understand why I want to do this, but so far my psyche hasn’t provided any conclusive insight. I have made these rationalizations:

  • I’ve been reading science fiction for over a half-century and want to make sense of that obsession.
  • I’m fascinated by the evolution of science fiction and its themes.
  • I think I actually get more science fictional bang for my buck out of short stories.
  • I’m trying to decide what’s unique about science fiction literature.
  • I’m trying to decide if science fiction has any value other than entertainment.
  • I’m wondering which stories are truly worth preserving.
  • As I progress through the years I want to see how cultural change is reflected in science fiction.
  • I wonder if old science fiction is worth preserving.
  • Finally, I wonder if this is a form of exorcism, where I’m trying to wrap up my relationship with science fiction. I assume if I study it thoroughly enough I’ll learn how all the magic tricks are accomplished.

Because the web now provides access to old pulp magazines I wish I had the time and patience to just read everything from each year — but I can’t. Most of those old stories are just crap. And even the best stories aren’t really that good by modern literary standards. I figure I have the time and patience to read one or two annual anthologies per month, covering 12-24 years a year. This means that I might have a pretty good knowledge of short science fiction by the time I’m 70.

The Great SF Stories series were edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They began in 1979 with #1 (1939) and ended in 1992 with #25 (1963). I assumed Greenberg did all the work and Asimov added a bit of pithy memory under Greenberg’s short introduction to each story. These old DAW paperbacks generally run $10-60 on eBay. I got volumes 1-12 in a reprint hardback edition that collected two years for each volume. Those 6 volumes were renamed the Golden Years of SF. I think I was able to get all six for less than $40 including shipping. I’m working on buying #13-25. There is a certain symmetry of using this series because they cover science fiction 12 years before the year I was born and continue for 12 years after. They end just about the time I started reading the then current annuals edited by Judith Merril.

Here is the table of contents of #1 from ISFDB. The story link will take you back to ISFDB where you can see where the story has been anthologized over the years. That’s a good indication of its lasting value. Many were well anthologized in the 1950s and 1960s, and have since disappeared from cultural memory.

Were these the best science fiction short stories of 1939? Did Asimov and Greenberg leave out any better SF because they couldn’t obtain the reprint rights or weren’t to their tastes? I’m mostly going to talk about the stories I liked most, and if I can find some other stories from 1939 that I liked that Asimov/Greenberg didn’t collect.

My current favorite science fiction short stories for 1939 are:

  1. “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp (not in GreatSF#1)
  2. “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey
  3. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam
  4. “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt
  5. “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp
  6. “I, Robot” by Eando Binder
  7. “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. “The Four-Side Triangle” by William F. Temple
  9. “Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore
  10. “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein
  11. “Pilgrimage” by Nelson S. Bond
  12. “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman

Jamie Todd Rubin discovered a letter in an April 1940 issue of Astounding by Isaac Asimov where 20-year-old Asimov listed his Top 10 stories of 1939. (Be sure to read Rubin’s “Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction” if you love old SF short stories. I guess I’m not vacationing in the golden age of SF.)

Notice the overlap and difference between what was decided by Asimov/Greenberg in 1979 and the 1940 letter to the editor.

  1. One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (serial novel)
  2. Lifeline by Robert Heinlein (in GreatSF#1)
  3. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith (serial novel)
  4. Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (serial novel)
  5. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey (in GreatSF#1)
  6. Rope Trick by Eando Binder
  7. Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Ernst
  8. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
  9. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam (in GreatSF#1)
  10. Smallest God by Lester del Rey

Back to The Great Short SF Stories 1, I wished Greenberg had not included the obvious fantasy stories. They could have included three more SF stories for 1939. “The Trouble with Water,” “The Misguided Halo,” and “Star Bright” just don’t belong in a collection called Great SF Stories.

Greenberg also included a second story by L. Sprague de Camp, “The Blue Giraffe” that had a nice science-fictional idea, but it paled in comparison to his standout story, “The Gnarly Man.” I would have used de Camp’s “Living Fossil” instead of “The Blue Giraffe” because it’s another standout story. “Living Fossil” had a much bigger SF idea — essentially prefiguring Planet of the Apes (1963). The idea was expanded by de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller in the novel Genus Homo that came out in 1941 in magazine form and 1950 in book form.

What if The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) could have included all the better SF stories from 1939 worth preserving? How many would that be? Asimov and Greenberg mainly focused on Astounding.

How is preserving worthiness decided? That’s hard to say. There are stories like “The Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell that just didn’t turn me on at all. Should the personal tastes of the anthologist be the deciding factor? If we go by literary quality I’m not sure any of these stories are worth remembering.

Even though these stories entertained me I’m not sure I would recommend them to my friends my age, or younger readers. Science fiction from 1939 represents such a unique perspective on reality that I’m not sure they will be meaningful to many readers. I expect only old hardcore SF fans like myself who grew up reading these stories in the 1950s and 1960s will actually enjoy reading The Great SF Stories #1.

The only reason I can find for reading these stories is for understanding their influence on science fiction’s evolution. In terms of entertainment value, they can’t compete with modern science fiction found on Netflix or Amazon Prime. To a young person watching TV science fiction, 2018 science fiction is like shooting fentanyl and 1939 stories are like a watery Coors.

Ultimately, I decided the value of reading old science fiction comes from the pleasure of being an archeologist of science fictional ideas and themes. Think about it this way. There was a time in your life before you knew the concept of time travel. Can you remember when you first encountered it? The first time you conceive of traveling in time is mind-blowing. Of course, science fiction is so pervasive in our society that most children encounter all the classic ideas of science fiction before they go to school. They probably can’t remember the first time.

When I read these old stories I pay attention to the idea put across, and the historical context in which it was first created. I’m hoping by reading all these years of science fiction short stories will help me compile a list of themes and cite the progression of ideas through the years in the stories.

Here are briefly some of the themes I noticed from 1939. Over time I wish to expand them into full essays. I’ll try to avoid story specifics in case there are people who actually want to still read these stories. Even if you can’t find a copy of The Great SF Stories #1, most of the original magazines are available online for free. I read them with my iPad Mini by loading them in Dropbox.

Robots

There are two robot stories in this collection. The subject of “I, Robot” by Eando Binder is the first intelligent machine. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth. Both stories use robots for their POV, with Adam Link in “I, Robot” even using the first-person. I previously wrote, “I, Robot” by Eando Binder” to explain why I thought it a standout story in the history of fictional robots. In 1939 few people knew about computers. In fact, the term computer was a job classification for humans. I also like that Adam Link tells us his limitations.

“Rust” combines several SF themes, including the extinction of humanity, the extinction of robots, the creation of artificial intelligence, and programmed behavior. The robots in the story wonder why humans couldn’t overcome their instincts and they regret that their programming makes them kill. This is an early story of fearing the consequences of military robots.

“Rust” is a wistful story about the last three intelligent robots after man has become extinct, reminding me of Clifford Simak’s stories about robots telling each other tales of mythical mankind. I assume Simak read Astounding Science Fiction since his serial novel Cosmic Engineers ran in the magazine during 1939, so he probably read “Rust.”

“I, Robot” and “Rust” make bookend robot stories to include in this anthology of 1939. “I, Robot” is about the first intelligent robot, and “Rust” is about the last. Men want to kill Adam Link, but X-120 regrets exterminating humanity but blames humans for designing him to be a weapon. At one point X-120 obliterates a poor rabbit only to feel terrible remorse.  Unlike Asimov’s robots, the robot X-120 was programmed to kill.

