Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Will the Real Charles Dickens, Please Stand Up?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018

The other night I saw The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film about how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. When it was over I asked myself: How much of it was true? I’ve read one short biography of Dickens in the past, Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley. So I knew some details in the movie were based on truth. But I doubted its facts fit history in the same way the screenwriter presented them.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

After watching the film, I read Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a novel by Samantha Silva. Silva spent fifteen years working on this story, originally written as a screenplay. Her novel featured a more complicated story than the film The Man Who Invented Christmas but invents and fictionalizes a great deal more. The movie is lighthearted and fun, focusing on Dickens’ economic problems and how they inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in a few weeks. The film shows Dickens being haunted by the imaginary characters he created, and I’m sure that’s how many readers picture writers discovering their characters.

Silva’s novel creates a made-up fantasy life for Dickens, that worked to explain the psychological needs that drove him to write A Christmas CarolMr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva does not even attempt to be historically accurate, creating a fantasy about writing a fantasy. Although her novel was entertaining enough to keep me reading, I was never sure if it was ethical just to make up a fictional alternate history for a real person. Isn’t it a kind of flattering libel? Isn’t it just cashing in on another writer’s fame? Dickens might have loved it, and he might not, but I believe he’d likely want a cut of the royalties.

The film had questionable points too. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of novels and movies based on real lives. I find them both compelling and disturbing. I feel we need to ask hard questions about fictionalize biographies?

  • Should we expect biographical fiction to be essentially true?
  • Aren’t these writers just cashing in on famous names?
  • What responsibilities do historical fiction writers have for teaching history?
  • Should we assume all fictional history is just fun fantasy?
  • Is it fair to historical people to remember them as fantasy characters?
  • How do we verify the fictional facts?

With two competing fictional biographies covering the same event, I felt compelled to hunt down facts.

The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. This book covers recorded history. But should we assume since the movie is based on it, the movie will be historically accurate? Like novelists, screenwriters invent, and both are selling entertainment to make a buck. My guess is most of the movie is made up.

Now I needed real history to judge my fictional histories. I got out my unread copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a substantial biography. The Dickens I found here for 1843 was completely unlike to two fictional Dickens in 2018. Sure, some of its details were sprinkled in the two fictional stories but Tomalin’s black and white facts did not paint either colorful Dickens I saw in the film or novel. And each of the colorful Dickens is distinctly different too. For example, in one Dickens confides to his groom, and in another to a young maid. In one, his wife is part of the story, and in the other Dickens’ wife is conveniently shuttled off to Scotland. In each, we meet two different inspirations for Tiny Tim. In one, Dickens is the spendthrift, in the other, Dickens blames his wife.

I’d like to think when I read a historical novel or watch a historical film, I’m actually learning history. But whenever I read history books after imbibing a fictional version of the past, I’m always disappointed. Last year, both Dunkirk and The Crown felt very real historically, but were they? I haven’t read anything to verify them yet.

My memory of Dickens will always be historically corrupted by the visual Dickens of the film, played by a charming Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey fame). Silva’s fantasy Dickens will always intrude when I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Is either fair to the real Charles Dickens? Don’t I have a duty to study the recorded facts we have on Charles Dickens? Will the real Charles Dickens, please stand up? Or will we always create an endless parade of make-believe Charles Dickens?

I found both Inventing Scrooge by Carlo DeVito, a well-reviewed book on the specific subject, and the non-fiction book version of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, to be more digestible than the Tomalin biography for knowing how Dickens wrote his most famous story. Her biography was too large, complex, and detailed. I’m not ready for her graduate course just yet, but what I read was damn impressive.

I do want to know the real Charles Dickens. But I found comparing the two nonfiction books on the writing of A Christmas Carol to be revealing about the struggle to understand history. Nonfiction writers must speculate too, even if it’s just in the way they present their facts. When reading nonfiction we must also distrust what we read. We should always be skeptical.

I found the two fictionalize Dickens very entertaining. I don’t think they shouldn’t exist. However, I would say we should never enjoy a fictional account without balancing it with a nonfictional account. To answer my questions:

  • Never assume any fact in fiction is true.
  • Yes, writers are cashing in by using ready-made, well-known characters.
  • Novelists who write historical fiction should always produce an afterward that explain their research and delineate their speculation.
  • Assume all historical fiction is fun and we should get real history from nonfiction.
  • I bet most historical figures would be horrified and amused by how they are remembered. Many would be mad enough to sue if we time traveled them to the present. Which probably explains why so many want their letters and papers burned, or why they work so hard to preserve them.
  • The only way to verify fictional facts is to read multiple nonfictional sources. We can never know what historically happened. There are real people that I’ve read many biographies written about them, and I’d say four is the minimum to start getting a decent feeling for what they might have been like. And that’s only a might of.

