by James Wallace Harris, 1/22/22
Normally, I write about science fiction over at my blog that’s devoted to science fiction, but I’m reviewing every book I read in 2022 for this blog. To make it more interesting for my friends who don’t care about science fiction, I thought I’d explain why I’m still reading science fiction in old age even though I believe science fiction is really meant for young people. (For an actual discussion of the stories, I reviewed them here.)
There are thirteen short stories in The Great SF Stories 25 (1963). If I had read those stories at 11 or 12 in 1963, they would have meant something entirely different than how I perceived them at age 70 in 2022. Now that I’m seventy and examining my life with a more critical eye, I realize that my sixty years of reading science fiction is a kind of delusion. I’ve been thinking about delusional thinking since the Trump years. I don’t believe Q-Anon followers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, etc., are the only folks who see the world through their delusions. I think we all do.
Generally, we think of science fiction as a specific subject of entertainment, but I also believe science fiction fans believe in certain concepts because of their love of the genre. Science fiction works best when we’re young, giving us a sense of wonder. Like religion, it introduces certain beliefs that most fans keep their whole life.
Science fiction is immensely popular, at least at the movies and on television, but also as a reading category too. There are certain beliefs about the future that science fiction fans embrace. Some of those beliefs are even shared by people who don’t like science fiction, but they’ve come to accept them because science fiction is so pervasive in pop culture. If you examine your own beliefs carefully, you might spot some that come from science fiction.
What’s interesting about these beliefs, and I’ll get to the specifics soon, is they’ve been around a long time, some are even older than science fiction. I’ve been reading science fiction for six decades, and the genre has undergone many changes over those decades. A few ago I started a reading project to read all the science fiction anthologies that collected the best-of-the-year short stories. I started with The Great SF Stories 1 (1939). I’m up to volume 18 (1958) but a year ago I joined a Facebook group that reads SF anthologies, and it voted to group read volume 25 (1963). 1963 is an interesting year, it was the year after I started reading science fiction.
This anthology is a blast from the past in several ways. I have read some of these 1963 stories before, but not when they came out. When I started reading science fiction, I was discovering books from the 1950s and earlier. I didn’t discover “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” until years later. It’s the most important story to me in the anthology and the best science fiction story of 1963. I first read it in Judith Merril’s 10th Annual which I owned in paperback in the late 1960s or The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume one which I got from the Science Fiction Book Club in 1970. I’ve read it many times over the years, and I still love “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” It’s a fantasy about science fiction that I wish was my reality.
I mention these details partly out of nostalgia, partly to stress-test my memory, but mainly because “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a significant story. Roger Zelazny paid homage to the kind of science fiction I grew up loving as a kid. Back then I wanted Martians to exist. I wanted to believe intelligent life was everywhere in the solar system and beyond. As a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I was a believer in a lot of crappy ideas. Philip K. Dick wrote a wonderful novel about such believers called Confessions of a Crap Artist. See my review.
Over the decades, in mainstream magazines, science fiction would be criticized by modern literary writers as fiction for adolescents. This always made science fiction fans furious, but I believe it’s true. Most of us just don’t want to grow up. I know I never did. Such criticism was like telling one of the faithful their beliefs were programmed into them as children but aren’t real. Most religious folks cling to their beliefs no matter how convincing the arguments are against them. I’ve gotten some older science fiction fans mad at me for saying atheistic things about our faith, science fiction.
Now that I’m looking back I see how science fiction is something I wanted to believe in, even though it’s mostly just fun make-believe stories. I could say it’s a cognitive perspective that I use to view reality. Unfortunately, I’ve reached an age where I have doubts about any realistic uses of science fiction.
I am like a preacher who has a good job as a paster who has lost his faith but is too old to get work at anything else. I’ve got to keep working, to still be good at my job, but without having faith. I still love science fiction, and I’ve come to admire it in new ways. Instead of a religion or philosophy, I think of it as an art form. I might not believe humanity will ever have interstellar travel, but stories about it can be quite creative.
Each of the stories in The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) worked in a new way for me in 2022. For example, as I read the Jewish science fiction humor of “Bernie the Faust” by William Tenn, originally published in the November 1963 Playboy. I wondered if Tenn was making fun of science fiction fans. In the story, a tough New Yorker businessman thinks he’s taking a rube to the cleaners by selling him the planet Earth, but then fears he’s sold out the human race to an alien. As a kid, I would have wanted to believe aliens were visiting us. Now, I wonder if Bernie was just delusional in thinking the rube was from outer space, and he’s a stand-in for science fiction fans, and Tenn was making fun of us.
