Science Fiction and Human Evolution

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 13, 2018

Are homo sapiens not quite intelligent enough to survive? Did you know the poor Neanderthal made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years without discovering innovation? Homo sapiens have always assumed we had endless potential because we constantly create better technology. Is that true, or just hubris?

Most dreams of science fiction will remain fantasies. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have faster-than-light spaceships, or any kind of interstellar travel, time travel, matter transporters, brain downloading, living in virtual worlds, or become immortal. There are limits to our hopes.

But what about dreams that could still come true?

Our current reality reveals we’re a species that have so overpopulated the planet that we’re about to destroy our shared ecosystem with all other species, that we’re now bringing about the sixth mass extinction event, and we’re dismantling the first global civilization. We’ve amassed a pile of problems we can’t solve. Is there any hope we can smarten up before it’s too late? I doubt it, but let’s explore the possibilities of change.

Science fiction has often assumed humans becoming a new species, but usually, it’s rather far-fetched, involving new people with psychic powers or comic book mutations and superpowers. A great deal of current science and science fiction explores the idea of post-humanism or transhumanism, but I think that’s mostly hopeful fantasy too. If we were realistic, how would a new species emerge and what traits would define it? Is there enough time to transform ourselves before the clock runs out? Prophets, philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers have suggested many methods that humans might evolve.

  • Spiritual discipline. Yogis, fakirs, mystics, priests, and self-improvement gurus have taught us for thousands of years that we already possess the potential to be superior beings.
  • Medical technology. We’ve already expanded our lifespan and improved our bodies. Could we deploy the same research to expand the brain?
  • Eugenics. Is it possible to intentionally breed humans like farm animals to improve the species? It’s a vile idea that’s been thoroughly rejected but people still think about it.
  • Genetic engineering. We’re getting closer to manipulating our own genes. If CRISPR can edit out genetic diseases could it delete genes for dumbassness and add some for wisdom?
  • Accelerating evolution. What if we could use technology to physically change our brains? Such devices pop up in the news all the time. Will they always be sold by snake oil salesmen?
  • Cyborg technology. Can we enhance who we are by bolting on machines to our bodies and minds? What if we could embed smartphone technology directly into our skulls? I guess that’s one kind of evolved telepathy.
  • Uplift. Science fiction has often imagined humanity being improved with the help of superior aliens. I doubt aliens will visit us anytime soon but what if we build AI machines that bootstrap this process?

We know our species, homo sapiens evolved out of older species, but will a new kind of people ever evolve out of us? Modern humans have been around 300,000 years and maybe 500,000 years by some estimates. The “average” lifetime of a species of mammals is around 1 million years, although some species have been around for millions of years. We split from the lineage containing chimpanzees and gorillas about 6 or 7 million years ago, and 400,000 – 500,000 years ago Neanderthals and homo sapiens took forking paths. Modern humans and Neanderthal coexisted for over 200,000 years.

Here’s an illustration I borrowed from Wikipedia:

Human family tree

Imagine if the top of this chart extended into the future, would we see new offshoots from homo sapiens coexisting with us and eventually leaving us behind? Generally, species are defined as a group of individuals that reproduce. But is a new species one where individuals can’t interbreed with the old one? In recent years we’ve learned that Neanderthals and humans interbred. Could we have already produced a new species that won’t reveal it’s obviousness for thousands of years?

We don’t have the time to evolve better humans naturally, although our collapse could provide the evolutionary breeding ground for a new species. We have to consider that homo sapiens might be the end of the line. Maybe intelligence isn’t a trait that’s sustainable. Maybe our descendants will be less smart and less destructive? Why do we assume more intelligence is what’s needed? Can you imagine the Earth evolving countless species for billions of years and never reinventing self-aware conscious intelligence?