Then, I saw another historical film, Mary Shelley (2017). Even though this was a bomb at the box office, I greatly admired it. I really wanted to believe it was true. My wife and I both enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and we didn’t fathom why it’s gotten such a low Rotten Tomato score of 36%.

I want to believe Mary Shelley accurately portrayed Mary Shelley because it shows her as a determined, strong-willed woman, that succeeds against a culture that wanted to crush her. If we love a story about history, we want it to be the truth, don’t we? The film makes me want to know more about the real creator of Frankenstein’s monster and the author of the first real science fiction novel. I guess that impulse is a credit to historical fiction.

Now I need to go read In Search of Mary Shelley, a new biography by Fiona Sampson.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Mary Shelley 2017

JWH

 

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

The Resurrection of Lady Dorthy Mills

by James Wallace Harris

[I’m reprinting some of my Book Riot essays to archive here on my blog.]

lady_dorothy_portrait-651x1024Her name was Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole Mills. Born in London, 1889, died in Brighton, 1959. Lady Dorothy Mills published nine novels, five travel books, and one memoir, achieving moderate fame in the 1920s and early 1930s as a British aristocratic woman who traveled alone to Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Her books are decades out-of-print, and she is almost completely forgotten. Lady Dorothy Mills should be resurrected, but copyright law has buried her.

Watching Downton Abbey illustrates Lady Dorothy’s upbringing. She was Lady Mary’s age. Her father was Robert Horace Walpole, the 5thand final Earl of Orford. Like the fictional Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, Lord Walpole married a rich American woman, Louise Melissa Corbin, and only had surviving daughters. He even had to leave his estate to a male relative. Lady Dorothy married Capt. Arthur Mills in 1916, against the family’s wishes, and was cut off from their wealth. Lord Walpole was not as forgiving of a wayward daughter as Lord Grantham.

For those who want more details about her aristocratic life, read “Lady Dorothy… writer, traveler – and free spirit” by Jane Dismore. This is the most comprehensive overview of Mill’s life I’ve found in twenty-four years.

Choosing love over inheritance meant learning to live without servants and being poor. Arthur and Dorothy took up writing to survive. At first Lady Dorothy wrote novels about her society set encountering the seamier side of London. Then she wrote The Road to Timbuktu, a nonfiction book promoting herself as a brave Lady going to places that no white woman had gone before. That got her fame. Of course, western women have been marching across Africa for years. Read Great Women Travel Writers: From 1750 to the Present by Alba Amoia and Bettina Knapp.

As a couple, Dorothy and Arthur were popular with newspaper writers, but Mills’s novels never received much respect from reviewers as her travel books. She was dismissed as a writer for shop girls. Men told her she was reckless for going places women shouldn’t. But Lady Dorothy inspired young women in the 1920s, who also dreamed of adventure, romance, and faraway places. Mills gain notoriety just after women got the vote in England and America, and Lady Dorothy did things that few men did, and many men dreamed of doing.

Her novels were exciting too, writing about safaris, jungle Shangri-las, hunting, opium dens, love affairs with Asians and Africans, living among indigenous people while claiming she had the freedom to go anywhere she damned pleased. A few of her novels used science fiction and fantasy concepts. Lady Dorothy was brave in action and thought.

After 1932. Mills went silent, eventually retiring to a quiet seaside village in England, dying alone in 1959. The mystery of why she stopped writing has always haunted me. Her books disappeared from bookstores decades ago. Few copies of her work are on sale at rare book dealers. Copyright law keeps them from being rescued by the public domain. Three of her earliest novels may be in the public domain, but it is very difficult to tell.

Lady-Dorothy-Mills-from-Library-of-CongressToday, Lady Dorothy is barely remembered, mostly in esoteric history books. She receives just a few sentences or paragraphs in each. History writers use her fiction and nonfiction to document social changes between the wars. Mills lived on the edge, during a decade on the edge. Lady Dorothy sported men’s attire long before Garbo and Dietrich wore it in 1930s movies, not because of style, but because she was competing with the other creatures who wore coats and ties.