Neanderthals

There are two stories in The Great SF Stories #1 about Neanderthals: “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp and “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey. Both are about the last Neanderthal, however “The Gnarly Man” develops another science fiction theme, immortality. So in one story, the last Neanderthal was in the distant past, and the second he’s still living with us today. This idea has been bouncing around ever SF ever since, including “The Alley Man” by Philip Jose Farmer in a 1959 issue of F&SF, and recently in the 2007 film, The Man from Earth.

“The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey really grabbed me emotionally and is about the passing of a Neanderthal man who was living on Cro-Magnon charity. “The Day is Done” suggests Neanderthals interbred with modern man, which wasn’t a common belief back in 1939, but is considered fact today. It’s a lovely story that’s been often reprinted. You’d think stories Neanderthal life would be filed under historical fiction, but for some reason, science fiction has claimed them. See “5 SF/F Novels About Neanderthals That Aren’t The Clan of the Cave Bear” that barely mentions a few of them. I think the first story I remember reading on this theme was Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver from the old Winston Science Fiction series. Asimov and Greenberg even did a whole anthology of such stories called Neanderthals.

Dangerous Aliens

This is one of the wonderful benefits of reading old science fiction is discovering the origin of popular modern SF stories. Ideas in new stories we read today are often old ideas being recycled. Anyone who knows “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt assumes the film Alien (1979) is its descendant — and Van Vogt shows us Coeurl’s POV, which is missing from H. R. Giger’s horrifying being.

“Black Destroyer” is a wonderful story on many levels. It feels like an episode of Star Trek, and this 1939 novelette includes many ideas that the 1960s TV show would explore in multiple episodes. The crew doesn’t include women, but it did have an important Japanese member.

“Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell is another kind of alien invasion story, where superior beings take over the Earth and enslave humans.  It also involves the SF themes of Far Futures, Super Science, Psychic Powers, and Matriarchial Societies.

Prejudice Against Science

Both “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein and “Trends” by Isaac Asimov are about anti-science prejudice. Of course, Heinlein’s idea was nutty, but he gave a decent enough explanation. I wondered if Heinlein and Asimov were reflecting anti-SF bias they felt from 1939 society. Science fiction and pulp magazines were considered trashy. Good parents didn’t let their kids reach such crap. SF fans often had to hide what they read, even though they thought of themselves as Slans (superior beings).

Both of these stories were about something else, predicting death and rocket travel, but I felt ultimately they were about prejudice to new ideas. When I was young I didn’t like “Life-Line” even though Heinlein was my favorite writer. But over the years, each time I reread “Life-Line” it gets better. For a first story, Heinlein was fairly savvy about storytelling, especially for writing for the pulps.

Mankind’s Extinction

Both “Rust” and “Living Fossil” a favorite story from 1939 not in this collection were about a time after humans went extinct. H. G. Wells started that idea I think in The Time Machine when he imagined the Eloi and Morlocks replacing us. Science fiction has often contemplated the end of humans, and well as our replacements.

“Living Fossil” did quite a lot for such a short story. De Camp nicely imagines monkeys from South America evolving our level of development millions of years after humans have disappeared. Even the interior illustration makes me wonder if Pierre Boulle ripped this story off for his novel Planet of the Apes. Evidently, L. Sprague de Camp isn’t as litigious as Harlan Ellison.

Living Fossil by L. Sprague de Camp - Astounding 1939 Feb

Matriarchial Societies

In “Pilgrimage” by Nelson Bond, we visit a far distant future after our society has long disappeared from the scene. Women rule. All the myths are about women gods. In “Cloak of Aesir” the alien invaders are ruled by the female of the species. I first encountered this idea in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from 1915. Goodreads lists 115 such books. Wikipedia has an article on “Single Gender Worlds.”

Psychic Powers

I thought psychic powers was an obsession of 1950s Astounding Science Fiction, but evidently, John W. Campbell had been thinking about it at least as early as “Cloak of Aesir” in 1939. “Star Bright” by Jack Williamson is a fantasy story about a man getting magical abilities from a meteorite piercing his skull and lodging in his brain.

“Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore is a powerful story about people in the far future projecting their thoughts to a man in our near future. Moore’s story is really about two roads the people of Earth could take in 1939. She just used psychic powers to show us two possible far-future outcomes–one a world united by power driven men (think Hitler), and the other a decadent world of peace and pleasure. Moore doesn’t want either, but she shows how both entice us.

Hard Science

There were two hard science stories in The Great SF Stories #1. The first was “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman that anticipates Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. The second is Heinlein’s “Misfit” about a spaced based future CCC unit moving a small asteroid out of the asteroid belt into an orbit closer to Mars, making it into a long-term space station. Heinlein promotes the use of mathematics, discipline, and hard work. This could be his first juvenile SF story.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed these old stories, but I’m not sure younger people will. The storytelling is often crude. Modern science fiction on Netflix is far more sophisticated, colorful, exciting, and dynamic. I am constantly pleased while reading these old stories to unearth ideas we still use today. I feel like a science fiction archeologist piecing together the evolution of science fictional ideas. That’s very rewarding to me. Throughout this collection of 1939 stories, I found ideas that first amazed me in the 1960s when reading 1950s and 1960s science fiction. I thought those ideas were original back then. Evidently not. But were they original in 1939?

I assume if you live long enough you start thinking like the person who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. I also assume if I could time travel back to 450 BCE I’d find people telling stories that contained the seeds of all the stories in The Great SF Stories #1 (1939).

Jim

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Marie Kondoizing a 240GB SSD

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, February 2, 2018

This is one of my essays where I think out loud trying to solve a problem. Sometimes this helps other people with the same problem, and sometimes I get comments with insights I didn’t imagine. It’s surprising how beneficial thinking by writing can be.

A few years ago I decided I wanted a minimal computer system, so I swapped out my big tower rig for an Intel NUC with a 240gb M.2 SSD (solid-state drive). This little computer is smaller than a Mac Mini, drives a 27″ 4k monitor, takes up very little desk space, and is very quiet. I’ve been happy as a cosplayer at ComicCon until yesterday when I noticed the red warning that my disk was almost full. I don’t even have a full 240GB because after formatting the drive is only 232GB. That’s my whole digital world.

Intel NUC

 

I could add an external drive, but that would ruin the elegance of having a small computer. I don’t have 232GB of user-generated data but I do use Dropbox for my main file system which I replicate with Second Copy to OneDrive. Both my Dropbox and OneDrive offer 1TB of space in the cloud, but my files are stored locally and backed up to the cloud. This means I have quicker access and automatic backups to two different cloud locations. I store around 50GB of data files on Dropbox, which when copied to OneDrive, makes up a total of 100GB on my SSD. With the OS, data I don’t back up, and programs on my C: drive brings the total to around 210GB.

Lately, I’ve been collecting scans of old pulp magazines from the web. Yesterday I got in 25GB of pulp-scans in CBZ format from a collection I bought on eBay. I wanted to add them to Dropbox, which means with replication to OneDrive, would add 50GBs to my system.