I tend to believe our replacements will be machines with artificial intelligence. But let’s explore the possibility a new species will descend from us biologically. Right off the bat, I want to exclude any speculation about psychic abilities or superpowers. Evolution isn’t magic. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the singular traits of the new people is a complete disbelief in magic. Embracing make-believe has held humans back like some powerful drug addiction. I define magic as any hope to alter reality by any means unexplainable by science. All theology evolved out of magical beliefs. Humans have always worked to reshape reality, either with tools or prayers. The next species needs to give up on wishing to make it so.

Let’s assume the new people reject magic, mysticism, religion, theology, metaphysics, and make-believe. Of course, if you’re a believer in magic then my suggestion is going to outrage you. But this is my essay, so go along with me for a while. I’m going to assume that new people will be completely in touch with reality. Scientific thinking will be their cognitive foundation. They will only be concerned with what they can perceive with their senses, scientific instruments, and confirm with statistical scientific analysis. I will assume their use of language will evolve out of this too. Their success will be a society that’s ecologically sustainable and embraces everything we learn from reality.

Let’s assume the new people will be like Mr. Spock in Star Trek and the next species of humans will be sort of like Vulcans, except they won’t be able to do mind melds or any of that other silly mumbo-jumbo. They will be very logical beings, clear thinkers, with precise language. They won’t have psychic powers but they could have technological augmentations like the Borg. Let’s assume they have an extra neocortical layer that allows them greater pattern recognition than we have. They will have better memories and better cognitive strengths. They could look the same as us or maybe have slightly larger heads, or have brains that are neurally denser.

How Will the New People Emerge?

Science fiction has already explored many possibilities? This is the prime virtue of science fiction, to speculate about possibilities. Some of what I’ve read include:

  • 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Just decades after Darwin’s famous books, Wells imagines the human race splitting into two new species, the Eloi, and Morlocks.
  • 1911 – The Hampdenshire Wonder by J. D. Beresford. The story of a child prodigy that nature produced randomly.
  • 1930 – Gladiator by Philip Wylie. A medical serum is developed that gives people superhuman powers. Probably the inspiration for Superman.
  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. A story that describes 18 species of humans over the next two billion years.
  • 1931 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Eugenics creates superior beings and society.
  • 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton. A scientist invents a cosmic-ray-machine that stimulates 50 million years of evolution every 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 1940 – Slan by A. E. van Vogt. A story about a race of scientifically evolved humans that must hide or be killed by jealous normal humans.
  • 1948-53 – Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras. Radiation causes some children to have superior minds.
  • 1952-53 – More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Sixth strange people with various psychic skills form a gestalt being.
  • 1953 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens come to Earth to uplift us to our next stage of existence.
  • 1955 – The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Mutations are showing up in plants, animals, and humans, and they are rejected by humanity, but the hope is on the side of the new.
  • 1959 – The Fourth “R” by George O. Smith.  In this story, teaching machines are invented that accelerates education in the brain.
  • 1959-66 – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A medical procedure is developed that accelerates intelligence.
  • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. A human child is raised by Martians proves that humans already have the capacity to be more powerful beings. This is the culmination of a decade of psi-stories in science fiction.
  • 1963 – “The Sixth Finger” is an episode of The Outer Limits. A scientist invents a machine that accelerates human evolution.
  • 1993 – Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Humans are genetically engineered not to need sleep thus giving them 30% more time to be productive. The new humans out-compete humans who need sleep.
  • 1997 – Gattaca. Genetic engineering creates a new generation of humans that out-compete the older generation.
  • 1999 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. A retrovirus alters human reproduction causing a new species to emerge.
  • 2012 – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Humanity alters both itself and the solar system.

Science fiction has seldom dealt with subtle ways in which new people might evolve. The best example I can think of is a 1953 fix-up novel Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras, which is long out-of-print. Shiras was an early woman science fiction writer, and she imagined normal looking children with greater intelligence created by radiation exposure. Her special children did not have wild talents like all the silly comic books. However, some writers have suggested her book might have influenced the Marvel comics and their explosion of mutants with superpowers in the mid-1950s.

