Creating Something Useful in Retirement

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 17, 2019

For their retirement project, Greg Hullender and Eric Wong created Rocket Stack Rank that reviews and rates science fiction and fantasy short stories as they come out in eleven SF/F magazines and some anthologies. It’s a major undertaking they’ve been working on since 2015. Rocket Stack Rank is quite a resource and especially useful if you love shorter works of science fiction. I subscribe to four magazines they review, and their reviews show up very quickly after a new issue appears. Because I’m always so busy reading older stories, I use their ratings to take my head out of the past and put it in the present. But I also admire the web design and programming that also goes into their site.

Greg and Eric have been buddies for twenty years. My friend Mike and I have been reading and discussing science fiction for almost forty years. Mike inspired me to create the Classics of Science Fiction list back in the 1980s. Since 2016 Mike has been programming the database for the site and this year created the query system that lets users build their own lists. We think of the site as our retirement project. It gives us purpose and hopefully provides a useful tool for other people.

However, recently we started wondering if all the work was worth the effort because very few people use our site. Identifying the most remembered science fiction stories of the past is going to appeal to a very niche crowd. The new query system that Mike has spent a great deal of time perfecting only gets a few people using it a day. We were planning to expand its features but have been wondering if its worth the effort. Mike loves to program and this gives him a project to work on, but is it the best use of his time? I spend a lot of time researching, data inputting, and writing essays for the site.

Last night we were asking ourselves if success is determined by the number of users. If we enjoy the effort does it matter how many people use the site? In one sense no, but we do want to create tools people will use. We have to balance the fact that a new feature might require hundreds or even thousands of hours of work against its future utility. We’ve been disappointed the CSF Query (Classics of Science Fiction Query) hasn’t gotten more users. We think it’s partly due to people not knowing about it, and mostly due to people not needing it.

CSF Query is the kind of tool in your toolbox that you will only need rarely, but when the need arises it’s perfect for the job. For example, Paul Fraser at SF Magazines created a listing of stories that can be considered for the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards. So far he’s found 326 stories from about a dozen 1943 pulp magazines that qualify. That’s quite of bit of work. If you set CSF Query for 1943 and a minimum of 1 citation and hit Search you’ll get all the stories that are remembered in our Classics of Science Fiction database. Our work compliments his. The fun challenge to Retro Hugo voters is to see if any of the 326 stories in Paul’s list that aren’t remembered in our list are worth rediscovering. Our list shows the stories that have been remembered in major anthologies since 1943. So CSF Query reduces 326 down to 20. If you change the minimum citation to 2 and hit Search it reduces the number of stories to 7, showing the most popular SF stories remembered since 1943. In this case, our tool is useful for showing how often an SF story was remembered by fans and editors.

I also love to use CSF Query to look at years and decades, or which works by a particular author were their most remembered stories. By changing the citation level CSF Query can zero in on the most remembered SF stories.

Of course, just how many people will want to do this on any given day? Mike and I have been thinking about adding a new feature that would allow users to query the database by theme. That would allow readers who want to read all the most popular stories about colonizing Mars a way to find them. Trying to catalog all science fiction stories by their themes would be impossible, but I’ve thought it might be possible to do the 275 stories on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, and 139 books on the Classics of Science Fiction list. But researching 414 stories and deciding their themes would still be a huge task. It’s the kind of obsessive bibliographic undertaking that I would find pleasurable, but would it be all that useful to other people?

I believe having hobbies and projects in retirement are very important. Just existing every day consuming air, water, food, television shows, books, music, movies, etc. is pleasurable, but doesn’t make me look forward to the future. I like having a sense of building something, even if it’s tiny and only valued by me. But it’s even more rewarding when I create something useful to others, even if it’s only to a few people.

The other night I watched a documentary, Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, an obscure writer I’ve not read. I saw this preview and couldn’t resist buying it. Near the end, the documentary maker is interviewing Harlan Ellison and laments that not enough people read Clark Ashton Smith. Ellison tells him that it doesn’t matter how many people read CAS, the number is what it is, but he is important to the readers who have found him. Our retirement project is important to us and the people who actually like using it, no matter what that number turns out to be.

JWH

How to Read The Federalist Papers

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 15, 2019

As previously mentioned, my two-person book club has decided to study The Federalist Papers. Linda and I are two liberals who want to understand conservative philosophy and these 85 essays that began appearing in 1787 are considered essential to understanding how our union was formed while detailing the reach and limits of the federal government.