In “Turn Off the Sky” originally appearing in the August 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), Ray Nelson fears a future utopian liberal America. The main character is a Beatnik anarchist who finds purpose in preaching anarchy but falls in love with a prostitute who still believes in capitalism and making money. In 1963, the only Beatnik I knew was Maynard G. Krebs. I didn’t discover the Beats until 1968, and now in 2022, I admire the story for its grittily realistic aspects, but as a kid in 1963, I would have been all caught up in the utopian counter-culture. “Turn Off the Sky” was probably written in 1959, and Nelson predicts many things that didn’t happen until the later 1960s, and explored ideas still relevant today. Many SF writers were very conservative, and even though Nelson was a childhood friend of the hippies’ favorite science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, I could sense his conservative’s fear of socialism way back in 1959.
Regarding conservative philosophy, I could also see that in “No Truce With Kings” by Poul Anderson, first published in the June 1963 F&SF. As a kid, I wouldn’t have liked this story. As an old man, and lifelong liberal, I still didn’t like this story, but it’s actually interesting in 2022. Anderson imagines a Post-America that’s trying to rebuild. One group wants to recreate the U.S. federal government, but others want to maintain feudal states. Anderson proposes that people are only capable of managing small-scale governments, and the feudal system was the best size for human communities. You see this belief today, especially out in Idaho right now. This story won a Hugo award back then.
The value of reading these old science fiction stories isn’t that they were about the future, but they were about 1963, and reading them today shows how things don’t change.
Philip K. Dick’s story in this anthology, “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” also imagines a Post-America after WWIII, but further in the future. As a kid, I would never imagine a Post-America. I figured the United States would exist into the far future and dominate interplanetary and interstellar exploration. But reading these old science fiction stories I realize that many writers weren’t as confident. In 2022 I’m not confident about our future anymore too. In the story, humans who had colonized Mars return to Earth and the U.S. to rebuild, but they are soon in conflict with humans who had colonized the Proxima Centaurus system and have also returned to Earth to rebuild it too. PKD imagined quite a neat invention in this story. The New York Times was preserved by moving underground, and when it was liberated, turned out to be an AI that presented very accurate news, even becoming an oracle. Again, I see a political savviness that I wouldn’t have perceived as a kid but recognize now. The story isn’t about the future, but 1963. And like the other stories, things haven’t changed.
A more personally relevant story was by Clifford Simak, “New Folks’ Home,” about a seventy-year-old man retiring. Since I recently turned 70, this meant more to me now than it would have back at age 12. Lawyer Frederick Gray takes one last fishing trip into an isolated wilderness before moving into his retirement home. He injures himself and breaks into a remote cabin to save his life. There he finds a completely automated home that takes care of him. The home is an alien outpost on Earth, and it offers him meaningful work and longevity. The work is done by remote access like we do in our current pandemic, but with aliens in other star systems. I’ve always loved Simak stories for their gentle hopeful view of life. Simak wrote a huge number of stories and novels, many of which were about aliens among us, and intelligent robots. Like I’ve mentioned above, as a kid, I wanted to believe aliens could visit Earth, and we’d eventually visit them someday. I no longer believe interstellar travel will be possible. But I do think intelligent machines will emerge eventually – but that might be a delusion too.
One last story I want to mention is “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To” by Alfred Bester. (F&SF October 1963). Linda Nielsen thinks she’s the last person on Earth. Like Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, Linda is fixing up her apartment by taking whatever she wants from a deserted New York City. I mention this movie because it’s a favorite movie and I pictured it as I read “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To.” I love the last person on Earth stories. My all-time favorite novel is this type is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. As a kid, I wanted to be the last person on Earth, sometimes I still do. Isn’t that a weird desire? But it’s a popular theme in science fiction.
However, I’ve always thought it would be neat if the last person on Earth was actually the last person, but in these stories, someone else always shows up. In the movie, it was Sarah Crandall, played by Inger Stevens. Since Bester describes Linda as Nordic, I wondered if he saw the movie with the Nordic Stevens and decided to just start with a blonde. Also, in the last people on Earth stories, the second person is generally of the opposite sex, so the plot develops sexual tension. In a number of these stories, a third person shows up. Usually, it’s two males fighting over one female. Another movie example of this is The Quiet Earth (1985).