But let’s not think in terms of unrealistic 1950s science fiction. We’re getting close to real genetic engineering. In the 1990s Nancy Kress imagined in the Beggars in Spain series a future where genetic engineering creates a race of humans that don’t need sleep. This one advantage gives the sleepless a tremendous edge over sleepers. Or the film Gattaca where society allows parents to select the genes of their children creating a division in society between enhanced humans and normals.

If you think about it, we’ve already altered our species several times in the last 17,000 years. Switching from hunting and gathering to agriculture did a huge uplift to our kind. Writing did another. Then the printing press accelerated our progress tremendously again. Universal public education made a huge change to our species. The American Constitution altered our species too. Computers and networking are giving us another makeover. What’s interesting, if you pay attention to it, is society changes, but not us. Humans are basically the same throughout the times, just reprogrammed by outside forces. We’re very adaptable. In fact, we’re too adaptable, because we’ve taken over all the environmental niches on this planet, pushing out other species.

I believe society is programming us more and more, overriding our genetic code. Feminism is a great example. Our genes want to treat females as possessions. Society is convincing us they are individuals. How we shape society will determine how people will behave. This gives us a chance to evolve ourselves, and not have to wait on biology.

Religion and then politics has tried to codify behavior for thousands of years, but both systems have always failed to be universally successful. Science fiction writers have often explored utopian and dystopian societies that worked to impose a new way of living on our species. The lesson from these stories is utopias universally fail. But is that really true? Could we create a society that brings out the best in people?

As individuals, we are naturally greedy, self-serving, resentful, and xenophobic. I’m not sure genetic engineering can do away with those faults. The current return to conservative philosophy emerging around the globe is nationalistic, racist, protective, greedy, “I’ve got mine, fuck everyone else” Ayn Randian. How can we be sure the next stage human won’t follow those traits?

As a species, we have to worry about fractional groups running the whole show. Theocracy and plutocracy allow a minority to dominate the majority. What we need is a system that benefits all, including the other species. Right now, we can’t choose to evolve our physical bodies, but we can choose a society that shapes our minds.

I believe we need to apply the highest aspirations of religion, philosophy, politics, and science in creating a technological society that brings out our best traits. This Pollyannish hope is being crushed by our worst traits making all our political decisions right now. Donald Trump and politicians like him represent the election of leaders based on our worse qualities and fears. We’re reverting to wanting strong tribal leaders rather than globally enlightened ones. I can’t help but believe that’s happening because homo sapiens just aren’t up to the challenge. However, I want to be proven wrong.

Most species don’t adapt to change, they just die out. We were just about to create a global society. Then with recent political changes sprouting the globe, it feels like we’re de-evolving. Hopefully, if the past is a predictor, we’ll swing back to progressing.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

“5,271,009” by Alfred Bester

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 28, 2018

I’m reading mid-20th-century science fiction looking for stories that would stand out in 2018 and I came across “5,271,009” by Alfred Bester. At first, I thought it merely a dazzling bit of pyrotechnic wordplay. I dismissed it as all flash and no heart. Bester is most famous for two extraordinary science fictions novels of the 1950s, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Bester was commissioned to write a story for the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

5,271,009

What Bester delivered was story Bob Dylan might have written in 1965 after reading The Book of Job and The Master and Margarita, before settling down to pen “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “5,271,009” makes you wonder if Jack Kerouac had just taught Bester how to break open benzedrine inhalers or if Bester had been one of the early users of LSD in a 1950s psychological study.

“5,271,009” is not written in ordinary prose. Oh, how I would love to hear this story read by an overly dramatic audiobook narrator. Every would-be professional book reader should use it as their portfolio story to showcase their range of character voices in a variety of wacky situations.

Virtual Unrealities by Alfred BesterUnfortunately, this story is not available to read on the web. However, a 99 cent Kindle edition is available at Amazon. Bizarrely its been retitled as “The Starcomber.” If you don’t want to plunk down 99 cents to read it, you can look at this list of places it’s been anthologized. Maybe you have a collection with it already. For a couple dollars more, you can get the $2.99 Kindle edition of Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester that contains 17 of Bester’s short stories along with an introduction by Robert Silverberg. That’s quite a bargain. I had to spring for this collection too because the single-story edition stopped letting me copy quotes after a slight quota. I thought that rather cheesy since I bet it’s in the public domain because there’s another publisher selling a different 99 cent edition.

