Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.

JWH

When Sense of Wonder Wanes

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.

Amazing-Stories-1928-Nov-small

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”

Jupiter-red-spot

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.

JWH

Reading Mentors

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Years ago, after reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell I contemplated how my life had been shaped by not having a mentor growing up. Looking back now, I see I had mentor-like encounters. My reading was guided by random external influences and that worked as a kind of mentorship. We expect teachers to be mentors, but they can’t, not really, not with so many students.

This is going to be a long essay to explain how I select books today to read and why. I feel compelled to jump back and write a history of my evolution of discovering what to read. Looking back, I wish I had known right from the first that some books are significantly better than others — that I should seek out the best. I also wish I had read from a wider range of subjects — that I could have had far more favorite subjects. And I wished I had learned at an early age that some books can be like junk food — making me addictive to empty calories.

Society expects schools to pick the best books for children, but I always rebelled against their choices. How can we raise kids to be better book selectors?

Bookstore reading

Can teachers ever select books perfectly customized for the individual student? How can teachers avoid turning off students by promoting the reading of unrelatable classics? How can parents and teachers overcome the urge to make kids read the books they loved so passionately but might not be relevant to their children’s lives? If only one book is taught in any given class period what are the odds that all the students will respond to it? Is the goal to teach reading – the ability to decipher fiction and nonfiction – or to teach kids how to find the right book that will provide them cognitive maps to reality? Are kids ever taught the dangers of reading? Are they ever warned that books can become a crippling addiction? Are they ever taught that books can spread dangerous beliefs, delusions, prejudices, hate, and lies? I wished I had learned those things early on.

It has occurred to me that how I found books have always influenced what I read. And what I read has always determined the direction of my life. Thus, I need to be more careful with how I find books. If you are not a bookworm you probably won’t understand this insight. Back in 1971 when I first took a computer course they taught us this acronym: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Before that, I remember hippies preaching, “You are what you eat.” From this, you might assume I’m about to write an essay on “You are what you read.” However, I’m going to take one step back and write, “You are what you find to read.”

The first book I can remember is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read it to me in the third grade (1959/60) after I had seen the film version with Wallace Beery. If my mother had chosen a different book for me I would have followed a different path as a bookworm? Both my parents were readers of tattered paperbacks. I remember mother reading Perry Mason and my father reading Mickey Spillane. Neither encouraged me and my sister to read. I guess they assumed our teachers would do that.

Evidently, at the end of the third grade, my teacher told my parents I had a reading problem and should attend summer school for reading. I vaguely remember going to a small, wedged shape room, probably a large closet rather than a classroom. The teacher told me to find a book and start reading. I went over to a twirling wire rack and found a small paperback titled Up Periscope. I started reading. It turns out I could read just fine. I don’t remember the summer school teacher ever giving lessons or even talking to him again. I was just bored by what they made us read in class. That twirling rack was an important book mentor and changed the direction of my life. The lesson I learned was I could pick my own books.

Starting in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades what I chose to read was determined by the school libraries and the physical locations where I came to browse. I was my own reading mentor. I remember always going to the beginning of the A’s of the kid’s section at Homestead Air Force Base Library in the 5th grade (1961/62). That got me reading Tom Swift (Appleton) and Oz books (Baum). Eventually, I worked up to the Hardy Boys (Dixon). I would have tried a greater variety of books if I hadn’t gotten hooked on series.

My sixth-grade (1962/63) teacher, Mrs. Saunders was the first teacher to be a book mentor. She’d read us books after lunch. I remember her starting A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and me rushing to the library after school and checking out a copy to finish on my own.

When I started the 7th grade (1963/64) at another school I found When Worlds Collide (Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie) again by browsing the beginning of a range. That simple routine was a reading mentor of sorts. By then I’d range up and down the alphabet looking for the kind of book I liked. I’d read a lot of so-so books. Books were like television or cookies, I consumed them as fast as I could. They were a commodity. I didn’t know there were great books. That’s when I could have used a reading mentor most. If only someone had only shown me how to find purpose in reading, rather than using reading for cheap thrills. If only a wise reader had shown me how to compare books to reality, or taught me about the quality of writing.

At this time I was fixated on space travel and biographies. I read for vicarious adventure. I found a numbered series that published cut-down biographies for children. I remember reading books about Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, PT-109 and John Kennedy, and Blackjack Pershing. The numbered series acted like a mentor to me because I wanted to read them all. It also showed me that some people are more interesting than others, worthy of being written about. I wish I had had a reading mentor that that taught me that living is better than reading. On my own, I decided reading life was superior to real life.