In 1926, Lady Dorothy published Phoenix, a science fiction novel about an elderly woman medically rejuvenated to look twenty. Seventy years later, Bruce Sterling had the same idea for his novel, Holy FireIs Phoenix missing from the SF Mistressworks list because it’s a bad book, or because few readers after 1930 got a chance to read it? When does copyright hurt an author?

Since 1992, I’ve been collecting Lady Dorothy’s books, writing about her, and maintaining a website. Every year or two I used to get an email from rare souls who have stumbled across her name. In the last few years, it’s been damn quiet. If her work had been on Project Gutenberg would things be different? Would she have more readers?

There’s a scene at the end of Truffaut’s beautiful film, Fahrenheit 451, where the book people walk through woods memorizing the volume they intend to become. That’s how I think about Lady Dorothy Mills. My dedication is to remember her. I’ve been able to collect twelve of her fifteen books. One, Arms of the Sun, has been for sale for years, but I can’t afford it. That hurts. I’ve even wondered if my writing about Lady Dorothy Mills has driven up their price.

I keep hoping her heirs would put out a collected ebook edition of her work, with distinctive covers using old photographs. At a minimum, I wish the copyright laws were different so fans could scan her books for the public domain.

I’ve long wondered why Lady Dorothy Mills never had her books reprinted. Did inheriting her wealth require giving up writing? Was she an embarrassment to her aristocratic family? Did dismissals in the press turn her against public life? Could she have written just for money? It seems telling when her father died, and she inherited, Lady Dorothy stopped writing? She did continue to travel, but not write.

After traveling far more roads than Jack Kerouac, and exploring more jungles, deserts, and mountains than most male adventure novelists, maybe Lady Dorothy tired of fame. She had passed forty. Why did she choose to disappear, forget writing, and let her books be forgotten? I can’t stop asking that.

Her family had treated her badly. So did her husband. And some book reviewers. Although, I’ve been told by a modern scholar comparing her travel book on Liberia to university-sponsored expeditions during the same years, that she did very well. Lady Dorothy traveled to distant lands, it seems to me, to get away from her 1920s society. Her books show hard-won knowledge and revelation. I can’t understand why she didn’t push to keep them in print. Many of her books received multiple printings and editions before 1932.

In A Different Drummer (1930) she describes the state of mind she found when she was far away from civilization:

“However healthy a love one may have of civilization and all its fleshpots, the best thrill of the year is when one leaves them all behind, and sets off for the unknown with a lot of lumpy luggage that contains hardly any clothes at all. It is good to feel that one has left one’s little niche in the everyday world, where each one of us is assessed and tabulated to a nicety; to slough off one’s everyday accepted self, and to lose oneself in the anonymity of a strange country and people, among whom one has to make good solely by the leverage of one’s personality and will to win. The thrill increases till the last vestige of civilization is gone and one is at grips with the unknown, when it comes down to earth, and settles into a hard absorbing fight with primitive conditions; with the problems of health and climate and transport, with the daily struggle for food, water and transport, and the groping after understanding of the strange and sometimes antagonistic people one is among. All the complexities of life disappear, and one is reduced to the state, mental and physical, of a healthy animal. As long as one’s ” tummy ” is reasonably full, and there is a prospect of somewhere safe and dry to sleep, one is perfectly, almost stupidly happy. The creature comforts of life no longer matter. For the first few days one misses one’s bath most terribly, but in a short time, I am ashamed to say, one doesn’t mind if one never had a bath again! Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but in the wilds it comes a long way after food and sleep, or even a good camel.”

Mills laughs about the crazy stories newspapers wanted her to write. One paper offered her a big check to explain why she traveled without her husband. Was fame too much bullshit?

There are other people like me who work to rescue forgotten writers. I met Harry Williams online because he maintains a website for George Mills, Lady Dorothy Mills’s brother-in-law. It’s a fascinating hobby that I recommend, but don’t expect to discover another Pride and PrejudicePhoenix appeals to me like Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It uses science fiction to make a feminist statement. Could Lady Dorothy Mills ever be resurrected like Gilman? I don’t know.

Libraries used to be heaven for books. Yet, today many books I buy used in hardback are library discards. Phoenix shows up in just four libraries at WorldCat, three in England and one in America. It took me ten years to track down my copy. I haven’t seen another for sale since 2002.

Society needs to consider changing the copyright laws. I can understand why copyright holders want to keep extending the time they can make money, but copyright laws make no sense for books that haven’t sold a single copy for decades. The law should be amended to say that any book that hasn’t been for sale for 25 years is now in the public domain, and all periodicals older than 10 years are in the public domain if they are reproduced whole.