I shall quote from it liberally to prove my statements about its prose are not hyperbole.

The story has a roundabout way of getting started. We’re introduced to Solon Aquila in a rather normal pulp fiction style. It is a story that would have fit perfectly in Unknown, a pulp magazine devoted to fantasy in the 1940s. The story isn’t science fiction, but it might be about science fiction.

Take two parts of Beelzebub, two of Israfel, one of Monte Cristo, one of Cyrano, mix violently, season with mystery and you have Mr. Solon Aquila. He is tall, gaunt, sprightly in manner, bitter in expression, and when he laughs his dark eyes turn into wounds. His occupation is unknown. He is wealthy without visible means of support. He is seen everywhere and understood nowhere. There is something odd about his life.

This is what’s odd about Mr. Aquila, and you can make what you will of it. When he walks he is never forced to wait on a traffic signal. When he desires to ride there is always a vacant taxi on hand. When he bustles into his hotel an elevator always happens to be waiting. When he enters a store, a salesclerk is always free to serve him. There always happens to be a table available for Mr. Aquila in restaurants. There are always last-minute ticket returns when he craves entertainment at sold-out shows.

We must assume Mr. Aquila is a metaphysical being, maybe the devil, maybe a minor god, maybe even the big guy himself. We don’t know. Then we hear him speak:

“HmimelHerrGottSeiDank! I’m crazy, man, crazy. Eclectic, by God,” he told a flabbergasted department store president. “The Weltmann type, nicht wahr? My ideal: Goethe. Tout le monde. God damn.”

He spoke a spectacular tongue of mixed metaphors and meanings. Dozens of languages and dialects came out in machine-gun bursts. Apparently he also lied ad libitum.

Sacré bleu. Jeez!” he was heard to say once. “Aquila from the Latin. Means aquiline. O tempora O mores. Speech by Cicero. My ancestor.”

And another time: “My idol: Kipling. Took my name from him. Aquila, one of his heroes. God damn.”

WTF? This is 1954. It’s a science fiction magazine. Where did Bester get his inspiration for Mr. Aquila? He sounds like a speed-freaking Beat poet.

Like I said, the story actually starts slowly compared to its eventual pace. Mr. Aquila visits the art gallery of Jimmy Derelict looking for a particular artist. My theory is Bester was writing this story by the seat of his pants and he thought it was going to be about Aquila.

On the morning that Mr. Solon Aquila was stunned by his first disappointment, he bustled into the atelier of Lagan & Derelict, dealers in paintings, sculpture and rare objects of art. It was his intention to buy a painting. Mr. James Derelict knew Aquila as a client. Aquila had already purchased a Frederic Remington and a Winslow Homer some time ago when, by another odd coincidence, he had bounced into the Madison Avenue shop one minute after the coveted paintings went up for sale. Mr. Derelict had also seen Mr. Aquila boat a prize striper at Montauk.

“Bon soir, bel esprit, God damn, Jimmy,” Mr. Aquila said. He was on first name terms with everyone. “Here’s a cool day for color, oui! Cool. Slang. I have in me to buy a picture.”

“Good morning, Mr. Aquila,” Derelict answered. He had the seamed face of a cardsharp, but his blue eyes were honest and his smile was disarming. However at this moment his smile seemed strained, as though the volatile appearance of Aquila had unnerved him.

“I’m in the mood for your man, by Jeez,” Aquila said, rapidly opening cases, fingering ivories and tasting the porcelains. “What’s his name, my old? Artist like Bosch. Like Heinrich Kley. You handle him, parbleu, exclusive. O si sic omnia, by Zeus!”

“Jeffrey Halsyon?” Derelict asked timidly.