Astounding Stories020

 

My digital life just got bigger than my digital universe. So last night I spent the evening Marie Kondoizing my SSD. I uninstalled programs, cleaned out files, ran cleanup programs, and got my SSD down to 23GB free. I had hoped to build a folder on Dropbox called Pulps and eventually collect entire runs of all my favorite magazines.

I figured my ultimate pulp collection might run 200-300GB, which means after replicating to OneDrive I’d need 600GB. I could fork out $350 and upgrade my SSD to 1TB.

I then put on my Marie Kondo thinking cap and wondered:

  1. Do I need complete runs of all these old magazines?
  2. Do I need to back up all my digital content in quadruplicate?
  3. Could I upload the magazines to Dropbox and OneDrive without using my local SSD?
  4. If the magazines are readily available on the web, do I need to own and manage copies of my own?
  5. Since I have Dropbox on my Linux machine, and it replicates my Dropbox cloud to its local drive, do I really need OneDrive as a secondary backup?
  6. Will my digital universe legitimately grow enough over time to make it worthwhile to expand my digital universe to 1TB?
  7. Should I rely more on free cloud services like Flickr and Google?
  8. Should I upgrade my M.2 SSD to 1TB? (About $350)
  9. Should I go ahead an upgrade my whole computer? Maybe even make things simpler by getting an All-in-One computer with a 1TB drive. (Either Dell or iMac will approach $3,000)

To answer #1, it’s very cool to have the entire history of science fiction pulp fiction on Dropbox, where I can call up any issue I want on my iPad to read. But to be honest, it’s not that much trouble to find the issue online and just copy it to Dropbox as needed. Hell, it might even be possible to use my iPad to find the issue and read it directly without even saving it to Dropbox.

Number #2 is intriguing. If I simplified my backups I could reduce the amount of space needed on my SSD. I could even stop running the background copy program, freeing up other resources. This might be a way to have my cake and eat it too.

Number #3 offers some very interesting possibilities. I’d need to study how Dropbox and OneDrive work in greater detail. Can I store stuff on OneDrive that isn’t replicated to my SSD? I could unmap my OneDrive and only upload stuff to it via the web. But it would be nice to have part of it mapped locally so I could automatically back up essential files from Dropbox in real time.

Number #4 is the heart of the matter. A true Marie Kondo insight. I’m spending a lot of time and effort to collect something I might only use for 1% of its content or less. On the other hand, if collecting brings me true happiness, it’s not an issue. If The Pulp Magazine Archive became the perfect repository for old pulp magazines I wouldn’t need to collect. Why recreate a library when someone else is already doing all the work?

Number #5 is interesting but also complicates things. If I only relied on Dropbox for my backing up I’d have a copy of my files on my SSD, in the cloud, and another local copy on my Linux SSD. That’s pretty safe. But if my house burned down there would only be one copy, on Dropbox. Having all my files on Dropbox and OneDrive means if my house burns down and one of those companies has a catastrophic failure, I’d still have access to my files. Also, Dropbox on Linux doesn’t keep up that well with changes to Dropbox on Windows. Finally, I have a bad habit of reinstalling Linux whenever I want to play with a new distribution.

Number #6 brings up questions about my future and longevity.  If I excluded data I didn’t create like pulp scans, music, videos, audiobooks, etc., my digital universe would shrink dramatically. I could exist on the free space I earned from Dropbox and not even pay their $99/year fee.

Years ago I ripped my 1,700 CD collection. I kept multiple copies of 130GB of around 30,000 songs. I was always worried about losing it. Then Rhapsody, Rdio, Spotify came around and I got less and less worried. Awhile back I uploaded it all to Amazon and let all my local copies disappear one by one as drives died. I hardly ever go to Amazon to play that music. If there was a Spotify for old pulp magazines I wouldn’t even think about collecting them. I got rid of hundreds of CDs, but I’ve kept about 500. I sometimes wonder why I even keep them, or why I still buy CDs on rare occasions. I tell myself it’s because of the better fidelity, but I’m not sure if I can tell the difference anymore.

The odds are my digital universe will shrink over time, rather than expand.

#7 is something I should also consider. Why keep all my photographs on my SSD? And replicate them to my two paid cloud services when there are several free cloud services for photographs? Again, I couldn’t rely on just one company. If I’m going to trust cloud storage I need to always use two companies — especially if I’m going to abandon all local storage.

If I managed things correctly I don’t need to go to #8 or #9. Hell, I saw the other day where users can rent high-end graphics cards in the cloud for playing extreme video games so they don’t even need a powerful gaming computer locally. If that’s true, the future of computers will be moderate machines that just view data processed and stored in the cloud. It means we’d need less powerful CPUs, basic GPUs, less RAM, and less SSD space.

Still, should we rely on the cloud completely? If the internet goes down I can still work with all my files on Dropbox because they are replicated locally. Of course, I freak out when the internet goes down just like I do when the power goes out. I don’t want to live without either.

Have we moved to a wired world we can’t live without? Is there any need to own any work of art that could be digitized? Do we even need any local storage? I believe I have this urge to collect copies of old pulp magazines because back in the 1970s I actually collected the real issues and hated I could never afford all I wanted. I sold my collection because pulp magazines are all disintegrating. Pulp scans on the web are preserving these old magazines for the future. But do we really need more than one copy if everyone can access it on the web?

I think I’ve answered my questions. No to a bigger SSD drive. No to a new computer. I don’t need to collect pulps but I can without hardware upgrades, but I should assume my collection efforts will be invalidated by the web in the future. If I was a photographer or videographer, I’d need massive amounts of local storage, but writing fiction and nonfiction takes little hard drive space. I’ll keep this computer until it dies. My next computer will be an All-in-One because that’s even more minimalistic. I’m not sure I can break my pulp collecting habit, but it’s rather minor compared to collecting stuff in the real world.

JWH

 

 

 

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What Writers Influenced Heinlein, Twain, Kerouac, PKD, and Alcott?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 29, 2018

I need some help. I’m trying to find out what writers influenced Robert A. Heinlein, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, and Louisa May Alcott. Bookworms love to talk about their favorite authors, but do we ever research our favorite writers’ writers? I especially want to know what they read before their first successful books.

5-authors

I believe much of my thinking was shaped by what I read. The five writers above are the authors I’ve read about the most. I’ve read many books about each of them. I don’t necessarily mean these are my favorite authors, but their lives have become compelling reading for me. I even wrote about these writers before in “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” My poor memory has not retained exact details from their biographies. I do have some vague memories of what they read, but instead of spending a lot of time rereading those biographies I thought I’d post a query here. I assume some of y’all might know a lot about these writers.

The writer I remember best talking about the books that influenced him was Heinlein. He often mentioned H. G. Wells and James Branch Cabell. But then, Heinlein wrote a book Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) which riffs off of Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919). I also have to assume Heinlein loved Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum because of The Number of the Beast and his other “World as Myth” multiverse novels. Finally, I also have to assume Heinlein loved Jerome K. Jerome, because he includes references to Three Men in a Boat in my favorite Heinlein story, Have Space Suit-Will Travel. But this is a lot of assumptions. Does anyone know different about Heinlein? I have to wonder if Heinlein was influenced by Upton Sinclair or Ayn Rand.