Such changes in the law would allow fans of forgotten books to scan them and put them in Project Gutenberg. Second, periodicals in the public domain will help researchers explore the past. It would also help when authors donate their papers to put them in the public domain. Modern libraries aren’t the research centers they used to be. The Internet is now the World Library.

Lady Dorothy Mills had modest fame over eight decades ago. If her books were in the public domain, few would read them. But for those who do, and for those of us who want to encourage other people to read them, changing the copyright laws could open up the past to human and AI researchers. Copyright law protects books when they are being sold, but hurts when readers no longer buy.

If I Was Rich I’d Collect Books

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 3, 2018

I’ve never hankered after riches. Owning fancy cars or mansions seems like too much work. Bookworms don’t need much money, we just need time. Now that I’m retired I’m rich in time. But for some reason, I now want to collect books as beautiful objects. Before, I bought books to read. I gave them away when I finished. Often I bought more books than I could read, and after several years of not reading them, I gave them away too.

For some reason that I don’t understand, I’ve developed an attraction to certain books. But only to editions with covers I like. I’ve made a few indulgent purchases lately of hardbacks with dust jackets I admire. I love getting them in the mail, especially when they are in fine shape, protected by a Brodart mylar jacket. So far my purchases have been few, and always under $20. The books I really want cost a good deal more.

I’ve never really valued paperbacks until recently. When I was young they were all I could afford.  After I went to work I bought hardbacks. I have bad eyes and hardbacks are easier to read. Since the invention of the ebook, I actually prefer to read Kindle books. But for a psychological reason I can’t understand, I now enjoy buying old paperbacks because of their covers. I don’t know why I want to collect them because old paperbacks are fragile and deteriorating. To read one requires great care not to damage them.

I can easily order most paperbacks for under $5 from ABEBooks.com. However, the dealers who sell them for that price are not accurate with their condition descriptions, plus they have a nasty habit of putting barcode labels right on the beautiful covers. Pisses me off no end. It generally requires spending a good deal more to get paperbacks in very good to fine condition. Evidently, dealers who charge more are kinder to what they sell and don’t put barcodes on their merchandise. Quite often they ship paperbacks in protective plastic sleeves.

Here are series of books from Ballantine I’d love to collect. I won’t let myself spend the money, so I’ll post the covers here to admire. They’ll look especially great when I view this page on my iPhone. Maybe I like these covers because the artists have illustrated short stories I know. I don’t feel modern cover artists illustrate stories like these old artists did.

The Best of C. L. Moore

The Best of Fredric Brown

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

The Best of Cordwainer Smith

The Best of Fritz Leiber

The Best of Henry Kuttner

The Best of Edmond Hamilton

The Best of Eric Frank Russell

The Best of Frederik Pohl

The Best of Robert Bloch

The Best of Hal Clement

The Best of Jack Williamson

The Best of James Blish

The Best of John W. Campbell

The Best of L. Sprague de Camp

The Best of Leigh Brackett

The Best of Murray Leinster

The Best of Philip K. Dick

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallum

The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum

The Best of John Brunner

 

JWH

 

 

 

 

What Writers Influenced Heinlein, Twain, Kerouac, PKD, and Alcott?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 29, 2018

I need some help. I’m trying to find out what writers influenced Robert A. Heinlein, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, and Louisa May Alcott. Bookworms love to talk about their favorite authors, but do we ever research our favorite writers’ writers? I especially want to know what they read before their first successful books.

5-authors

I believe much of my thinking was shaped by what I read. The five writers above are the authors I’ve read about the most. I’ve read many books about each of them. I don’t necessarily mean these are my favorite authors, but their lives have become compelling reading for me. I even wrote about these writers before in “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” My poor memory has not retained exact details from their biographies. I do have some vague memories of what they read, but instead of spending a lot of time rereading those biographies I thought I’d post a query here. I assume some of y’all might know a lot about these writers.

The writer I remember best talking about the books that influenced him was Heinlein. He often mentioned H. G. Wells and James Branch Cabell. But then, Heinlein wrote a book Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) which riffs off of Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919). I also have to assume Heinlein loved Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum because of The Number of the Beast and his other “World as Myth” multiverse novels. Finally, I also have to assume Heinlein loved Jerome K. Jerome, because he includes references to Three Men in a Boat in my favorite Heinlein story, Have Space Suit-Will Travel. But this is a lot of assumptions. Does anyone know different about Heinlein? I have to wonder if Heinlein was influenced by Upton Sinclair or Ayn Rand.