In the 6th and 7th grade, my schools gave us order forms for Scholastic Books. I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction but I was drawn to science fiction books. Because of Scholastic Books, I discovered Jules Verne and H. G. Wells (too far down the alphabet to discover on my own I guess). These were the first books I bought after begging my mother to write a check. This was my first taste of owning and keeping books. I wish I had had some way of knowing what the other books were like on the Scholastic list. This was my first time I encountered a book list or publisher’s catalog. In a way, the Scholastic sales flyer was a kind of reading mentor.

Scholastic Order Form 1963

If I had found different books in the As and Bs at Homestead Air Force Base Library I could have taken a different path. I picked the Oz books because of the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on television. Now that I am older I sometimes wish I had not started down the path of fantasy stories. I can see now that I didn’t pick what I chose to read. My tastes had already been shaped by television, which makes it another kind of mentor.

The first person to truly influence my reading was my 8th grade (1964/65) teacher. I’m sad I can’t remember her name because she was very important. She had an approved reading list. To keep the grade we earned from tests during each six week period we had to read three books, three magazine articles, and three newspaper articles — otherwise, our grade was dropped one letter. We could raise our grade each period if we read five of each. Eighth grade was the year I struggled with grammar, so I was able to turn my Cs into Bs by reading. This teacher is memorable for two reasons. She introduced me to Robert A. Heinlein and got me to read books other than science fiction. She also taught me library research and how to make bibliographic lists. This teacher couldn’t be a personalized reading mentor to all her class sections, so she worked out a method of inspiring reading and allowing us to choose our own books from an approved list.

Because I asked a librarian about Heinlein, I was shown the adult science fiction section at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. It was small, only two half-height bookcases of four shelves each. Those shelves shaped my reading for a year. Again, a limited set of books becomes a reading mentor.

In the 9th grade (1965/66) I started earning money mowing lawns and babysitting. This got me into buying albums and books. Having money and a bike let me ride to used bookstores. Because I was a science fiction fan I mainly bought books from the science fiction section. I could only afford cheap books. I mainly bought ten-cent used paperbacks that were very old. That limitation was a kind of reading mentor. I mass-consumed science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s. Even today I realize that shaped my personality more than anything else.

It’s a shame I didn’t know better. I should have read more widely. In junior high, I did branch into nonfiction reading books about science, nature, space travel, exploration, history, maps, sailing, etc., but it was still a limited focus.

In the 10th grade (1966/67) I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This defined my reading for years. Also in the 10th grade, while going to school in Mississippi that only required 16 credits to graduate, I had two library study halls in a six-period day. Science fiction was rare in Charleston, Mississippi, so I began reading more nonfiction.

In the 11th and 12th grade I worked and went to school so I stopped watching television and got little reading done. (This also became true after I got married and worked full time.) Being a bookworm requires the luxury of time.

In the 1970s while in college, I joined the Book of the Month Club and The Quality Paperback Book Club. This broadened my reading somewhat. So these book clubs became reading mentors. Book clubs allowed me to acquire hardbacks at a discount, but the two monthly selections also became a reading mentor too.

By this time I was regularly reading the science fiction magazines, F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, If, Amazing, and Fantastic. These periodicals had book reviews, and they became another reading mentor. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, I read a review of Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin. That started me reading books about books. However, I seldom branched out of science fiction. It wasn’t until I became an English major in the later 1970s that I began studying books outside the genre. But even then I rebelled against what my professors wanted me to read. For every required classic I was forced to read to pass a test, I read ten or twenty books of my own choosing.

Unfortunately, most of the books I chose were science fiction, with a smattering of popular science and biographies. Now let’s jump ahead about thirty years. Amazon.com changed my reading habits a lot. But what really changed my reading habits was Audible.com. From listening to books read by wonderful narrators I learned I was a very poor reader myself. I also discovered my poor reading habits caused me to read too fast and love books that could be read fast. Once I started listening to books I tried all kinds of novels and nonfiction I would never have enjoyed before. Suddenly, I loved 19th-century novels. Ones that previously had turned me off by all the slow tedious descriptive bits. I also got into long rambling nonfiction books.

I have to say audiobooks have been my best reading mentor. I was reading around 12-20 books a year during the 1980s and 1990s. Mainly because of work and being married. From 1963-1973 I probably read several books a week. From 2002-2017 I read one book a week, or about 52 a year, mostly because of Audible.com. Not only did I read (listen) to more books, my range of reading topics exploded like a nova.