There are a number of problems in reading and understanding these essays. First, the language is 18th-century English can be difficult for modern readers. Second, it helps to understand the times in which they were written. This is before our Constitution was ratified. Back then, most nations on Earth were ruled by some kind of aristocracy, so we must envision a group of men theorizing how ordinary people could rule themselves. This is very radical. The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay under the pseudonym “Publius.” Basically, Hamilton in his introduction was telling the citizens of thirteen states there are great reasons for forming a union but if you can’t understand them then every state should go its own way.

What’s rather ironic is Publius wrote The Federalist Papers to justify a federal government, but modern conservatives often use these essays to justify limiting or reducing our federal government and increasing the rights of states. We could have been fifty different little countries instead of the United States. Uniting a group of separate countries is not easy, just look at what happened to the Soviet Union or is happening to the current European Union. Neither force, ideology, or economic interests is enough to bind peoples of smaller governments into larger nations. The Constitution is one successful example that is always under attack. Thus the reason to read and understand The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers are the foundations of our social contract. Conservatives want a smaller federal government, but the reasons to be governed are just as great at the local and state level. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay describe in great detail why we should agree to be governed and how to protect our freedoms from too much government and the dangers of those who want to govern.

I’ve just started to read The Federalist Papers and already see their vital importance. If you’ve ever complained about how society is run or offered your own utopian ideas on how to fix it, then you owe it to yourself to read The Federalist Papers. Publius gets down to the nitty-gritty details of the problems to be faced. This is the third reason why it’s so hard to read The Federalist Papers. A solution is almost impossible. No single human can think of all the angles and issues, and together we never agree perfectly.

Linda and I decided to spend this week trying to figure out the best way to read and study The Federalist Papers. Before we started this project we thought it was as simple as reading a book. It’s not. We then looked for books that explained The Federalist Papers or translated them into modern English with annotations. But even those books are tough going. There are many versions of The Federalist Papers. Some are straight reprints. Others organize the 85 essays into individual themes. We also considered picking a history book that covers everything related to the essays.

I’ve decided the best place to start is Wikipedia. Its entry for The Federalist Papers is detailed, concise, and easy to understand. Its Complete List entry offers links to explanatory essays for each of the 85 essays in The Federalist Papers. Starting with #1, which is Hamilton’s introduction, Wikipedia annotates essential quotes. It also links to each paper at Congress.gov, where the full-text can be read.

the federalist papers audio bookI’ve also decided to supplement this approach with The Federalist Papers (Amazon Classics Edition) audiobook from Audible.com and Brilliance Audio. Hearing James Anderson Foster narrate the papers helps me to understand the 18th-century sentence structure of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. You can hear a sample here. The sample also illustrates what it’s like to try to read The Federalist Papers. It seems obvious to me they were meant for oration. The meaning of some of these complex sentences is often revealed in the cadences of how they are spoken.

Linda and I usually read books in 50-100 pages a week and then spend an hour or so on the phone discussing what we’ve read. This is a very rewarding book club structure. However, it’s extremely doubtful we can go through The Federalist Papers at that pace. Hamilton’s first essay, the introduction deserves a whole week of study and discussion.

I feel we’ve been overly ambitious in wanting to read The Federalist Papers like some other book. I worry that we will give up. I feel it’s a project that will take a good deal of time, but if we do 1 of the 85 essays a week as an extra project, it might be possible to achieve our goal eventually.

JWH

Marie Kondoizing My Groundhog Day Loop

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 10, 2019

Do we ever change? Can we ever stop rolling Sisyphean dreams up a hill? Can we ever escape the hardwiring of our genes? Can we overcome the destiny of our unconscious impulses? My regular readers know I end up whining about the same exact fate over and over again. I feel like Bill Murray stuck in a Groundhog Day loop. It works something like this. I’ll write this essay to find a revelation of how to escape this loop. I’ll then try very hard to follow that insight. Over the next few weeks, I’ll get distracted by a growing number of other ambitions. I’ll get happily lost in frittering away my time in endless pursuits. Eventually, I’ll get exhausted chasing seventeen cats leoparding in twenty-seven directions. My real and virtual desks will overflow with aborted projects. Then the day will come, like today, when I decide I absolutely must Marie Kondo everything in my life. And finally, I’ll write this version of the essay. It will be much like the essays I’ve written before.