Philip K. Dick is even harder. PKD was a voracious reader. My friend Mike found “List of Influences on Philip K. Dick” for me, but I’m not sure I trust it. The list cites quotes from Dick, but it seems like he’s putting on airs. I can believe A. E. van Vogt, because van Vogt was a major science fiction writer when Dick was growing up. And I might buy “The novels that influenced my writing when I was in my late teens and early twenties, were the French realistic novels…Flaubert, Stendahl, Balzac, et al…” because he mentions them more than once. And I can readily believe “I liked the short stories of James T. Farrell very much. They had a tremendous influence on me in the short story form” because of PKD’s short stories. He also said, “I was very very very influenced by Nathaniel West for a while…” which I can believe because I’ve read West. But why doesn’t he mention more science fiction writers since he wrote so much science fiction?  If you know more about what PKD read let me know.

I just can’t remember anything about Twain’s reading. Since he was born in 1835, his formative reading years would have been the late 1840s and 1850s. I know he skewered a lot of writers like James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t think Twain and Alcott liked each others’ work. We might assume Twain admired satirical writers like Swift, but I haven’t found anything to verify that. Alcott grew up knowing Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, but did they influence her? She loved the pulp fiction of her day.

I’ve read many biographies on Kerouac and I think I remember him liking Proust, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Again, I’m not sure. I can’t imagine Kerouac not being influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Joyce. Wasn’t the Beat Generation in reaction to the Lost Generation?

Searching Google for these answers is annoying. I have to constantly rephrase my query. When I finally asked: “What books did Jack Kerouac love to read?” I got Kerouac’s Top 40. But most of the other results were about the books Kerouac wrote. The same search didn’t work for the other writers.

I’m hoping this will reach fans of these writers and you might know what I want to know. Please leave a comment if you do. Thanks.

JWH

1939 – “I, Robot” by Eando Binder

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When I reread “I, Robot” by Eando Binder today, a science fiction story from 1939, I wondered just how much Earl and Otto knew about robots, where did they get their knowledge, how much of their speculation was original with them, and how much did they borrow from earlier writers. I also wondered how wide-spread the concept of robots was in 1939, a term only coined in 1920. The concept of what would eventually be called a digital computer was first described by Alan Turing in a 1936 paper. I doubt the Binders had read it. Artificial intelligence wouldn’t become a concept until the 1950s. What kind of imaginative feat had these two brothers achieved writing a short story for a lowly pulp magazine?

Here is a nice graph from Google that shows how often the word robot was used over time. I wish I could track down all the science fiction stories that used it from 1923 when the English translation first appeared until “I, Robot” in 1939.

robot - eytomology

Eleven years before Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of robot stories, I, Robot, a short story appeared in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories called “I, Robot” by Eando Binder. Asimov admits his later robot stories were inspired by this one, and he had protested his editors naming his collection with the same name.

“I, Robot” is the first person narrative of a robot named Adam Link, and Amazing Stories would eventually run ten of his tales between 1939-1942. In 1965 Paperback Library came out with a fix-up novel based on many of these stories called Adam Link – Robot. Currently, this novel version is available from Wildside Press on Amazon as an ebook. However, if you’d like to read these stories as Amazing Stories presented them, they are available online as digital .pdf scans:

Amazing Stories 1939-01

The first two stories were combined and altered for a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, and later that episode was remade for a 1995 episode of a revival series of The Outer Limits. Both shows featured Leonard Nemoy. In the 21st-century we’re becoming robot crazy, so it’s very hard to imagine a time when people didn’t know about the concept of robots. This 1939 story is a far cry from Ex Machina (2014) and Humans (2015- ) yet it dealt with the same themes those shows do. Until humanity has real self-aware robots to coexist with we really won’t know how we will react.

I’ve read “I, Robot” by Earl and Otto Binder (Eando) a couple times over the last century, and today, when I started Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction (combining Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1 (1939) and Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 2 (1940)) I wasn’t in the mood to read it again. Boy, am I glad I did. As my recent posts attest, I’ve been in the mood to read old science fiction short stories and I had bought all six of the Golden Years of SF series which contain the first 12 of the 25 of The Great SF Stories series (1939-1963).

[These six anthologies collect the twelve years of science fiction before I was born. I bought the combined double-deckers reprints because I can’t afford to collect the original 25 paperbacks edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg because they generally run $10-60 on ABEbooks and eBay. (Ouch!)]