Then around ten years ago, I started blogging and writing about books. I began to think more about what reading meant. I read more book reviews. The internet gave me access to book commentary from all over the globe. I read blogs by other bookworms and discovered whole reading vistas I had missed. Sites devoted to books and reading maniacs showed me countless paths other bookworms had taken.

Since the 1980s I’ve been fascinated by meta-lists. I created one for science fiction, first for a fanzine, and then for the internet. Since then I’ve found others creating general fiction meta-lists, like The Greatest Books, or even collections of meta-lists like Worlds Without End. These are another kind of reading mentor.

Then there is Goodreads and Listopia where millions of readers gather to discuss books. I can even browse what books family, friends, strangers, and famous people read. That’s another kind of mentor.

Finally, in recent years I’ve been greatly influenced by Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, and especially meta-lists that collect them all together. For example, here is “The Ultimate Best Books of 2017 List,” a meta-list created by Emily Temple, where she combined 35 lists covering 520 different recommended books. These annual lists have been getting me to read 6-10 books each year I never would have tried before, and often they turn out to be the very best books I read in the year.

In conjunction with the Best-of-the-Year meta-lists is ebook bargain sales. I subscribe to a half-dozen email newsletters that tell me what books are on sale each day as ebooks. I’ve already bought three books from Temple’s 2017 list. It’s hard to resist trying a book that is on ten or more Best-Books-of-the-Year lists for only $1.99. That makes for a powerful reading mentor.

It turns out the wisdom of crowds is true. It might make the best reading mentor of all I believe. I would think if kids in school had access to meta-lists of books kids like themselves were recommending it might be an excellent mentor to aid teachers.

It would be great to have had a human reading mentor growing up. To be honest, I was never trustful of grownups as a kid. I was a know-it-all little schmuck who wanted to make my own decisions, even if they were bad. I was greatly inspired by my peers, but let’s be truthful here too, my peers were not that wise. We were all too influenced by trends. Plus, I became addicted to science fiction at an early age, which made me ignore most everything else to read.

A while back I wrote, “What 12 Books Would You Give Your 12-Year-Old Self.” Even if I had a time machine I doubt I could have been much of a mentor to my younger self. We all wish we had known what we know now back then, but we forget that most of us are hard of hearing when it comes to taking advice. Today’s kids seem more connected to their parents than kids of my generation. Maybe today parents can be mentors. Rich folks have always been great mentors to their children. I do believe Malcolm Gladwell was right in Outliers that the kids who succeed in life start early and have mentors.

We try to design education curriculums that has the wisdom of mentors, but I’m not sure if such one-size teaches all plans can ever succeed. We know the internet inspires both good and bad in children but will we ever be able to channel its chaos? I wonder if kids can find other kids on the internet who could act as their reading mentors and provide the kind of wisdom I missed growing up. Teachers might try to catalog the best young adult bloggers to show their students. And I assume the internet allows teachers to be far more in tune with their students than teachers of my era.

JWH

 

 

 

 

2017 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 30, 2017

This is my year of reading less. I only read 36 books in 2017, down from 55 last year. Two factors came into play causing me to read less. One is related to aging, and that was totally unexpected. I just can’t read for hours and hours like I used to when I was young. Partly, I have other things I want to do more, and partly because of a diminished ability to concentrate. I also read less because I chose to read less in 2017. I made the conscious decision to stop reading any book where I lost interest. I use to power through so I could add the title to my books read list. (See “Year in Reading” for my past summaries.)

I decided it’s silly to judge my reading by quantity. For decades I’ve loved increasing my yearly books read count like some folks love to brag about how many miles per gallon their car gets. At one point this year I got within 15 pages of finishing a 300-page book when I decided to quit reading. I realized I was pushing myself through the book just so I could add it to the year’s books read count. I returned it to the library.

Book of the Year 2017

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

I read some impressive books this year, both fiction and nonfiction, but Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen stood out. Of course, 2017 was the year of Donald Trump and Fantasyland did more than anything I read to explain that insanity. Just that fact pushed Andersen’s book to the top of my list. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg also worked well to explain the nastiness of 2017.