The last version I wrote back in June even has a nice mind map of all my diversions. My absolute, positively-no-matter-what conclusion was to always write fiction in the mornings. I diligently tried writing fiction for a while, but eventually, switched back to writing blogs. I told myself, “all you can ever be is a blog writer,” at which point I start working on more ambitious blogging projects that pile up in my drafts folder. Then the realization comes I can never juggle more than 1,500 words before an essay falls apart. I deeply realize the limits of my ability to focus. Then I start blaming all the physical clutter around me for not being able to concentrate.

Of course, in every iteration of the loop, I firmly feel I’ve discovered a new way out. Yet, is that illusory because I can’t remember all the other loops? This time the revelation is: the problem is not the clutter in my house, but the clutter in my mind that keeps me from focusing on my creative ambitions. The old belief was physical clutter caused mental clutter. The new idea is to Marie Kondo the mental clutter and I’ll naturally just start giving away the physical clutter.

When I’m in this phase of the loop I ache for simplicity. That’s why I crave Marie Kondoizing my possessions. I feel owning less will free my mind. I have fantasies of dwelling in one bare white room with no windows, a recliner, a few shelves of books, one desk, and one computer. I picture myself working on one writing project. When I’m tired, I sleep in the recliner. (In this fantasy, I somehow magically don’t need to eat or go to the bathroom.)

This time I feel different. I might have felt that before because my emotions loop too. However, I’ve been intermittent fasting for 100 days, and that has given me a new sense of discipline. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped eating junk food. Giving up junk food was far easier this time. Is it due to the discipline gained from intermittent fasting? It’s even affected my writing. This time I’m going to try to break the loop not by getting rid my junk, but my Marie Kondoizing my thoughts.

If I write this essay again in six months you’ll know this hypothesis was wrong.

The reason why I never break out of my Groundhog Day creative loop is that I can’t stick to my chosen single project. I’ve known for countless loops the solution is to focus on one project. However, for the last many iterations of the loop that I can remember, I pick the same science fiction short story to finish. I’ll commit to that goal, but after several days, I slowly get distracted by a bunch of other desires.

That happens because I begin believing I can chase more than one goal. I’ll slowly rediscover all those hobbies I’ve pursued in the past and start ordering crap from Amazon again (even though I’ve given all that crap away many times before in other loops). For example, I just bought a microscope because I wanted to study biology. I pricked my finger using a gadget for testing blood sugar levels, looked at my blood under the microscope, planned to go get some pond scum next, but got distracted by going bird watching with my wife instead, piddled with about a dozen other projects, and forgot all about the microscope, and my story.

I envy people who can relentlessly stick to doing one thing, even if it’s just watching TV all day. I wake up in the morning with the urge to accomplish a specific goal. This morning I woke up wanting to build a MySQL database to collect and organize all the themes of science fiction. This particular project could take weeks. Instead of writing on my story, I got sidetracked into databases. And before I could finish that project, I started two more.

Usually, while showering, I’ll come up with 2-4 ideas of things I want to do that day. So far today I’ve wanted to listen to “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury and write an essay about it. I also decided to read all I can about bodyweight exercises and develop a set of routines so I can get rid of my Bowflex machine and stationary bicycle. And I wanted to read the four issues of BBC Music I already own to see if I want to subscribe and dedicate myself to learning about classical music.

Getting old is increasing my desire to accomplish something substantial. I guess it’s the fear of not completing the only goal on my bucket list. I might live another 10-20 years if I’m lucky, but if I’m ever going to get any fiction published it better be soon. The odds are already against me now. My guestimate is only one in a million would-be writers sell their first story after 60, and and that goes down to one in a billion by 70. I’m 67. (By the way, if you’re young and reading this, start now!) I began writing classes in my fifties, and I’ve wondered why creative success is usually found only by the young. In my fifties, I didn’t feel that mentally different from my thirties, but all through my sixties, I’ve felt my mental and physical abilities dwindling. I’m beginning to understand how and why aging reduces our chances to succeed with new creative endeavors.

We lose impulse control as we age. It just becomes easier to follow the urge of the moment. The older I get the more I don’t give a damn about how I dress or what the house looks like to friends. And it’s so much easier to give into Ben & Jerry’s than to make a salad. And boy is it getting easier to believe dying fat is better than dieting.

