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.
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”
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.