Philip K. Dick is even harder. PKD was a voracious reader. My friend Mike found “List of Influences on Philip K. Dick” for me, but I’m not sure I trust it. The list cites quotes from Dick, but it seems like he’s putting on airs. I can believe A. E. van Vogt, because van Vogt was a major science fiction writer when Dick was growing up. And I might buy “The novels that influenced my writing when I was in my late teens and early twenties, were the French realistic novels…Flaubert, Stendahl, Balzac, et al…” because he mentions them more than once. And I can readily believe “I liked the short stories of James T. Farrell very much. They had a tremendous influence on me in the short story form” because of PKD’s short stories. He also said, “I was very very very influenced by Nathaniel West for a while…” which I can believe because I’ve read West. But why doesn’t he mention more science fiction writers since he wrote so much science fiction?  If you know more about what PKD read let me know.

I just can’t remember anything about Twain’s reading. Since he was born in 1835, his formative reading years would have been the late 1840s and 1850s. I know he skewered a lot of writers like James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t think Twain and Alcott liked each others’ work. We might assume Twain admired satirical writers like Swift, but I haven’t found anything to verify that. Alcott grew up knowing Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, but did they influence her? She loved the pulp fiction of her day.

I’ve read many biographies on Kerouac and I think I remember him liking Proust, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Again, I’m not sure. I can’t imagine Kerouac not being influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Joyce. Wasn’t the Beat Generation in reaction to the Lost Generation?

Searching Google for these answers is annoying. I have to constantly rephrase my query. When I finally asked: “What books did Jack Kerouac love to read?” I got Kerouac’s Top 40. But most of the other results were about the books Kerouac wrote. The same search didn’t work for the other writers.

I’m hoping this will reach fans of these writers and you might know what I want to know. Please leave a comment if you do. Thanks.

JWH

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Free Will and Exercise

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 28, 2018

I’ve always been doubtful about the concept of free will. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become a complete skeptic. If we had free will would anyone be fat? If we had free will would anyone be self-destructive? Maybe I lack free will and other people have it because some people always do the right thing. Or maybe, those people who succeed have other internal motivating factors pushing them. For example, it could be all those men and women who faithfully work out at the gym are compelled by relentless mating impulses and not free will.

I have found that pain is an effective but imperfect motivator. I have chronic back pain. I also have clogged arteries.  Both will nag me incessantly if I don’t eat and exercise properly. Chest pain and shortness of breath is a wonderful motivator, but I inconsistently obey its commands. Immobilizing back pain will also get my attention but I don’t always listen. In both cases, I do just enough to get those two nags off my case. Why don’t I do more?

The Thinker

If I truly had free will I’d exercise regularly and diet until I got down to a healthy weight. Intellectually I know making those choices could rid me of my pain burdens and even give me freedoms I haven’t had in years. So, why don’t I do what needs to be done? Obviously, a lack of free will.

Other folks might say its a lack of willpower, but I disagree. I say free will is where willpower should come from. Let me use an example.

I have spinal stenosis which causes numbness in my leg that can lead to back pain. I also have some bad discs in my lower spine that can cause dull back pain. And if I let both get out of hand I get tight muscles in my lower back that causes very sharp back pains. I can’t handle anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs. If I eat a healthy diet I can keep my inflammation in check and reduce the numbness in my leg down. If I exercise and maintain a symmetrical posture for sitting and sleeping I can keep my discs happy. If I do both I don’t experience muscle pain. It’s like walking a tightrope.

My doctors have always told me my spinal stenosis would get worse but I’ve been able to keep it in check by faithfully following my diet, doing physical therapy exercises, and working out on my Bowflex machine. I’ve been doing this for years, and have kept the numbness and pain to a minimum. It never goes away completely, but I keep it at a level I consider okay.

Everyone once in a while I’ll rebel and skip a day or two of exercising. I just want to have a vacation from my routine. But it always costs me. If I vacation too long I pay severely where I’m laid up using heating pads and taking drugs that upset my stomach. Interrupting my routine starts a downward spiral and I have to fight hard to regain control.

Recently I took a vacation, lost control, and couldn’t get it back. I thought I’d finally reach the point where things would get worse like my doctors told me. That was depressing. I had to take drugs that totally tore up my stomach. At which point I had to stop taking the drugs. I figured I had to do something different. I remember I had started doing Miranda Esmonde-White exercises last year and they helped.

Here’s the thing. When I feel good I do less to help myself. If I had free will I would always know never to stop doing what’s good for me. I don’t decide to do right because of my willpower or free will, I do it because of pain. At least I respond to pain. I know people who don’t. They do nothing to help themselves and just suffer.

My current free will crisis is the knowledge that doing the Miranda Esmonde-White exercises is the best thing I’ve done for my back in years. In fact, for a few days, I felt no pain whatsoever. That was remarkable. Of course, the first thing I did when this happened was to start eating bad food and skipping my exercising. And the pain came back.

The Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch exercises showed me that I had a lot of tight muscles I wasn’t stretching in my normal physical therapy exercises, and when I loosened them up my back felt wonderful. I could sit with my legs crossed. I could slouch while sitting. I could sit in chairs that usually hurt my back.

I’ve been doing episode 1003 (Season 10, third episode) “Spine Stretch for Posture” daily since January 1st – 28 days in a row. There are 29 other episodes in the Season 10 DVD set I bought. Intellectually, I know if I systematically did more Miranda Esmonde-White episodes I might get much better. Yet I can’t make myself try them. I’ve been faithfully doing episode 1003 every day because it keeps the pain at bay but I can’t push myself to do more. Why?

Free will is an iffy concept. But I think of it this way. I don’t believe in souls, but let’s use the concept of a soul as an illustration. Think of the body as an automobile and the soul as the driver. I would say free will is the ability of the soul to decide where to drive the car. I don’t believe in souls or free will because our conscious and unconscious minds are completely integrated into our bodies. They can’t be separated. My conscious mind is only a fraction of the whole. Evidently, my body and unconscious mind also want to drive.

If we had free will we’d have complete say over our body and unconscious mind. At least that’s my theory. Sometimes I think my conscious mind can trick the other two.

My body and unconscious mind don’t like eating healthy or exercising. They constantly try to con me to quit being good and doing what they want. But I’ve learned that I can fool them by repetition and conditioning. I’ve been able to muster up enough free will and willpower to make myself do episode 1003 every day this month. Sometimes its a struggle. I’ve discovered it helps to do it first thing in the morning. I just tell myself I can’t do anything fun until I do my Miranda exercises.

At first, it was really hard. My muscles were tight, I lacked the stamina. And the exercises seems confusing to my uncoordinated ways. I can’t dance because I can never remember the steps. So following Miranda always feels clumsy. Even after doing this routine 28 times I still struggle to remember the order of the exercises. This is another revelation about my lousy memory. At first, I thought it might be another sign of aging, but then I remembered I’ve never been able to remember song lyrics or melodies, even to songs I’ve heard a thousand times.

I’m reminded of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He started out with eight, but eventually added a ninth, but others have suggested even more mental abilities. Free will or lack of free will might be due to a combination of ability levels.

Types of multiple intelligences

My solution has been to relax and just go along with the DVD. Over 28 days I’ve gotten much better at following Miranda’s moves, and even learning routines I hated. And the routines I hated were always the ones I had the most trouble following. But persistence has paid off. I realize Miranda was right, stretching all my muscles helps do the routines and erases my chronic pains.