But, the siren call of less is more philosophers keeps enchanting me, and I think I can escape the loop by giving away all my junk.

When it comes down to it, escaping this loop requires discipline. And discipline is hard to come by at age 67. I’ve always known I could break out of the loop by giving up. But I always come to the same conclusion: the only item on my bucket list is to sell a science fiction story. I wrote dozens of them in my fifties and failed to sell any. Should that failure tell me to stop trying or try harder? I keep thinking I should keep trying, but poor impulse control tells me that pursuing little pleasures is far nicer than embracing the delayed gratification for having one extra-large pleasure.

Up until now, the hope of breaking out of the loop was to make myself keep writing science fiction stories. Maybe the real exit strategy is to give up that goal.

Not yet.

JWH

 

Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 7, 2019

Former Senator Jeff Flake is a rational Republican. I’m a liberal, but I read his book because my friend Linda (another liberal) and I thought we should be reading some books by conservatives to balance our views. Jeff Flake is the kind of Republican I wish all Republicans were like. He doesn’t believe what I believe, but he’s at least sane and reasonable, with some integrity. And his book Conscience of a Conservative is a worthy read by anyone interested in current politics.

Flake tells us he’s a Goldwater/Reagan conservative and explains what that means. He then goes on to explain why the conservative movement has been corrupted by Donald Trump and his populist supporters. Flake’s book is really aimed at his fellow Republicans, and Flake even offers examples where he followed the party line and now considers himself wrong. He also regrets some of his votes he made solely to keep a perfect conservative voting record. One fascinating revelation was how Republicans vote no and pray yes. Flake even spends a chapter on the importance of bipartisan lawmaking. Much of what he writes is from a wise perspective, good political thinking for either party.

For years Flake took pride in always voting with his party. This made me think of a solution to solve our polarized politics. I’d like to see an amendment forcing Congress to compromise. I think every bill should pass by 50% of the whole voting body, with at least 25% from the minority party. That would mean if 100% of Republicans wanted to pass a law they’d at least need 25% of the Democrats. I’m tired of living in a society where half the voters are angry at the other half. If that’s too complicated we should require being governed by a 66% vote for all bills.

Flake’s book presents two essential problems for its readers. Flake wants Republicans to get back to their original conservative values. For liberals, we have a different problem to solve. We must identify the economic and societal problems that conservative philosophy fails to solve.

Flake subtitled his book, “A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” Flake’s hope is the Republican party will become a party that embraces all citizens. He’s a big tent Republican. He believes the conservative philosophy should appeal to all groups, not just to old WASPs. I believe that’s the primary failure of the Republican party, it’s goals don’t address all citizens.

As a liberal, my problem with Flake’s conservative idealism is he’s a true believer and his faith in conservatism is too simple-minded to solve our complex problems. Flake’s religious-like belief in free-market capitalism fails to see how it can’t work. If we had 100% free market capitalism with no regulation we would not have 100% employment, low taxes, and no need for social programs. We’d have a minority of rich people, a vast majority of poorer people, and a polluted planet going down the drain hole. Only worse than what we have now.

I believe capitalism is the only practical driver for economic growth, but I also believe it should be heavily regulated. We want steady-state capitalism, where growth is sustainable for both the economy and the environment. And we need enough socialism to support those people that capitalism can’t. The percentage of people who can’t thrive under capitalism will grow if we allow automation to run unchecked, eliminate collective bargaining, and keep accepting an ever-expanding wealth-inequality gap.

Flake’s book also inspires me to read two more works that conservatives admire. The Federalist Papers and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek. Flake spent a fair amount of his book explaining the foundation of his conservative beliefs. His book was inspired by Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. I’ve started reading it, but I’m not sure if the other two aren’t more important and relevant. However, I liked when Flake asked: “What would Goldwater Do?” His questions offer me hope if many conservatives are asking these questions too. Of course, this is also Flake’s direct attack on Donald Trump, but it also sums up his own beliefs too. Here are Flakes’s questions he’d ask Goldwater:

Would he have thought that it is conservative to abruptly abandon the core conservative belief of free trade with the world and break with multilateral trade agreements? Or abandoned established or pending trade deals, creating a void in the markets that are currently being filled by China, Russia, and even Mexico, just to name a few?