Two other nonfiction books stood out as powerful reads, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal and In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. I couldn’t get any of my friends interested in a book about healthcare costs, but it was fascinating. The Faludi book was a memoir about her learning her estranged father had become a woman and had moved to Budapest. On the surface, the book appears to be about transgenderism, but I found it fascinating because it was about identity in general. It also compared right-wing politics in Hungary to alt-right America, and that was very revealing for 2017.

Best Novel Read This Year

Love-in-the-Time-of-Cholera

I read Love in the Time of Cholera for a book club. I’ve owned it for years. It was one of those books I’ve always thought I should read. I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s large and complex and I will probably need to read it a couple more times before I start to understand Gabriel García Márquez intent for his story.

My 19th-century novel this year was Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Even though this story was mostly philosophizing about how to turn the United States into a utopia it was a compelling read. I can understand why it was the #3 bestseller in America for the 1800s. It’s a shame that science fiction and society has given up on utopias, favoring dystopias instead. Pessimism prevails.

I only read 15 novels this year (and a few short story collections). I’m slowly switching to reading more nonfiction. My goal in recent years for fiction is to go for quality over quantity. I can’t say that most of the novels I read this year were great literary works, but they meant something to me. Anne of Green Gables was a pleasant surprise. I read it because I enjoyed Anne With An E so much on Netflix. I reread Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and I’m still very impressed. I believe it’s a forgotten classic of science fiction. I read two novels by John Wyndham this year, both were entertaining. They made me realize I like cozy science fiction.

The two most well known 2017 science fiction novels I read, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and Artemis by Andy Weir, were sharp contrasts in speculation. Both were page-turners, but I admired Robinson for his extrapolation and I was horrified by what Weir imagined for a lunar colony. I hated that Weir’s protagonist was a smuggler and saboteur. Jazz deserved to be thrown out the airlock without a spacesuit for her deeds. Basically, my reaction to Artemis was the revulsion of Republican cut-throat capitalism would be replicated on the Moon. Weir might be realistic, but I hope we can design better societies the Moon and Mars than we what have on Earth. If we’re just going to spread our cancerous ways to other planets I’d rather let robots have the final frontier.

I started the Bobiverse trilogy with great enthusiasm, but once again I learned that I just don’t like trilogies. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor is a really fun science fiction story, full of recursive science fiction referencing. And even though the second and third books in the series continued to be fun, the novelty of the story wore off. I know trilogies are loved by SF fans, but I love science fiction for its ideas. Trilogies and series generally take the same idea and work it to death. (Personally, I think trilogies and series are the Big Macs and Fries of publishing.)

Best Science Fiction Read This Year

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Arcadia by Iain Pears is a 2015 novel that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I don’t want to say too much about the story because I don’t want to spoil any of its cleverness. Let’s just say Pears combined fantasy, science fiction, meta-fiction, philosophy, religion, myths, and literary allusions into one complex plot. There’s even an app version which allows readers to choose their path through the plot. Arcadia would make a terrific movie. Arcadia is a very British novel about novel writing. If you loved The Golden Compass or Cloud Atlas I’d think you’ll love Arcadia. However, Arcadia is weak when it comes to psychological substance. It’s fun but not deep.

Books Read 2017

Leslie M. M. Blume Everybody Behaved Badly 2017-01-07 Audible 2016
Margot Lee Shetterly Hidden Figures 2017-01-27 Kindle ebook 2016
Nancy Isenberg White Trash 2017-01-27 Audible 2016
Mary Karr The Art of Memoir 2017-02-02 Audible 2015
Angela Duckworth Grit 2017-02-08 Library hardback 2016
Joshua Becker The More of Less 2017-02-11 Audible 2016
Bernd Heinrich One Wild Bird at a Time 2017-02-18 Audible 2016
H. Beam Piper Little Fuzzy 2017-02-19 Kindle ebook 1962
Fredrik Backman A Man Called Ove 2017-02-28 Audible 2013
Charles Wohlforth, Amanda Hendrix Beyond Earth 2017-03-07 Audible 2016
Kim Stanley Robinson New York 2140 2017-03-30 Audible 2017
Robert A. Heinlein Have Space Suit – Will Travel 2017-04-30 Audible 1958
John Wyndham The Chrysalids 2017-05-12 Audible 1955
Kathleen Tessaro The Perfume Collector 2017-05-18 Trade paper 2013
Olaf Stapledon Star Maker 2017-06-22 Audible 1937
Yuval Noah Harari Homo Deus 2017-06-30 Audible 2017
Philip K. Dick The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Volume 2 2017-07-17 Audible 1983
Dennis E. Taylor We Are Legion (We Are Bob) 2017-07-21 Audible 2016
Dennis E. Taylor For We Are Many 2017-07-27 Audible 2017
L. M. Montgomery Anne of Green Gables 2017-08-10 Audible 1908
Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera 2017-08-17 Audible 1985
Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth 2017-08-26 Downpour 1970
Susan Faludi In the Darkroom 2017-08-30 Kindle ebook 2016
Robert Sheckley Untouched by Human Hands 2017-09-15 Downpour 1954
Mark O’Connell To Be A Machine 2017-09-22 Hardback 2017
Elisabeth Rosenthal An American Sickness 2017-10-04 Kindle ebook 2017
Allan Kaster The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2017-10-04 Audible 2017
Al Franken Giant of the Senate 2017-10-11 Audible 2017
Michael Sims editor Frankenstein Dreams 2017-10-23 Audible 2017
John Wyndham Chocky 2017-10-25 Audible 1968
Robert A. Heinlein Expanded Universe 2017-10-26 Downpour 1980
Kurt Andersen Fantasyland 2017-11-08 Audible 2017
Edward Bellamy Looking Backward 2017-11-15 Audible 1888
Andy Weir Artemis 2017-11-24 Audible 2017
Dennis E. Taylor All These Worlds 2017-11-30 Audible 2017
Iain Pears Arcadia 2017-12-31 Audible 2015