Now, you’d think learning this powerful lesson would allow my free will to decide to do the right thing every day. It doesn’t. It’s a constant struggle. I resent giving up those 23 minutes. My unconscious mind and body like total freedom to be lazy and wanton. They hate that my conscious mind is always wanting to do something that requires discipline. For my whole life, I’ve hated to put anything on my calendar. Even if it’s something fun and exciting like a great concert.

My conscious mind is trying to fight this though, to trick my unconscious mind and body. I keep thinking if I could only remember the Miranda Esmonde-White routines I could do them throughout the day during odd moments. They say sitting is this new smoking, so doing something every hour would be great for my overall health. And, I wouldn’t feel like I have to follow a set routine. The trouble is I can’t remember the routines. Oh, I can remember them in a haphazard way, but I really need to be organized and stretch every set of muscles through the day.

Part of the problem is I follow the routines visually and I have a very poor visual memory. I wish each routine had a name. I’ve thought about watching all 30 episodes and trying to create a total list of routines and give each a name to memorize. And then work to condition my unconscious mind and body to do a few routines each hour during the day. That might fool them I’m not having to dedicate myself to regular exercising period.

I’d love to give up having to exercise every morning before I can start my day. I hate losing an hour to a scheduled routine. I tell myself if I would stop once an hour and do a few minutes of stretching I’d end up exercising more and I might be able to give up the morning routine and even the Bowflex machine. Miranda claims her stretches is all the exercising an older person needs, and that might be true. I feel like I stand taller, have better posture, and have more strength in my arms.

Which brings us back to free will. If I had a choice this is what I want. (Well, what I really want is to eat anything I want, never exercise at all, and still be healthy.) If I had free will I should be able to say, “This is something that works and I’ve decided to do it.”

Getting old is a pain in the ass. Wearing out is a pain in the ass. I recognize I must work harder and harder to maintain my dwindling vitality and wellbeing is just how it’s going to be. I just wish I had the free will to do what I need to do without having to fight sloth and gluttony.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

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This Song is My Heroin

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 26, 2018

I’ll tell myself, “Just one more time,” when I hit the << button to re-play “Maggot Brain” by Lili Haydn. It’s already the sixth time. I know full well it might be another six times before I’ll actually start feeling like stopping. That’s close to the one hour mark. Sometimes the song paralyzes me for a couple hours. I haven’t been able to enjoy another song for weeks now.

Here are two versions you can listen to but they won’t sound the same as I hear them. I play this song while reclined in my La-Z-Boy in the middle of four tall floor standing Infinity speakers playing it at a volume that makes the vibrating air feel solid to the touch.

This is a live performance where you can watch Lili’s facial expressions. I wish I could feel what she feels. Is it the same as what I feel? If I could play this song maybe I could know, but that will never happen. I can’t even remember the melody.

I usually play her CD Place Between Places to hear her version of “Maggot Brain” in its highest fidelity. Sadly, this CD is out-of-print. I wish I had an SACD version to hear even more sampled bits. Here’s how the album version sounds from Spotify in case you’re a subscriber.

I don’t even know what her other songs and albums sound like. I can’t stop playing Haydn’s version of “Maggot Brain.”

I wish I could express in words what this song does to my mind. One of the best things about drugs was listening to music while high. I gave up drugs decades ago. But listening to Lily Haydn play “Maggot Brain” over and over again has a drug like intensity. Her high is emotional, philosophical, sad, wistful, aching, transcendental, longing, regretful, spiritual, thankful, and so many more existential settings.

What’s funny is I play this song for my friends and they don’t like it. Some even hate it. My wife tolerates me getting high on it for a few repetitions but eventually, it starts makes her want to run away. Only my friend Mike loves this song too. However, I don’t think he plays it over and over again like I do.

Ever since I got into music I’ve saught the songs that make me want to repeat them endlessly. It was a burden in the old days when I had to jump up every few minutes to reposition the tone arm on the record. CDs with remotes were a godsend for my habit. When I find a song I love I repeat it like one of those rats with a button that directly stimulated its own brain. I think some rats pushed their button till they died. I keep re-playing songs until the high wears off. I assume it depletes some kind of chemical in my brain.

The reason I can’t allow myself to do real drugs anymore is that I can’t make myself stop. I guess listening to music is my methadone or nicotine patch.

Peoples emotional levels very greatly. I’ve always been a rather reserved person emotional. I don’t get very excited or depressed. When I see people going nuts over a football game I wonder what the hell are they feeling. I never jump up and down and shout for anything. My guess is some pieces of music make me feel an intense joy that comes to other people in so many different ways.

And what’s weird is I’m not even sure I hear music in the same way other people do. I can’t remember melody or lyrics to a song no matter how many times I hear it. When “Maggot Brain” isn’t playing I have no memory of it other than a kind of withdrawal feeling.

When I was young I used to think everyone experienced the world the same. Over the years I’ve slowly realized that’s completely untrue. I now assume any taxonomy of mental states would be as varied as all the forms of mammals.

All I can say is I’m immensely grateful for this song and how it makes me feel.

Lili Haydn violinist

JWH

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1939 – “I, Robot” by Eando Binder

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When I reread “I, Robot” by Eando Binder today, a science fiction story from 1939, I wondered just how much Earl and Otto knew about robots, where did they get their knowledge, how much of their speculation was original with them, and how much did they borrow from earlier writers. I also wondered how wide-spread the concept of robots was in 1939, a term only coined in 1920. The concept of what would eventually be called a digital computer was first described by Alan Turing in a 1936 paper. I doubt the Binders had read it. Artificial intelligence wouldn’t become a concept until the 1950s. What kind of imaginative feat had these two brothers achieved writing a short story for a lowly pulp magazine?

Here is a nice graph from Google that shows how often the word robot was used over time. I wish I could track down all the science fiction stories that used it from 1923 when the English translation first appeared until “I, Robot” in 1939.

robot - eytomology

Eleven years before Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of robot stories, I, Robot, a short story appeared in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories called “I, Robot” by Eando Binder. Asimov admits his later robot stories were inspired by this one, and he had protested his editors naming his collection with the same name.

“I, Robot” is the first person narrative of a robot named Adam Link, and Amazing Stories would eventually run ten of his tales between 1939-1942. In 1965 Paperback Library came out with a fix-up novel based on many of these stories called Adam Link – Robot. Currently, this novel version is available from Wildside Press on Amazon as an ebook. However, if you’d like to read these stories as Amazing Stories presented them, they are available online as digital .pdf scans:

Amazing Stories 1939-01

The first two stories were combined and altered for a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, and later that episode was remade for a 1995 episode of a revival series of The Outer Limits. Both shows featured Leonard Nemoy. In the 21st-century we’re becoming robot crazy, so it’s very hard to imagine a time when people didn’t know about the concept of robots. This 1939 story is a far cry from Ex Machina (2014) and Humans (2015- ) yet it dealt with the same themes those shows do. Until humanity has real self-aware robots to coexist with we really won’t know how we will react.

I’ve read “I, Robot” by Earl and Otto Binder (Eando) a couple times over the last century, and today, when I started Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction (combining Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1 (1939) and Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 2 (1940)) I wasn’t in the mood to read it again. Boy, am I glad I did. As my recent posts attest, I’ve been in the mood to read old science fiction short stories and I had bought all six of the Golden Years of SF series which contain the first 12 of the 25 of The Great SF Stories series (1939-1963).