Is it conservative to believe in the magical thinking that suggests that we can ignore the growth in “entitlement” spending simply by declaring that our growth rate will reach at least 4 percent annually—growth that will make the Social Security Trust Fund flush again?

Is it conservative to play chicken with some of the most productive and important international alliances we have ever had?

Is it conservative to heap praise on dictators and to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents, and muse that the Chinese massacre of students at Tiananmen Square “shows you the power of strength”?

Is it conservative to attack and undermine the intelligence agencies that are essential to our national security and to attack their findings as “hoaxes”?

Is it conservative to vilify religious and ethnic minorities? To exaggerate threats and stoke security and economic fears? To promise that another sovereign country will be forced to pay for a border wall just because such a promise gets a good response at rallies?

Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue, to traffic in “alternative facts,” and to attack the constitutionally protected free press as the“enemy of the people”?

Is it conservative to propagate a conspiracy theory about the birthplace of the president of the United States, long after the facts have put the theory to rest? And is it conservative for members of Congress to remain silent as such conspiracy theories are propagated?

Is it conservative to undermine confidence in our democratic elections, to describe them as “rigged,” and assert with no evidence that three to five million illegal aliens voted in the last general election?

JWH

I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.

universal-phylogenetic-tree-showing-relationships-between-major-lineages-of-the-three

The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.

JWH

 

How Intermittent Fasting Improves Writing

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 3, 2019

I’ve been intermittent fasting for three months, doing the 16:8 system. My health and energy levels are much better. I’ve not lost weight, but then until January 1st, I ate all the junk food I wanted within my 8-hour eating period. But I didn’t gain weight either.  I stopped the junk food on New Year’s Day and I’m already losing weight.

However, one of the best side-effects of the fasting is on my writing.

I don’t know if I’m a better writer, but I do write more. I’ve discovered that writing makes me forget hunger. Everyone day as I wait for noon to roll around, I’m hungry, very hungry. My eating period is from 12:00pm to 8:00pm. I used to love eating an early breakfast, but if I start my eight hours too soon in the day, I can’t eat dinner with other people. So I wait till noon. This also works well, because I don’t get hungry before bed.

Writing makes me forget that I’m hungry. But I’ve got to write for hours because I’m hungry for hours. I look at the clock and tell myself, “Keep writing.” And it works. I do fill up on water, and that’s actually another healthy plus. And, my mind feels sharper when I’m hungry.

Is this what they mean by starving artists?

JWH

Why I Love Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 2, 2019

I’m sure I’ve consumed thousands of science fiction stories in the last sixty years if you count all the novels, short stories, movies, and television episodes. Now that’s something to think about. Especially, when you consider science fiction has a limited number of themes in its repertoire. Science fiction concepts are like legos, a finite set of building blocks to assemble an infinite number of stories. What makes our genre unique is the blending of the standard elements of storytelling; character, setting, plot, dialog, POV, description, with one or more science fictional themes.

Whether we call them themes, memes, ideas, or concepts, they’re each a unique mind-blowing concept that evokes a sense of wonder. Most are far from new, and even the latest popular concepts, such a brain downloading, are variations of older ideas. For example, I recently read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke that first appeared in the May 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s so chock-full of science fictional memes that I’ve made a game of identifying and counting them.

I liked reading this story so much I immediately reread it by listening to the audiobook version in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. In case you don’t own this story, you can read it online here, and listen to it here. It was Clarke’s first professional sale, and his second story to be published. In 2013 Escape Pod did a full-cast audio version and presented another online copy to read.

2018 was the year of the science fiction short story for me, reading twelve anthologies of classic SF tales. I expect I will continue the trend in 2019. More and more I’m paying attention to those science fiction building blocks, and I realize its the science fiction concepts that make me love science fiction. I’m realizing how important they’ve been to me over my entire lifetime. When I was young, those far-out ideas gave me hope for the future, and now that I’m older and wiser, I realize most of them won’t be coming true, at least in my lifetime. They are now a kind of legacy of desires.

I was especially impressed with “Rescue Party” because Clarke weaves so many different SF themes into one story. I’ve decided to write this essay and identify as many of them as possible. I might even start tracking science fictional ideas in a database. Looking back over my lifetime of reading science fiction, I see Sci-FI’s addictive properties comes from these sense-of-wonder concepts. They are the colors on an SF writer’s palette.