Reading Goals for 2018

I really enjoy discovering relevant nonfiction books like Fantasyland or An American Sickness that explain contemporary issues, so I want to keep reading more new books as they come out during the year. I read eleven 2017 books in 2017. I think I’ll aim for one new book a month.

I also want to read more quality literary novels. I’m not sure how many I can handle though, so let’s aim for three to six next year.

Even though I feel like I read too much science fiction I still enjoy it. I like discovering both new and old SF novels. But I hope to keep my obsession in check and read only six to twelve of them in 2018. One science fiction book a month at most is enough I think.

This is what I wrote for my goal last year: “My goal for 2017 is to try and read more nonfiction, especially new books. I’m not going to worry about how many works of fiction I read, but I do want to work harder at finding the best fiction possible. I also want to stop reading mediocre books.” I think I’ve done fairly well. I probably should have quit the Taylor trilogy after the first book, and stopped reading Artemis after I realized I disliked it. I kept reading hoping Weir would redeem Jazz in some way, but he just kept making her a worse person.

My reading goals for 2018 is to read with more conscious intent and to get more out of what I read. I also hope to buy far fewer books. I have a nasty book-buying habit. I tend to buy 10-15 for every one I read. I want to stop that.

JWH

 

 

How Quickly Do Ideas Spread?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 2, 2017

In 2009 group of environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen proposed the idea of planetary boundaries. They defined nine indicators to monitor Earth’s environmental stability. In 2009 we had not crossed any of the nine boundaries, but by 2017 we had crossed four. Everyone knows about boundary number one – climate change – but do you know the other eight? I may have heard of planetary boundaries before in the popular science books I read, but it feels like I just discovered this concept when I read Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman. So, it took me eight years to encounter this concept since it was first created. That’s not too bad. How long will it take this idea to spread to everyone? Have you heard of planetary boundaries?

book-big-world-small-planet (1)Johan Rockström came out with a textbook, Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries in 2012, but I rarely buy textbooks (the Kindle edition is $45!), but even if I did, I’m not sure I’d find them readable because of my knowledge level. Rockström did come out with a popular science level book, Big World, Small Planet in 2015, which I do wish I had discovered. How often do we buy new books with new ideas when they first come out? (I ordered it today, even though I’m two years late.)

The first laser was built in 1960. I read about it in Popular Science sometime in the mid-60s. I got to see one in 1967 at a science museum in Miami. In the 1980s I finally got to own one when I bought my first CD player. So it took about a quarter century to spread laser technology to the masses.

On the other hand, it took algebra thousands of years to finally get to me in 1963. In fact, most of what I know is pretty damn old. I finally learn about calculus in the early 1970s, when its concepts were only as old as Newton and Leibnitz. I guess astronomy is the science I’m most up-to-date with, and I’m sure I’m years behind and only know its discoveries in the most rudimentary of ways.

The concept of climate change has taken decades to spread through society and it’s often rejected. How long will it take other planetary boundaries to become universally known and affect political action? Even with the speed of the internet we just don’t seem to learn new ideas quickly enough. Most people are stuck on religious ideas proposed thousands of years ago which have been completely invalidated by later knowledge.

