You Can’t Criticize Hamlet Because You Don’t Believe in Ghosts

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?


5 thoughts on “You Can’t Criticize Hamlet Because You Don’t Believe in Ghosts”

  1. Thanks for another really good essay.

    I grew up reading Analog. I started carrying a slide rule when I was about twelve. I had a pocket protector when my pockets were too small to hold it.

    Analog had a bias toward engineering. Many stories, Campbell’s content, intended to show those ivory tower scientists what was what. “I am absolutely right, so you go out the airlock”.

    IMO it is not the failure to believe in ghosts, but the failure to accept that rigid engineering attitude.

    I think Starwell (or Driftglass if you want a real short story) projects the attitude: “Maybe I’m not absolutely right”.

    I propose the original “Flowers for Algernon”. The protagonist achieves an Analog level of arrogance and then has to grow up.

    1. At our Facebook group that discusses SF short stories, we all gave our 15 favorite stories.

      “Flowers for Algernon” was one of my very top stories. Here’s my list, with some extra I was considering:

      “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany
      “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells
      “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
      “The Menace From Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein
      “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny
      “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
      “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss
      “The Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum
      “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber
      “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
      “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
      “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster
      “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance
      “Press ENTER ■” by John Varley
      “Huddling Place” by Clifford Simak

      Also considered:
      “Surface Tension” by James Blish
      “The Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
      “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
      “Twilight” by John W. Campbell
      “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne
      “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison
      “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang
      “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke
      “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras
      “Mars Is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury
      “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper
      “Rogue Moon” by Algis Budrys
      “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen Steele

  2. It never occurred to me to dislike Hamlet because it included ghosts, or to dislike a science fiction story because it depends on outdated science. As for how to judge a short story, and does it matter why we like or dislike a given story, those are questions I’ve been working on for a little over a decade, and I can say with some authority: damned if I know.

    As for ghosts and other psychic phenomena (dreams, ESP, etc), a story might use them as real, and that’s not very interesting. But when a story – such as Hamlet – presents them as real in some aspects, and unreal in others, that’s where you’ve got some drama. Is Hamlet merely projecting his suspicions onto an imaginary figure to deny responsibility? Or does he really think there’s a ghost, is that part of his craziness, the craziness that he may or may not be faking? What about when others see the ghost, do they really see it (folie a deux), or are they just making it up, or going along, or taunting? Or is the ghost a person cleverly impersonating a ghost, and if so, who? Each option yields different motivations for the characters, yet the action of the story remains the same. Now that’s interesting. Believing it’s a real ghost is the least interesting option!

    Science fiction based on bad – or old, now discredited – science is a different problem. If you read SF out of a love of science and find enjoyment in how scientific principles can yield weird stuff that makes for interesting stories, great; if you want to throw out everything when science disproves theories, ok, that’s your choice, it wouldn’t be mine. Science isn’t a static thing, it goes back and forth, the entire activity of science is disproving existing theories in the interests of coming up with better, more accurate theories, just as the 20th century showed that Newtonian physics had its limits. Some day, what we call science will probably be dismissed as foolish whims by those who have fine-tuned quantum mechanics.

    But fiction based on old, discredited science can still work, particularly if it’s more about human motivations and desires and fears and love and hate and all those very unscientific things.

    I prefer to think that science might come up with ways to make interstellar travel work. I’m more grounded in biology than astrophysics, so i can remember a time when deciphering the human genome was going to take 60 years. It took less than ten, and now we can pretty much pinpoint exactly what gene mutations are associated with increased probabilities of developing various diseases.

    My in-between reading this coming year is going to be a period of re-reading, and one of the things I’ll be re-reading is Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow. It’s loaded with bad science. But I think of stories like “Coventry” and “If This Goes On…” every day; I think of his Crazy Years and probability curves and wonder if someone out there sees a common crest or trough in the early part of this century, because things sure seem crazy to me. But then I read Hegel or the historians who see the present as unpredictable, and change my mind.

    As for how to judge a story – how do you judge the person you fall in love with? As far as I can tell, you change your judging standards when you fall in love with someone who doesn’t check all the right boxes. Or maybe you throw out the whole concept of judging. If a story touches you, makes you think differently about something, gives you an answer or helps you hope on a dark night or shows you how to grow towards a more fulfilling life, it’s a great story. Now, that doesn’t work for things like Best American Short Stories, but every volume talks about breaking rules, and has stories that seem awful to me but at least three editors loved them enough to print them. I don’t think there’s any real hard-and-fast criteria. Sittenfeld came up with some general things – a good ending, fine, but what’s a good ending? You already know i thought “The Apartment” was a fine story with a bad ending, so what to do with that?

    I love to analyze why I like or dislike a story, but it so often comes down to, hey, i liked/didn’t like it. I generally like a story that teaches me something, something about history or science or philosophy, but I also like stories that just make me smile or cry. In the analysis I usually learn more about myself than i do about the story. And maybe that’s how it should be.

    Sorry to go on – but you raised a lot of interesting questions.

    1. I’m now trying to figure out how to write about stories that consider different angles:

      – To give the story its best chance of being understood – this is becoming the most important goal
      – To understand my psychology in how I read the story
      – To understand how someone who is reading what I write might use the information
      – To understand how the author might react to what I write
      – To consider how someone who hasn’t read the story might be influenced to read or not read the story
      – To consider how someone who has read the story might see my interpretation

  3. I don’t believe in ghosts but I love ghost stories. Was it Aristotle who said something like literature takes the imposssible (i.e., something that definitely did not happen) and makes it sound probable? I expect a story to transport me to that land of the impossible, but to sound probable thanks to its circumstantial detail and internal consistency. But then — as you suggest — I’m really just rationalizing something I like; i.e., my gut reaction likes ghost stories so I’m damn sure going to figure out a way to make that gut feeling sound like a philosophical judgment 🙂

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