[These six anthologies collect the twelve years of science fiction before I was born. I bought the combined double-deckers reprints because I can’t afford to collect the original 25 paperbacks edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg because they generally run $10-60 on ABEbooks and eBay. (Ouch!)]

Now that I’m rereading science fiction with a deconstructive mindset I realized immediately that “I, Robot” was a goldmine of a historical SF story. The Binders imagined a mechanical man with an electronic mind that could learn and was mentally much like a human. This was 1939 before the world knew about computing machines (the word computer back then meant a human job classification). Adam Link has television like eyes that see in shades of blue (like early TVs, well before color TV), and microphones for ears. The Binders imagine an artificial brain that has a perfect memory. Not only that, the Binders imagine a kind of machine learning phase for Adam Link. The bulk of the story worries about how humans will act when meeting a conscious, self-aware artificial being. “I, Robot” is modeled on Frankenstein, which is quite satisfying because Adam Link is a fictional descendant of Mary Shelley’s monster.

The term “robot” was first coined in the 1920 Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but the artificial creatures in that story were made from synthetic organic matter, more like replicants in Blade Runner. The history of robots is ancient, but they have mostly been magical automata and mechanical. In the 19th-century we had The Steam Man of the Prairies, which some say was the first science fiction dime novel in 1868.

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)_big

The steam man was just an all-purpose versatile machine. I never read it, but my earliest memories as a kid include a robot, the Tin Woodman of Oz, that first appeared in the book The Wizard of Oz in 1900. I first encountered this robot-like-man in the 1939 film in the 1950s. The Tin Man was originally a human named Nick Chopper who kept losing body parts to an enchanted ax and having them replaced by a tinsmith.

TikTokofOz_BookCover_lores

The next proto-robot I remember encountering was Tik-Tok, after discovering that The Wizard of Oz movie was based on a series of books. The Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum was eighth in the series coming out in 1914, but I didn’t discover it until 1962 while in elementary school. Tik-Tok was a wind-up machine that could talk, but little was made of describing how he actually worked. Like talking animals in fantasy stories, talking machines were for fun and not genuine speculation about creating artificial intelligence.

Metropolis

The next robot I know about that existed before “I, Robot” was from the 1927 German film Metropolis.  Like R.U.R., Metropolis is a social commentary on the working classes. I’m not sure Thea von Harbou was concerned philosophically with artificial intelligence, and I’m not sure where I can find out. Evidently, the concept of a robot was easily embraced by our society, even ones that could act human, but when did folks begin to think seriously how to create an artificial mind? (I’ve since found out the word robot isn’t used in the film, but the 1927 placards did list some actors as robots.

That’s what’s so fun about “I, Robot.” The Binders were putting everything into place. They theorized a metallic brain of “iridium-sponge” cells, not as fancy sounding as Asimov’s positronic brain but they did assume it would need to store information. The Binders made no hint of computer programming. I guess they assumed a being with senses would program itself through learning. The artificial thinking was still relegated to the magic happens kind of hand waving.

Helen O Loy by Lester del Rey

In 1938, “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey came out in Astounding Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure the Binders could have read that one. I recently listened to that story, and it is another proto-AI tale. Two men who own a robot repair shop put together a robot woman they both fall in love with. Again, where did they get the word robot? How quickly did a Czech word from 1920 spread to America? Did Lester del Rey know of the story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order” from 1895? How do ideas spread? And is inventing an artificial wife something that just comes to guys. What story lays claim to inventing the sexbot?

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of fictional robots. It gives me several stories I need to track down to read. I’ve already read some of the Professor Jameson stories by Neil R. Jones from the early 1930s. His aliens had their minds transferred to mechanical bodies — not AI robots. I need to read The Metal Giants (1926) by Edmond Hamilton and Automata (1929) by S. Fowler Wright, both science fiction writers.

I’m going to assume the Binders were inspired by science fiction. Could there have been nonfiction books theorizing about robots before 1939? When does science fiction precede science and when does it follow? I’ve always assumed rockets for space travel and mechanical robots for artificial minds preceded science, but I could be wrong.

I did find An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines by Kathleen Richardson that has a chapter on robots in fiction. It looks promising but is too expensive. Even the Kindle edition is $35.99.

Someone needs to write a book about robots like James Gleick did for time travel in his book Time Travel: A History. “I, Robot” is an amazing story in the evolution of ideas about robots. The Binders suggested an iridium-sponge for a brain. I suppose we can think of our current computers with a silicon sponge. They didn’t have enough information to guess about computers. Earlier stories only imagined robots having clockwork brains. The Binders speculations about a robot having to learn are also insightful.

Human-constructed creatures have been around a long time in our thoughts, and we’re getting very close to creating them. I think it’s fascinating to see how the idea evolved.

Recommended Reading

 

Updates

I’ve found some earlier citations in science fiction from The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

JWH

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When Sense of Wonder Wanes

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 22, 2018

The essential goal of science fiction is to inspire a sense of wonder. Science fiction is most powerful to young readers. Many hardcore science fiction addicts spend the rest of their lives strung out trying to recapture that sense of wonder they found in youth. Sadly, sense of wonder fades in two ways. We become jaded as we age, and science fiction becomes dated.

Amazing-Stories-1928-Nov-small

The dynamics of this loss of wonder came to me as I listened to the new audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, edited by Robert Silverberg that was first published in 1970. I enjoyed listening to these old science fiction stories tremendously, but that joy was fueled by nostalgia for my lost sense of wonder. I’ve been recommending this audiobook widely because I want science fiction anthologies to succeed in the audiobook marketplace. However, I got an email from my friend Mike that makes me want to write a warning to go along with my recommendation.

Mike was enjoying the stories until he got to “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein, a story that first appeared in 1940. I told Mike this was the weakest story in the book for me. I’ve read it many times, and have heard two audio versions. All the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame were voted into the collection by the newly formed Science Fiction Writers of America after 1965. Each included author could only have one story. I never could understand why they picked “The Roads Must Roll” for Heinlein. I would have picked “The Menace from Earth.” But evidently, this story still had a sense of wonder to the SFWA members when they voted for it. But I first read “The Roads Must Roll” just before they voted when I was a young teen, and the idea of rolling roads seemed stupid to me even then. They were older and voting their nostalgia.

Then Mike sent me this email about “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon from 1941:

I think “Microcosmic God” is a terrible story. It makes the plot of “The Roads Must Roll” seem intelligent and elegant.

The two main characters are dreadful. Kidder is a cold-blooded killer who happily massacres the Neoterics whenever they have not followed orders to his satisfaction. Conant is a silly Saturday afternoon matinee villain who wants to take over the world. Oh, brother! Conant reminds me of Snidely Whiplash. How do you take a story seriously with flat characters like Kidder and Conant?

The Neoterics are a clumsy deus ex machina. You might as well give Kidder a magic wand and a book of spells. This is one of the most preposterous plot devices ever devised. It takes stupid to a new level.

There is no character development. The plot is stale nonsense, complete with bad guys spinning their revolvers on their trigger fingers. I’ve seen better plots in Charlie Chan movies.

I don’t know how or why this is considered a good story by the science fiction community. It’s awful.