And, we forget so much knowledge! My awareness of mathematical concepts has de-evolved to a time before the classical Greeks. To make matters worse, Republicans seem hellbent on rejecting science. Even if knowledge flows freely and fast around the internet there are barriers to absorbing it.

The concept of planetary boundaries is essential to our survival. And I bet there are way more the nine boundaries – that’s just the number scientists are working with now. (Of course, there might already be a new number and I won’t acquire it for a few more years.)

I’m looking for the best popular science books on the nine boundaries. Read about them at Wikipedia but here’s the table they use to define them. (Hope it’s okay to copy.) If you’ve read good popular science books on each that you’d highly recommend, let me know. I consider This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein to be the best book for boundary #1, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for boundary #2. But I’m having trouble finding bestsellers that focus on boundaries 3-9.

9-planetary-boundaries

JWH

Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH

Cozy Science Fiction: Chocky by John Wyndham

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017

What makes for good storytelling? How is a science fiction story different from other kinds of stories? Chocky, John Wyndham’s last novel published in 1968 is a story about a David and Mary Gore and their two children Matthew and Polly, living in England in what appears to be the quainter side of the 1960s. I imagine its time and setting looking somewhat like the Father Brown mysteries on PBS. The story is told by David. It’s rather prosaic, with a light literary touch. David relates how he met Mary. How she came from a big family and the pressure they felt to have a big family too. When they apparently can’t they adopted Matthew. Then, Polly, a girl is born. The story jumps ahead a few years to give the history Polly’s imaginary friend when she was four, and how that problem was resolved. Then the story jumps again to the present when Matthew is twelve, much too old for imaginary friends, and how he acquires one anyway. Most of the novel is about the family difficulties caused by Chocky, Matthew’s mysterious invisible companion.

Chocky by John Wyndham

Wyndham’s novel Chocky could be considered a mainstream literary novel, a nice quiet little story about family life in mid-century England. What makes it science fiction is who we think Chocky might be. The mystery genre has a sub-genre called cozy mysteries. Chocky could be a cozy science fiction novel. But what does that mean? There’s already a sub-genre in science fiction called cozy catastrophes. Many of them are by English writers by the way, and I believe many cozy mysteries are set in England too, but an Anglophile appeal is not a defining attribute of a cozy novel.

I’m sure there is no international standard for cozy novels but for me, the size of the setting, number of characters, and scope of the plot are important factors. So a story about a single alien invader impacting one family makes it a cozy tale. I guess that also makes E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial a cozy, but Chocky is much smaller and quieter than that story. The story loudness knob for science fiction movies is usually cranked to 11. Gattaca and Her being level 3 exceptions. Chocky is about a 1 or 2, and I found that exceedingly pleasant.

I’m not sure if science fiction fans even crave cozy science fiction novels. Science fiction plots are inherently big, thundering, and exciting. Mostly mystery fans who love cozy mysteries love them because they are quiet, with simple murders usually solved by ordinary folks, with tame storytelling for sex, violence, and crude language. Chocky fits that bill nicely. Chocky is currently in print from NYRB Classics, the prestigious paperback line from New York Review of Books. As of today, NYRB Classics only publishes 13 science fiction novels, most of which are on the quiet side, and many from England. Maybe the NYRB editors admire cozy science fiction too.

I doubt Wyndham intended Chocky to have an ambiguous ending, but if you were skeptical and tried hard, the science fiction could be removed the story. I imagine if there were a sub-genre cozy science fiction, that would be one of the defining characteristics, the science fictional element would be painted lightly onto a story of ordinary life. Examples might be The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker or Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, both gentle post-apocalyptic tales that are a far cry from Mad Max rip-roaring tales of civilization’s collapse where it’s kosher to blast away anyone you want with your modified AK-15.

When I was younger I loved loud science fiction. Now I’m drawn to the cozier side of its storytelling. I think loud storytelling, both in books and movies became popular in the 1960s. I love westerns and constantly seek out old ones, and I’ve discovered the kind I like best were made in the late forties into the middle fifties. Westerns are a genre that depends on violence, but starting in the late 1950s they began cranking up the violence too until they became a kind of gun-porn by the 1960s. Special effects, relentless action, and comic book violence have ruined movie science fiction for me. I guess that’s why I enjoyed discovering Chocky so much.

Be sure and read Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the new edition of Chocky, “Chocky, the Kindly Body Snatcher.”

JWH