“Oeil de boeuf!” Aquila cried. “What a memory. Chryselephantine. Exactly the artist I want. He is my favorite. A monochrome, preferably. A small Jeffrey Halsyon for Aquila, bitte. Wrap her up.”

We don’t know it yet, but Jeffrey Halsyon is the protagonist of this tale, the man pictured on the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

It’s interesting that Halsyon is very close to the spelling of halcyon.

There are a number of pages about Halsyon being an insane artist who creates his art by defacing currency, and thus illegal to sell. Aquila insists he must see Halsyon and eventually frees him from confinement. This is where the story really begins.

I am reminded of stories Bob Dylan told about when he wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Supposedly, he wrote it during the Cuban missile crisis, trying to cram all the ideas he had for many songs into one in case WWIII began. Bester seems to cram many story ideas into “5,271,009” in the same way. Some have theorized Bester wanted to explore an array of SF ideas all using the number 5,271,009.

Again, I’m not so sure that Bester wasn’t just writing by the seat of his pants, typing whatever scenes came to mind. He spends too much time in the hospital where Halsyon is imprisoned. Then Mr. Aquila slips Halsyon a mickey:

He filled a shot glass from a decanter, added a tiny cube of purple ice from a fuming bucket, and placed the drink in Halsyon’s hand. Compelled by a gesture from Aquila, the artist drank it off. It made his brain buzz. He stared around, breathing heavily. He was in what appeared to be the luxurious waiting room of a Park Avenue physician. Queen Anne furniture. Axminster rug. Two Hogarths and a Copley on the wall in gilt frames. They were genuine, Halsyon realized with amazement. Then, with even more amazement, he realized that he was thinking with coherence, with continuity. His mind was quite clear.

He passed a heavy hand over his forehead. “What’s happened?” he asked faintly. “There’s like . . . Something like a fever behind me. Nightmares.”

“You have been sick,” Aquila replied. “I am blunt, my old. This is a temporary return to sanity. It is no feat, God damn. Any doctor can do it. Niacin plus carbon dioxide. Id genus omne. Only temporary. We must search for something more permanent.”

“What’s this place?”

Halsyon escapes but then comes to somewhere else. This part reminds me of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and a couple other songs I can’t remember for sure.

The president of the United Nations came to him. He was tall and gaunt, sprightly but bitter. He was wringing his hands in dismay.

“Mr. Halsyon! Mr Halsyon!” he cried. “Where you been, my cupcake? God damn. Hoc tempore. Do you know what has happened?”

“No,” Halsyon answered. “What’s happened?”

“After your escape from the looney bing. Bango! Atom bombs everywhere. The two-hour war. It is over. Hora fugit, old faithful, Virility is over.”

“What!”

“Hard radiation, Mr. Halsyon, has destroyed the virility of the world. God damn. You are the only man left capable of engendering children. No doubt on account of a mysterious mutant strain in your makeup which makes you different. Jeez.”

“No.”

Halsyon is informed that 5,271,009 virgins are clamoring for his attention, and he should pick a number from 1 to 5,000,000 and begin impregnating them.

At first, this is every teenage boy’s wet dream come true. Then Halsyon starts complaining that all the women look alike when the novelty wears off. Like any tricky Genie, Mr. Aquila grants wishes with thorns. Eventually, he is told the women resent him and consider Halsyon their rapist.

Halsyon then meets Judith Field, the old love-of-his-life. He wants to marry just her but continue with his procreation duties of being the new Adam. She wants to kill him. He learns he must escape and Mr. Aquila tries to help, but a mob of women clubs him to death.

I suppose I should worry about providing too many spoilers. You can quit reading any time you want and go read the story. Well, back to the story. The next scenario involves the story that illustrates the cover above with the spaceman chained to a very small asteroid. We’re now realizing Halsyon will not escape from his nightmare so easily. This reminds me of Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey, and Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley.  In all these stories our heroes frantically search for a way back to normal reality.

The scene changes again.