Forbidden Planet

Interstellar Exploration Ship

I believe today when fans think of interstellar exploration ships they first think of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Star Trek, but there were many examples of this idea before 1966. Ten years earlier, in 1956 there was Forbidden Planet and its starship C-57D. And ten years before that, in 1946, there was “Rescue Party” with its vessel the S9000. And even before that, in 1939, A. E. van Vogt began his Voyage of the Space Beagle stories with “Black Destroyer.” Science fiction writers have borrowed Darwin’s five years of scientific exploration on the sailing ship HMS Beagle many times. Instead of visiting distant lands and people, science fiction visits distant worlds and aliens. Instead of botany and biology inspiring the concept of evolution, astronomy, and cosmological events give cause to science fictional plots.

Belonging to the crew of a giant vessel exploring the galaxy is probably one of the more appealing fantasies in science fiction. Of course, most SF fans will picture themselves as the captain or one of the executive officers. Does anyone ever see themselves as a janitor on an interstellar ship?

Wikipedia has a long and fascinating article on interstellar travel. It describes the scientific details behind science fiction’s number one fantasy. As a kid watching Star Trek, the best possible future I could imagine for myself was traveling on an interstellar exploration ship. But after a lifetime of also reading science books, I doubt this concept will ever become real. I can picture this future for AI machines, but not us humans. In my old age, I fantasize about being an AI mind living for millions of years in a robotic probe of the galaxy.

Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clarke 2

Aliens POV

In most science fiction stories about aliens, we see them from the human perspective. In “Rescue Party” the aliens are the POV characters, and humans are the mystery of the story. I’m sure there are other SF stories based solely on the aliens’ POV, but they are rare and I can’t think of any others at the moment. Often, the alien is the enemy in science fiction, like the classic World of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. In the 1930s, many space opera stories had alien sidekicks. All too often, aliens are just humans with a few physical and mental quirks, like Spock and Worf.

The exciting challenge for science fiction writers is to come up with truly alien bodies and minds. The crew of S9000 in “Rescue Party” is quite diverse, but their distinguishing feature that makes them alien seems to be tentacles. The Paladorian is not an individual, but part of a collective, so it doesn’t have a singular consciousness. But the dialog of the other characters, who Clarke had to invent alien names like Alveron, Rugon, Orostron, Hansur, Klarten, Alarkane, T’sinaderee, and Tork-a-lee, still sound rather human even with their funny names and tentacles.

There have been several science fiction books where far from human alien-POVs have played a significant part of the story. Titles include Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, The Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Gray_lensman

Galactic Federation

The concept of a galactic federation is so widespread that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page. Again, we think of Star Trek. “Rescue Party” has a unique twist on the concept, because Clarke has an all-alien federation and humans are not in the federation yet. Of course, the original film of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel, and many other science fiction stories have galactic federations showing up and inviting us to join. I’ve never thought of this, but in Star Trek, did the humans create the federation, or join it?

Of course, most science fiction with galactic federations is humancentric. John W. Campbell, Jr., the famous editor of Astounding Science Fiction was adamant that our species should be the dominant life-form in the galaxy. If Arthur C. Clarke hadn’t provided the coda to “Rescue Party” I’m not sure Campbell would have bought his story.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The End of Humans

One of the most haunting scenes in all science fiction was at the end of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, when the time traveler went forward in time to that lonely beach and knew humans had become extinct. I’ve always considered The Time Machine to be the archetype of science fiction because it had so many intense science fictional concepts in one novella. I wonder if it inspired Clarke to write “Rescue Party.” In his story, he has aliens visiting Earth and only finding deserted cities and wondering if our species was extinct.

Individual humans can’t comprehend their own death. Most humans believe our species is the crown of creation and all of reality is about us. So it’s quite wonderful to imagine people gone and reality continuing without us.

One of my favorite senses of wonder is to contemplate Earth without people. I love the book and documentary The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

End of the Earth

The Dying Earth

Again, Wells in The Time Machine gave us the image of Earth dying. 19th-century science had predicted the sun would eventually become a red giant, so Wells merely extrapolated to that time. In “Rescue Party” the Earth is destroyed by a nova a few centuries from now. That’s not very likely, but Clarke needed a cataclysmic event to do us in. The destruction of the Earth is fairly rare in science fiction, but it does happen. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy starts off with the destruction of our planet for a hyperspace bypass.