Bester brings about an interesting twist in the end that finally convinces Jim Mayo and Linda Nielsen to get it on. This satisfies us readers who have been waiting for that action, but it wraps up the story too quickly, at least for me. However, the ending reminds me of another last Adam and Eve story, “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne.
This story combines several themes I loved as a kid. Being the last person on Earth. Rebuilding society the way I think it should be built. Aliens visiting Earth. Aliens discovering the last people on Earth. I have to admit in 2022 I don’t see civilization surviving for many more decades. But then, evidently neither did many science fiction writers back in the 1950s and 1960s. Most people feel we’ll muddle along, like always.
However, in 1963 I really didn’t believe civilization would collapse, or WWIII would happen. As a young person, I had faith in the future. I had faith in a lot of things that science fiction promised. I no longer believe in many of those promises. And for some reason, I think civilization will collapse sometimes this century. (I’m also reading a lot of archeology, and civilization collapse is the norm.)
Reading old science fiction is no longer about believing in the future. Reading old science fiction is about how much we got right and how much we got wrong. It’s probably because I’m old and turning cynical, but I feel the worse thing we got wrong was optimism about human potential. I think technology, society, culture, knowledge, etc. progresses, but not humans. We don’t change.
Science fiction also progresses and evolves. One concept that has emerged since 1963 is the idea of downloading human minds/personalities and uploading them into robots, clones, or virtual worlds. Essentially, the is a new version of immortality, and even heaven. I’ve never believed in this concept, and I have argued with many science fiction fans that do. Some passionately believe it, maybe as strong as the faithful believe they will be reborn in heaven.
We should be careful of the ideas we embrace. It’s so hard to tell if they are delusions.
16 thoughts on “2022 Book #3 – The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) ed. by Asimov & Greenberg”
Science fiction is an artform. As the Canadian critic Angus Taylor said, science fiction is essentially fiction, not science. “If there were no Benny Cemoli” is about the deception woven by the media, so I can see how you’re right that it’s about 1963.
When I was young I thought science fiction taught me a little bit about science, but I no longer believe that. Anyone trying to learn science from science fiction will have a very incorrect view of reality.
That’s what’s meant about it being fiction and not science.
Science fiction is an art form because it embraces the same concerns and care for writing as general fiction and covers an even broader spectrum. It’s an offshoot or form of it.
“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a very good stylistic piece that was probably inspired by “The Martian Chronicles”. If There Were No Benny Cemoli” is about the deception woven by the media, so I can see how you think it’s about 1963. It’s also about the uncertainty of historical events.
I think “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was inspired by many science fiction stories about Mars, including Edgar Rice Burroughs. Zelazny’s story could have been called “A Princess of Mars” too. Heinlein also had several stories with ancient Martians. And like you said, Bradbury’s stories made us all love Mars. That’s why I wrote my essay, “I Miss Martians.”
Yes, and also probably “War of the Worlds”, that of course presents a very unromantic view of Mars and Martians.
Why aren’t you publishing my comments James?
They just weren’t approved. Normally, if a person is approved one time all their later comments are automatically approved. I don’t know why the system doesn’t remember you. It seems like I have to manually approve you every time. You must be signing in some way different.
I do the manual approvals once a day, or every other day. That explains the delay.
That’s alright then, thank you James.
That’s alright then. Thank you James.
Seems to me you’re way, way over-thinking this. I have read SF since about 1948 because I wanted to be told an entertaining story. Not for education, philosophy or human insight, just a good, entertaining story. That’s still why I read it, and mystery fiction. I think your letting your philosophical musings get on the way of enjoyment.
I spent a couple of years rereading and reviewing Asimov/Greenberg’s THE GREAT SCIENCE FICTION STORIES series. Volume 25 was very good with a number of excellent stories…as you point out. The Science Fiction market in 1963 was fractured as more SF writers started writing novels and fewer short stories.
Do you have a link to your reviews? Is this George?
Hi, Jim! Yes, this is me, George Kelley. WORDPRESS hijacked my sign in and assigned me a new name. Here’s the link to the latest post in THE BEST FROM FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION series: http://georgekelley.org/fridays-forgotten-books-673-the-best-from-fantasy-and-science-fiction-thirteenth-series-edited-by-avram-davidson/
I’ll be posting a review of the 14th volume in the series in a couple of weeks. I’ll give you a heads up.
Jim, thanks for a very interesting essay. I am planning to write an essay about reading short speculative fiction, and you have given me some things to think about. This will eventually show up at “A Deep Look By Dave Hook” on WordPress.