And he drifted alone in space, a martyr, misunderstood, a victim of cruel injustice.

He was still chained to what had once been the wall of Cell 5, Block 27, Tier 100, Wing 9 of the Callisto Penitentiary until that unexpected gamma explosion had torn the vast fortress dungeon—vaster than the Château d’If—apart. That explosion, he realized, had been detonated by the Grssh.

His assets were his convict clothes, a helmet, one cylinder of O2, his grim fury at the injustice that had been done him, and his knowledge of the secret of how the Grssh could be defeated in their maniacal quest for solar domination.

The Grssh, ghastly marauders from Omicron Ceti, space-degenerates, space-imperialists, cold-blooded, roachlike, depending for their food upon the psychotic horrors which they engendered in man through mental control and upon which they fed, were rapidly conquering the galaxy. They were irresistible, for they possessed the power of simul-kinesis—the ability to be in two places at the same time.

Against the vault of space, a dot of light moved slowly, like a stricken meteor. It was a rescue ship, Halsyon realized, combing space for survivors of the explosion. He wondered whether the light of Jupiter, flooding him with rusty radiation, would make him visible to the rescuers. He wondered whether he wanted to be rescued at all.

Bester is making fun of science fiction here. It even reminds me of the beginning of Bester’s own novel, The Stars My Destination. Mr. Aquila shows up in the disguise of a robot. There must be a name for this kind of story since I see it so often. Another variation of it is the 1967 film Bedazzled. Doesn’t this next bit remind you of something Douglas Adams would have written?

When he recovered consciousness he was in a plasti-cot in the cabin of a starship. The high frequency whine told him they were in overdrive. He opened his eyes. Balorsen stood before the plasti-cot, and Balorsen’s robot and High Judge Field, and his daughter Judith. Judith was weeping. The robot was in magnetic plasti-clamps and winced as General Balorsen lashed him again and again with a nuclear plasti-whip.

Parbleu! God damn!” the robot grated. “It is true I framed Jeff Halsyon. Ouch! Flux de bouche. I was the space-pirate who space-hijacked the space-freighter. God damn. Ouch! The space-bartender in the Spaceman’s Saloon was my accomplice. When Jackson wrecked the space-cab I went to the space-garage and X-beamed the sonic before Tantial murdered O’Leary. Aux armes. Jeez. Ouch!”

“There you have the confession, Halsyon,” General Balorsen grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “By God. Ars est celare artem. You are innocent.”

“I falsely condemned you, old faithful,” Judge Field grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “Can you forgive this God damn fool? We apologize.”

Bester goes on to create other scenes to trick Halsyon, but I won’t quote them all. I should leave you to have some fun on your own.

This is where we need to decide if Bester is just jerking us around, or if he has something artistic to say. He’s getting paid by the word so he might be just filling up the pages. It could be every morning he got up and wrote some new way to torment Halsyon. This is a novelette of about forty pages, so it’s a rather long story. Maybe too long.

On the other hand, it might be a meta-fiction bit of philosophy. Not quite profound, but head bending enough to mesmerize science fiction readers and dope smokers.

“Stop reading the book,” he shouted. “Let me out of the pages. Can you hear me? Stop reading the book! I’d rather be in a world of my own making. Let me go!”

There was a mighty clap of thunder, as of the covers of a mighty book slamming shut. In an instant Halsyon was swept spinning into the third compartment of the seventh circle of the Inferno in the Fourteenth Canto of the Divine Comedy where they who have sinned against art are tormented by flakes of fire which are eternally showered down upon them. There he shrieked until he had provided sufficient amusement. Only then was he permitted to devise a text of his own … and he formed a new world, a romantic world, a world of his fondest dreams… .

He was the last man on earth.

He was the last man on earth and he howled.

I truly wish I could hear this story read by an amazing audiobook narrator.

Finally, we get to the kicker, or at least the kicker for me. Is Bester making fun of science fiction or fiction in general? Bester didn’t stick with the genre and left it after his wild successes with two novels and a handful of short stories.