Now that I’m rereading science fiction with a deconstructive mindset I realized immediately that “I, Robot” was a goldmine of a historical SF story. The Binders imagined a mechanical man with an electronic mind that could learn and was mentally much like a human. This was 1939 before the world knew about computing machines (the word computer back then meant a human job classification). Adam Link has television like eyes that see in shades of blue (like early TVs, well before color TV), and microphones for ears. The Binders imagine an artificial brain that has a perfect memory. Not only that, the Binders imagine a kind of machine learning phase for Adam Link. The bulk of the story worries about how humans will act when meeting a conscious, self-aware artificial being. “I, Robot” is modeled on Frankenstein, which is quite satisfying because Adam Link is a fictional descendant of Mary Shelley’s monster.

The term “robot” was first coined in the 1920 Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but the artificial creatures in that story were made from synthetic organic matter, more like replicants in Blade Runner. The history of robots is ancient, but they have mostly been magical automata and mechanical. In the 19th-century we had The Steam Man of the Prairies, which some say was the first science fiction dime novel in 1868.

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)_big

The steam man was just an all-purpose versatile machine. I never read it, but my earliest memories as a kid include a robot, the Tin Woodman of Oz, that first appeared in the book The Wizard of Oz in 1900. I first encountered this robot-like-man in the 1939 film in the 1950s. The Tin Man was originally a human named Nick Chopper who kept losing body parts to an enchanted ax and having them replaced by a tinsmith.

TikTokofOz_BookCover_lores

The next proto-robot I remember encountering was Tik-Tok, after discovering that The Wizard of Oz movie was based on a series of books. The Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum was eighth in the series coming out in 1914, but I didn’t discover it until 1962 while in elementary school. Tik-Tok was a wind-up machine that could talk, but little was made of describing how he actually worked. Like talking animals in fantasy stories, talking machines were for fun and not genuine speculation about creating artificial intelligence.

Metropolis

The next robot I know about that existed before “I, Robot” was from the 1927 German film Metropolis.  Like R.U.R., Metropolis is a social commentary on the working classes. I’m not sure Thea von Harbou was concerned philosophically with artificial intelligence, and I’m not sure where I can find out. Evidently, the concept of a robot was easily embraced by our society, even ones that could act human, but when did folks begin to think seriously how to create an artificial mind? (I’ve since found out the word robot isn’t used in the film, but the 1927 placards did list some actors as robots.

That’s what’s so fun about “I, Robot.” The Binders were putting everything into place. They theorized a metallic brain of “iridium-sponge” cells, not as fancy sounding as Asimov’s positronic brain but they did assume it would need to store information. The Binders made no hint of computer programming. I guess they assumed a being with senses would program itself through learning. The artificial thinking was still relegated to the magic happens kind of hand waving.

Helen O Loy by Lester del Rey

In 1938, “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey came out in Astounding Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure the Binders could have read that one. I recently listened to that story, and it is another proto-AI tale. Two men who own a robot repair shop put together a robot woman they both fall in love with. Again, where did they get the word robot? How quickly did a Czech word from 1920 spread to America? Did Lester del Rey know of the story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order” from 1895? How do ideas spread? And is inventing an artificial wife something that just comes to guys. What story lays claim to inventing the sexbot?

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of fictional robots. It gives me several stories I need to track down to read. I’ve already read some of the Professor Jameson stories by Neil R. Jones from the early 1930s. His aliens had their minds transferred to mechanical bodies — not AI robots. I need to read The Metal Giants (1926) by Edmond Hamilton and Automata (1929) by S. Fowler Wright, both science fiction writers.

I’m going to assume the Binders were inspired by science fiction. Could there have been nonfiction books theorizing about robots before 1939? When does science fiction precede science and when does it follow? I’ve always assumed rockets for space travel and mechanical robots for artificial minds preceded science, but I could be wrong.

I did find An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines by Kathleen Richardson that has a chapter on robots in fiction. It looks promising but is too expensive. Even the Kindle edition is $35.99.

Someone needs to write a book about robots like James Gleick did for time travel in his book Time Travel: A History. “I, Robot” is an amazing story in the evolution of ideas about robots. The Binders suggested an iridium-sponge for a brain. I suppose we can think of our current computers with a silicon sponge. They didn’t have enough information to guess about computers. Earlier stories only imagined robots having clockwork brains. The Binders speculations about a robot having to learn are also insightful.

Human-constructed creatures have been around a long time in our thoughts, and we’re getting very close to creating them. I think it’s fascinating to see how the idea evolved.

Recommended Reading

 

Updates

I’ve found some earlier citations in science fiction from The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

JWH