Mike is completely right in his criticism, but I still enjoyed the story because I could imagine the sense of wonder it created in 1941. Even though it depicts cruel events, they are widely imaginative. I even gave it an A when I sent Mike my grading of the stories:

  • A+ “A Martian Odyssey”
  • A- “Twilight”
  • B- “Helen O’Loy”
  • C “The Roads Must Roll”
  • A “Microscopic God”
  • A- “Nightfall”
  • C “The Weapon Shop”
  • A+ “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”
  • A++ “Huddling Place”
  • A- “Arena”
  • A “First Contact”
  • B- “That Only a Mother”
  • A “Scanners Live in Vain”
  • A+ “Mars is Heaven”
  • A “The Little Black Bag”
  • B “Born of Man and Woman”
  • B+ “Coming Attractions”
  • A “The Quest for Saint Aquin”
  • A+ “Surface Tension”
  • B+ “Nine Billion Names of God”
  • B “It’s a Good Life”
  • A+ “The Cold Equations”
  • A “Fondly Fahrenheit”
  • B+ “The Country of the Kind”
  • A+++ “Flowers for Algernon”
  • A+++ “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”

Jupiter-red-spot

I’ve wondered for decades if 21st-century young people reading 20th-century science fiction stories would find a sense of wonder in them. The golden age of science fiction is supposed to be twelve, but would a 12-year-old today still find a sense of wonder in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame? Has its sense of wonder faded?

I know my own sense of wonder is in decline, but then so is my heart and mind. As we get old we wear out. My sense of wonder isn’t what it used to be. For example, I just read Ocean of Storms (2016) by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown. If I had been twelve when I read it, I believe my sense of wonder would have been wowed. It essentially recycles 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973) with the movie Apollo 13 (1995) and adds modern thriller clichés, evil conspirators, contemporary politics, genetic manipulations, and a bunch of hard to believe details. If I hadn’t already encountered all those classic science fiction ideas I would have loved this book. Because I was jaded by a lifetime of science fiction thrills, this book was only ho-hum. It offered me nothing new.

Ocean of Storms was our modern selection for my science fiction book club this month, the classic selection was A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864). The Verne book was more fun to read, but it offered no sense of wonder either. Its science is completely dated. However, it was fun trying to imagine how 19th-century readers had their sense of wonder blown away. Was science fiction in the 1800s more mind-blowing to its readers because they knew far less than we do today?

As an older science fiction fan, it’s extremely rare for me to encounter a new science fictional idea. In fact, I can’t come up with a recent example. Maybe Spin (2005) by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine (1992) by Greg Egan. Most of my enjoyment of science fiction comes from understanding the history of science fiction and working to comprehend the classic stories in the context of their times. I admire current novels like Aurora (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson for using science fiction to speculate about the limits of space travel, but I generally don’t find much sense of wonder anymore.

Science fiction has become adventure stories set into older science fiction speculative ideas. It’s retreads of retreads. Modern science fiction is often far better written than older science fiction, and modern science fiction writers have superior storytelling skills. But the sense of wonder I found in my teens is gone.

Don’t feel too sad for me. I now find a sense of wonder in studying science fiction. Science fiction used to provide me a sense of wonder about the future, now it provides a sense of wonder about the past. There are two types of science fiction. The common form is entertainment, but the form I like are those stories that explore the event horizon between what science knows and what science might discover. I believe the stories included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame were selected because at one time they all speculated on possibilities existing on that event horizon. Just because science has advanced, destroying most of that speculation doesn’t mean their feats of imagination are diminished.

JWH

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Remembering Old Science Fiction Short Stories

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I was messaging a friend in South Africa this morning, Piet Nel, about reading old science fiction short stories in retrospective anthologies and best of the year annuals. Piet is reading through the Terry Carr’s Best Science Fiction of the Year series (1972-1987), but he doesn’t have them all. This morning’s message told me how he used ISFDB.com to find the stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4 elsewhere. #4 was the first volume he didn’t own. For example, here are all the places “Born with the Dead” by Robert Silverberg has been reprinted. Piet already had four copies of that story in other anthologies. Piet was able to find all the stories #4, either in books he owned or online.

I thought I’d take the same approach to The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty because I can’t afford to buy it. That annual came out the year I was born. By chance this month, I’ve already read two of them, “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber when I listened to The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One. [See the results of this game at the end of this essay.]

The-Best-Science-Fiction-Stories-1951-ed-Bleiler-and-Dikty

This morning I read an essay by James Jackson Toth, “Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment in Dedicated Listening” that resonated with me. Toth laments that streaming music is overwhelming him and he longs for the days when he had a limited collection of records he knew intimately. I feel the same way about science fiction. I’m not giving up on reading new science fiction, but my old mind can’t grasp much more new stuff. I’ve decided my specialty of knowledge will be science fiction published from 1946-1985. I need something to hang onto, and this will be it. Mostly, I chose this topic because I already know a bunch about it — why bother becoming a specialist in something other than what’s already crammed into your mind. But also, I’m attracted to this era because I enjoy talking with other folks that also love this era too.

This got me to thinking:

  1. How many people love to read old science fiction short stories from this era?
  2. What SF short stories from this era are anthologized the most?
  3. What are the essential anthologies to collect to get the top stories of this era?
  4. What stories would I put into an anthology if I was an editor of SF 1946-1985?

It’s not that I haven’t thought of these ideas before, and answered some of them in “The Best Science Fiction Short Stories.” That’s the most popular essay I wrote for the Classics of Science Fiction site. CSF is not a very popular, but that page has gotten 2,600 hits. Not many in the big scheme of things, but it suggests there’s a fair number of readers like Piet and I. Overall, I would guesstimate there are not that many fans of old science fiction short stories, probably much less than a thousand in the world, and we’re dying off all the time. I’m sure young folk would rather watch Black Mirror, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, Dust films, Short of the Week Sci-Fi, or The 7th Matrix for their short science fiction fix. I love these shows too, but I forget their details almost immediately.

Baby boomers were born 1946-1964 but I would think their formative reading years lasted until 1985. Only a small percentage of boomers got into reading science fiction, and for most of them reading science fiction was only a casual interest. I do know there are around 11,000 members to Space Opera Pulp, a group on Facebook for people who love covers to old science fiction magazines. Probably for most of them, that’s a minor nostalgic diversion. I wonder how many still buy, collect, and read old SF stories?

There are a handful of blogs that reflect a love for old science fiction short stories. That suggests we are the keepers of a very weak flame. I see many of the same names posting comments at these sites. Are we the fans of a dying art form? I don’t think science fiction is dying out, but I do think new science fiction gets most of the attention. Pop culture is inherently linked to generations, and the Baby Boomers who loved reading science fiction short stories from 1946-1985 make up a dwindling cohort. There is a bit of generational overlap, with folks older and younger than Baby Boomers still loving science fiction from that age of science fiction digests.

There are more anthologies than ever collecting the best short science fiction of the year, including one from the prestigious Best American Series. And there’s plenty of places that publish new short science fiction. I believe the readership is smaller today than we I was growing up, but the science fiction short story is still going strong despite the overwhelming popularity of media science fiction. I’d love if I could read and retain knowledge of all this new stuff, but I can’t. I try, but it’s a struggle to remember. Reading new stories from the past will also be difficult to remember, but reading them feels like I’m finding missing pieces of a puzzle I’ve been working on my whole life. Filling in those blanks are reinforced by surrounding memories, so that might help to learn new stuff.

And, I do find more and more pleasure nostalgically returning to old science fiction, and I don’t think I’m alone. Maybe I can keep it in my head. I think it is a mentally good thing to have a specialty to care for when aging.