He helped Halsyon to his feet and led him into the consultation room where he seated him in a velvet chaise longue and gave him a glass of brandy.

“Guaranteed free of drugs,” he said. “Noblesse oblige. Only the best spiritus frumenti. Now we discuss what we have done, eh? Jeez.”

He sat down behind the desk, still sprightly, still bitter, and regarded Halsyon with kindliness. “Man lives by his decisions, n’est-ce pas?” he began. “We agree, oui? A man has some five million two hundred seventy-one thousand and nine decisions to make in the course of his life. Peste! Is it a prime number? N’importe. Do you agree?”

Halsyon nodded.

“So, my coffee and doughnuts, it is the maturity of these decisions that decides whether a man is a man or a child. Nicht wahr? Malgré nous. A man cannot start making adult decisions until he has purged himself of the dreams of childhood. God damn. Such fantasies. They must go.”

“No,” Halsyon said slowly. “It’s the dreams that make my art … the dreams and fantasies that I translate into line and color… .”

“God damn! Yes. Agreed. Maître d’hôtel! But adult dreams, not baby dreams. Baby dreams. Pfui! All men have them… . To be the last man on earth and own the earth… . To be the last fertile man on earth and own the women… . To go back in time with the advantage of adult knowledge and win victories… . To escape reality with the dream that life is make-believe… . To escape responsibility with a fantasy of heroic injustice, of martyrdom with a happy ending… . And there are hundreds more, equally popular, equally empty. God bless Father Freud and his merry men. He applies the quietus to such nonsense. Sic semper tyrannis. Avaunt!”

“But if everybody has those dreams, they can’t be bad, can they?”

“God damn. Everybody in fourteenth century had lice. Did that make it good? No, my young, such dreams are for childrens. Too many adults are still childrens. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”

Bester is right. Those are common plots. I’ve used them in my failed attempts to write science fiction.

Is Bester telling science fiction readers to grow up and stop indulging in childish fantasies? I need to track down fanzines of that era and see if anyone fans complained.

At my online group we’re discussing mid-century science fiction short stories, and pretending we’re creating our own retrospective anthology to impress modern young readers. We’re trying to find 20th-century science fiction that resonates with 21st-century minds. At first, I wasn’t going to consider “5,271,009” for my anthology. Now I’m not so sure.

“5,271,009” is not a story that’s been often reprinted. I found it in Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Olander, a collection that was never very successful, out of print, and hard to find. I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s and I’m not sure how many will appeal to young readers new to reading science fiction in 2018. Neither Dikty or Asimov/Greenberg picked “5,271,009” for their best stories of 1954 anthologies.

I’m not sure “5,271,009” will be remembered unless it’s produced as a jazzy audiobook or made into a movie. It would be a perfect Black Mirror kind of story. Alfred Bester should have the same kind of appeal as Philip K. Dick.

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 Great SF Stories 1 (1939)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 5, 2018

I’m having BIG fun reading old science fiction short stories. However, are there valid justifications for spending so much time reading old science fiction when I could be reading shiny new stories instead?  Or even spend that time reading high-quality literary works or vastly more informative nonfiction? I have to confess a sense of guilt. I worry I’m wasting my time slumming in a pulp fiction past.

The-Great-SF-Stories-1-1939

 

For some reason, I’m being drawn into a self-imposed project of sequentially reading annual anthologies of the best science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I picked that year because The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) is the earliest annual anthology series I could find. I’ve been soul-searching trying to understand why I want to do this, but so far my psyche hasn’t provided any conclusive insight. I have made these rationalizations:

  • I’ve been reading science fiction for over a half-century and want to make sense of that obsession.
  • I’m fascinated by the evolution of science fiction and its themes.
  • I think I actually get more science fictional bang for my buck out of short stories.
  • I’m trying to decide what’s unique about science fiction literature.
  • I’m trying to decide if science fiction has any value other than entertainment.
  • I’m wondering which stories are truly worth preserving.
  • As I progress through the years I want to see how cultural change is reflected in science fiction.
  • I wonder if old science fiction is worth preserving.
  • Finally, I wonder if this is a form of exorcism, where I’m trying to wrap up my relationship with science fiction. I assume if I study it thoroughly enough I’ll learn how all the magic tricks are accomplished.

