by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 27, 2020
My friend Mike sent me an email yesterday that’s got me to thinking. Instead of paraphrasing what he said, I got his permission to reprint it:
We always talk about the best science fiction stories, but I was thinking that as an intellectual exercise it would be fun to nominate stories that we think should be in the running as the best science fiction story, full stop. You have written many times about the need to read a story numerous times to truly understand it. I just reread "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin for the third time. I originally thought that the story was too implausible, but I've changed my mind. An author creates a framework for a story, and the plot unwinds within that framework. It's not intellectually honest to complain that you don't like the framework. For example, in Have Space Suit - Will Travel, Heinlein creates a scenario where Kip manages to refurbish a used space suit and use it to communicate with a space craft. Heinlein sets the tableau and we enter into that world. It is what it is. Any complaints about the story are dishonest because Heinlein can paint whatever picture he wants. He is the creator and sets the parameters. In other words, to dismiss "The Cold Equations" because you don't like the premise is like saying you don't like Hamlet because King Hamlet is a ghost and you don't believe in ghosts. You are missing the point. The author is asking you to consider the life and death struggle taking place inside the conscribed plot. So I nominate "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin as the best science fiction story. In very few pages, Godwin presents us with a drama of immense consequence. A Greek tragedy unfolds. Barton desperately seeks a way to change Marilyn's fate, but her fate is sealed. Godwin handles their interaction with a stark and beautiful sadness. When Barton contacts his superiors, they respond like a Greek chorus, confirming the inexorable outcome. A beautiful story, timeless and universal.
This struck a chord with me on many levels. First off, I’m guilty of criticizing stories by disbelieving in their ghosts. I never hated Hamlet because I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I have attacked stories because of their ghosts. Why am I so inconsistent?
I have read over 400 short stories in 2020. I read over 300 short stories each year in 2019 and 2018, meaning I’ve read over a 1,000 short stories in the last few years. That reading experience is compelling me to find aesthetic yardsticks to measure the quality of short stories, but developing that sense of judgment has been bumbling at best. It’s like I’ve been made a judge at an Olympic sport but haven’t yet learned what to score and how.
At my science fiction blog I’ve been struggle to review short stories as I read them, but I’m still fumbling with how to go about it. For example, here’s my review of “Think Like a Dinosaur” which was inspired by “The Cold Equations,” the story Mike nominates. I admire both of those stories, and I’m more than willing to suspend my sense of disbelief to let them work. On the other hand, I’m often critical of science fiction stories where I can’t believe in their premise. Am I criticizing some science fiction because I don’t believe in their version of Hamlet’s ghost?
I have a split personality when it comes to science fiction. If I love the story, I ignore judging it’s science. If I don’t like the story, I use science as a form of literary criticism. Mike has convinced me I need to stop doing that. I need to forget that science is part of the genre label for science fiction, that’s it’s irrelevant.
I recently wrote a piece called “Faith in Science Fiction” about how science fiction inspires some people to believe in crazy ideas. I still believe that’s true, but I realize now because of Mike’s email, that it isn’t a fair criticism of science fiction. Novels have inspired all kinds of craziness in people, but is it fair to judge literary merit by what readers do with the stories? Should Atlas Shrugged be judged by the politics of libertarians?
I called Mike and said my ideal science fiction story is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, which I’ve written about. Mike questioned if it was a short story since it’s so long. That’s true, I told him it’s a novella. So I offered him “An Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss which is a short story, and I’ve also written about.
What’s ironic is these stories trigger synapses that fire when encountering unscientific ideas, but just as intensely light up other regions of my brain that recognize wonderful stories.
I would love to develop a taxonomy of short story elements to judge. To list all the possible storytelling virtues to consider. I’m not sure if realism or scientific validity should or shouldn’t be a consideration. I guess if that’s a goal of the story, then it should be, but it shouldn’t be if it’s not really a factor in the story’s original blueprints.
For example, I recently read “The Monster-God of Mamurth,” the first published story of Edmond Hamilton from 1926. It’s not a great story – I don’t think, but can’t say for sure. Judging by how I felt, I did sense several appealing elements. Some of those elements were common techniques used in stories of the past that are shunned today. Should we judge stories by today’s standards or the standards of when they were written?
Over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations we’ve been discussing Hamilton’s story, “What’s It Like Out There?” Edmond Hamilton was once a very popular science fiction writer, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. But unfortunately his fading reputation barely remembers his World-Wrecking space operas or Captain Future stories for kids much less his best short stories. We’re all surprised and even blown away by reading “What’s It Like Out There?” because it was so damn good!
At least it felt good. What exact elements made “What’s It Like Out There” so impressive? It was originally written in the 1930s but rejected by all the publications that took Hamilton’s stories back then for being too bleak. “What’s It Like Out There?” was rewritten and accepted in the 1950s, and became Hamilton’s most famous short story. Many readers recognize it’s greatness, but who can explain the mechanisms that make it work?
We all wondered how Hamilton wrote that one outstanding story. So I bought The Best of Edmond Hamilton and started reading. That’s when Mike’s email came in. The first story was “The Monster-God of Mamurth” from the August 1926 issue of Weird Tales. The story is about two men finding a dying man in an African desert who tells them a fantastic tale before he dies. The man, an archeologist found an inscription on an Egyptian monument in hieroglyphics about a lost civilization and an ancient god, which he went searching for alone. He found a dead city but a living god.
Now this is completely unbelievable by today’s knowledge, yet the story works pretty well. It reminded me of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones from “The Call of Cthulhu” or the Elder Gods as August Derleth called them. But Hamilton’s story seems to predate the Cthulhu Mythos. It also reminded me of the Ancient Astronaut craze. Fantasy writers love the idea of old gods continuing to live on, and other fans loves the idea that alien visitors were gods to ancient humans.
How long have writers been telling such tales about ancient deities and lost civilizations? How should we judge this particular theme? Did people once believe these ideas could be true? Did people actually believe Bible stories in Biblical times? Does it matter to the story? Is how the idea is developed what matters artistically?
Of course, ancient gods is nonsense, but Edmond Hamilton created a pretty good first story about one. In developing my taxonomy of creative writing elements, how would I judge this particular story? This post has gotten too long to answer that here, but it sets up my problem.
By what yardsticks do we measure short stories? Especially stories with crazy ideas. And is how well we’re fooled by foolish ideas an aesthetic consideration? Is how the idea has been evolved from earlier versions of the idea another consideration? Is even deconstructing stories to identify their artistic gears and wheels even a worthwhile pursuit?
Do we really need to know why we like or hate a story? It only seems important if we want to understand ourselves, or talk about a story with other people. And it really only becomes important when we try to identify the very best stories. And that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned from reading over a thousand stories in the past three years – some work extremely well on my unconscious mind, and most don’t. Why? How?