I know there were billions of years before the Earth existed, and I know there will be a time when the Earth ceases to exist and billions of years will follow. Probably, there is an infinite amount of time before and after the Earth, so its existence is rather fleeting.

Clarke also uses the Moon as an indicator of impending doom in the same way Larry Niven used it in “Inconstant Moon.”

 

Deserted Cities of Extinct Beings and Abandon Automatic Machines

One of my great sense-of-wonder experiences came when reading After Worlds Collide by Wylie and Balmer when the Earth people were walking through the deserted alien city of Bronson Beta. I was in the 7th grade and just discovered science fiction was a separate genre. Humans walking through alien cities of extinct beings is one of my favorite science fiction themes, so when the aliens in “Rescue Party” walk through our deserted cities it made the story even better. Clarke must have like this image too because he also used it in Against the Fall of Night when Alvin takes the ancient automated subway to visit abandon parts of Diaspar. The same theme plays out in Forbidden Planet when the humans inspect the abandoned technology of the Krell. This meme was also used by John W. Campbell in his class story “Twilight.”

Hive mind

The Omega Point and Hive Minds

In “Rescue Party,” one of the alien races aboard S9000, called the Paladorians, believe all beings are evolving towards one hive mind that transcends the physical limitations of individual bodies. Olaf Stapledon used this in Star Maker, and Clarke used it more than once himself, including Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This reminds me of The Omega Point by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Clarke who was known as a hard science writer often speculated about mystical theories that come to us from religion. I’ve long thought that science fiction is a modern substitute for religion.

Most science fiction rejects the concept of the hive mind and even shows a fear of the concept. The Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation is our ultimate enemy. I don’t think Heinlein or Campbell could stomach the idea. That probably explains why Clarke was never famous as an Astounding Science Fiction author.

I recently read The Feed by Nick Windo Clark, which starts out in the near future where all humans have internet like technology added to their brain. I thought it was going to be a positive hive mind story but it quickly turned into a different plot.

Radio telescopes

Enigmatic SETI

In “Rescue Party” the aliens find radio telescopes left on Earth pointing to a place in the sky where there are no planets and sending rather enigmatic messages. Eventually, we learn the messages are being sent to a fleet of rockets leaving the solar system, and the radio telescopes are monitoring the destruction of the Earth by the nova. But this reminds me of how often science fiction has been about deciphering alien signals from space, or writings in deserted cities of extinct aliens.

Starship Troopers

Humans Are the Top Predator Species of the Galaxy

John W. Campbell and Robert A. Heinlein loved the idea that humans would be the top predator species of the galaxy. Campbell couldn’t stand stories where humans were portrayed as lesser beings to aliens. The ending of “Rescue Party” has the aliens discovering the fleet of humans moving away from the solar system, and they finally make contact with us. But there’s a hint that humans will be a danger to the federation in the future. I like to think that Clarke included that to get Campbell to buy the story.

There’s Many More

If I wanted to take the time and examine “Rescue Party” line-by-line I could find many more classic science fiction themes in this story.

I enjoyed the heck out of “Rescue Party.” I can honestly say it’s my favorite Arthur C. Clarke story. Many fans have told him that, which began to bother him. Here’s what Clarke said in one of his introductions:

I don’t believe I’ve reread it since its original appearance, and I refuse to do so now — for fear of discovering how little I have improved in almost four decades. Those who claim that it’s their favorite story get a cooler and cooler reception over the passing years.

Like I said, reading “Rescue Party” makes me want to start a database of science fictional ideas. I’m pretty sure there’s a finite supply of them, but I have no idea how small or large the set will be.

JWH

Update 1/3/19:

I reread this story again by listening to the Escape Pod full-cast audio version and noticed even more details. Rereading stories is very important. I’m learning fiction becomes much more multidimensional in my comprehension through rereading.

I also checked the Analytical Laboratory for August 1946 to see how readers back then thought of “Rescue Party.” I was disappointed it wasn’t a standout story for them. Campbell will usually talk about a new author if they get a lot of attention or he thought they were great when he first bought their story. And for most readers, a score of 3.00 suggests that “Rescue Party” was seldom anyone’s first or second favorite story. But Clarke soundly beat several popular authors of that era. Because no story stood out, readers probably thought it was a ho-hum issue.

Why does the story stand so much to me now, but wasn’t popular then?

AnLab Aug 1946