Here are some sites I read by fans of old science fiction stories. (There are more, but memory limits me at the moment. Be sure and send me your link if you focus on this era of science fiction.)

Game Results

These are the stories I have for The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 edited Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty. Links are to ISFDB. This goes to show how well some stories from 1950 have lasted, although I should admit that the anthologies I own them in were assembled decades ago. I guess I should admit that they are mostly forgotten stories.

Stories I Have in Anthologies

Stories I Have in Magazines

Stories I Don’t Have

JWH

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Could A Robot Read Jules Verne?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 12, 2018

I’m listening to the AmazonClassics audiobook edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, a novel originally published in France in 1864, and first translated into English in 1871. The translation I read was by F. A. Malleson, from 1877, and is considered a pretty good translation. Verne suffered from many bad translations, often ruining his reputation in the English speaking world.  The story is impressively narrated by Derek Perkins. His voice perfectly matches this 19th adventure tale. This audiobook sounds more thrilling and real than most of the silly movie and television productions I’ve seen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 26Journey to the Center of the Earth 36

However, I have one problem with Verne’s story. It’s not very believable. Of course, it’s well over a century-and-a-half since Verne imagined it, and science has progressed a great deal, but was it even believable in his day? I wish I had an AI robot that could read and understand fiction and nonfiction. I want to talk to it like Alexa but it would be much smarter. I want my AI mind to crawl across the web and answer questions for me. Google is so goddamn stupid that it drives me crazy. I searched for [19th-century reviews of “journey to the center of the earth”] but it only brought up modern reviews of recent book editions and movie versions. I thought my query was quite explicit. If Google is such a leader in AI, why can’t it understand my query? Don’t you get tired of all the crap Google searches return?

I want to build an AI mind that I could input texts of all the science fiction stories and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries and have it analyze those works by correlating that content with information found on the internet. Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in a magazine for boys. I’ve love to find diaries, journals, essays, and books by 19th-century readers who read Journey to the Center of the Earth when it came out and to know their reactions. Verne adds a good deal of science from his day into his story to make it sound plausible, but was it?

Hollow Earth theories and stories go back much further than Verne. Were its proponents and speculating on real possibilities and taken seriously? Or, were they the UFO nutters of their day? I get the feeling that the concept of dinosaurs had inflamed 19th-century imaginations and Verne used his story to speculate how dinosaurs could still exist. He was doing the same thing that Doyle’s The Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park did, creating a theory to present live dinosaurs. I have many theories about the evolution of science fiction, and having an AI collaborator could really help.

I’d love to build an AI robot that I could chat with me about science fiction. I picture talking my digital companion like Mannie did with Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) by Robert A. Heinlein. I imagine creating my AI friend like the AI machines in When HARLIE Was One (1972) by David Gerrold or Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers, where Harlie and Helen came into consciousness by interacting with a human mentor. I fantasize talking with this AI and collaborating on articles about the history of science fiction. And what if it woke up and became conscious?

Computer scientists are building AI machines using machine learning to do all kinds of things today. If they can master games like Chess, Jeopardy, Go, and old Atari 2600 games, or analyze MRIs and X-rays for cancer, why couldn’t they learn everything to know about science fiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning ML (machine language) using Python. I’ve been daydreaming about building a machine after reading (“Deep Confusion: Misadventures in Building a Deep Learning Machine,” “The $1700 great Deep Learning box: Assembly, setup and benchmarks,” and “Build a super fast deep learning machine for under $1,000“) or just paying for a hosting service like Paperspace. There’s a new edition of Python Machine Learning: Machine Learning and Deep Learning with Python, scikit-learn, and TensorFlow by Raschka and Mirjalili that could get me started, or Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron.

Of course, I doubt if I could ever program such a fantastic AI machine or even learn the basics of ML at my age. I’ve been watching a series of videos from Google Developers on Machine Learning Recipes. I’ve also been reading about Natural Language Processing with Python, a book I bought years ago when this idea first came to me. The concepts aren’t hard, but it would be just the first steps on a journey of ten thousand miles. I’m not sure I have the concentration power or memory space anymore. I’m probably too old and too feeble minded to do it, but that doesn’t mean some youngster couldn’t.

I’m quite envious and jealous that young people today can choose this kind of work for their career. I programmed databases during my work years, and that was fun enough, but imagine getting to develop robots, AI minds, and machine learning? What an exciting time to be a programmer.

JWH

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Creative Blogging

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 7, 2018

Events in my life are leading to a perfect storm for writing about blogging. I’ve been discussing blogging with my friend Laurie who is a professor of reading. She plans to include blogging in a course she’ll teach this spring. Laurie introduced me to the idea of multi-genre research papers, which is an alternative to the five-paragraph essay used in high schools. She was asking me about blogging because she wanted her students to use a blog for their progress reports. When I heard the concept of multi-genre writing I immediately thought of blogging because blogging is at heart multi-genre, or at least in the way these academics are defining the term. Blogging is both multi-media and multi-genre. I’ve been trying to convince Laurie that her students’ multi-genre research papers should be blogged.

Michel_de_Montaigne

Concurrent with this I’m reading for my nonfiction book club How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Michel de Montaigne is legendary for developing the personal essay, and he has inspired countless readers and writers for centuries. Montaigne should be considered the Patron Saint of Bloggers. Montaigne retired early and became a contemplative, developing a personal philosophy by writing about his experiences. [Here’s an excellent essay, “Translating Montaigne” to help you find a copy of his work to read.]

And I just got The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and approaches writing and grammar through studying how the brain works at communication. Pinker realizes that we all read and write differently since we’ve all moved online. I’m anxious to dive into this book because I want to scientifically and systematically improve my blog writing.

Then there’s the book I read last year, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. She combines teaching writing with understanding memory. Writing the personal essay is all about recalling details when our brains are very poor at remembering. We constantly trick, lie, and delude ourselves, and learning why is both psychologically rewarding and artistically challenging. Contemplating the limits of memory is a fantastic tool for understanding how to write.

I’ve written two essays recently about blogging, “Blogging in the Classroom” and “Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning.” What I’m advocating is we start requiring children to blog their school work to teach them about reading, writing, memory, thinking, and history. Essentially what I’m asking is everyone become a Michel de Montaigne to write their personal history. I also expect them to be historians, teachers, preachers, scientists, philosophers, naturalists, and so on, to write about the world at large too. For example, here is Peter Webscott’s “Reading the world – visiting Montaigne’s Tower.” It is an example of a multi-genre essay about visiting Montaigne’s house. This kind of writing is how we should explore our personal experiences and thoughts, and blogging is how we can save those insights for a lifetime.

Creative blogging should be our tool to write our autobiography, one that is preserved, even after we die. Creative blogging is how we should communicate our deepest thoughts to our family and friends. Only the closest people to you will ever take the time to read your blog. Learning who they are is revealing. Blogging has the beautiful side-effect of showing which of our interests bores other people. That will probably scare you. Learning to know what you care about most and how much your friends and family care about what’s important to you is quite enlightening. It teaches how you are unique. It also teaches you how you overlap with other people, and that’s the key to friendships.

I also wrote this a couple years ago, “77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays.” Strangely, painful truths are wonderfully educational. I could probably come up with 177 things I’ve learned from blogging today. It keeps growing.

JWH