Because the web now provides access to old pulp magazines I wish I had the time and patience to just read everything from each year — but I can’t. Most of those old stories are just crap. And even the best stories aren’t really that good by modern literary standards. I figure I have the time and patience to read one or two annual anthologies per month, covering 12-24 years a year. This means that I might have a pretty good knowledge of short science fiction by the time I’m 70.

The Great SF Stories series were edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They began in 1979 with #1 (1939) and ended in 1992 with #25 (1963). I assumed Greenberg did all the work and Asimov added a bit of pithy memory under Greenberg’s short introduction to each story. These old DAW paperbacks generally run $10-60 on eBay. I got volumes 1-12 in a reprint hardback edition that collected two years for each volume. Those 6 volumes were renamed the Golden Years of SF. I think I was able to get all six for less than $40 including shipping. I’m working on buying #13-25. There is a certain symmetry of using this series because they cover science fiction 12 years before the year I was born and continue for 12 years after. They end just about the time I started reading the then current annuals edited by Judith Merril.

Here is the table of contents of #1 from ISFDB. The story link will take you back to ISFDB where you can see where the story has been anthologized over the years. That’s a good indication of its lasting value. Many were well anthologized in the 1950s and 1960s, and have since disappeared from cultural memory.

Were these the best science fiction short stories of 1939? Did Asimov and Greenberg leave out any better SF because they couldn’t obtain the reprint rights or weren’t to their tastes? I’m mostly going to talk about the stories I liked most, and if I can find some other stories from 1939 that I liked that Asimov/Greenberg didn’t collect.

My current favorite science fiction short stories for 1939 are:

  1. “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp (not in GreatSF#1)
  2. “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey
  3. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam
  4. “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt
  5. “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp
  6. “I, Robot” by Eando Binder
  7. “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. “The Four-Side Triangle” by William F. Temple
  9. “Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore
  10. “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein
  11. “Pilgrimage” by Nelson S. Bond
  12. “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman

Jamie Todd Rubin discovered a letter in an April 1940 issue of Astounding by Isaac Asimov where 20-year-old Asimov listed his Top 10 stories of 1939. (Be sure to read Rubin’s “Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction” if you love old SF short stories. I guess I’m not vacationing in the golden age of SF.)

Notice the overlap and difference between what was decided by Asimov/Greenberg in 1979 and the 1940 letter to the editor.

  1. One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (serial novel)
  2. Lifeline by Robert Heinlein (in GreatSF#1)
  3. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith (serial novel)
  4. Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (serial novel)
  5. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey (in GreatSF#1)
  6. Rope Trick by Eando Binder
  7. Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Ernst
  8. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
  9. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam (in GreatSF#1)
  10. Smallest God by Lester del Rey

Back to The Great Short SF Stories 1, I wished Greenberg had not included the obvious fantasy stories. They could have included three more SF stories for 1939. “The Trouble with Water,” “The Misguided Halo,” and “Star Bright” just don’t belong in a collection called Great SF Stories.

Greenberg also included a second story by L. Sprague de Camp, “The Blue Giraffe” that had a nice science-fictional idea, but it paled in comparison to his standout story, “The Gnarly Man.” I would have used de Camp’s “Living Fossil” instead of “The Blue Giraffe” because it’s another standout story. “Living Fossil” had a much bigger SF idea — essentially prefiguring Planet of the Apes (1963). The idea was expanded by de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller in the novel Genus Homo that came out in 1941 in magazine form and 1950 in book form.

What if The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) could have included all the better SF stories from 1939 worth preserving? How many would that be? Asimov and Greenberg mainly focused on Astounding.

How is preserving worthiness decided? That’s hard to say. There are stories like “The Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell that just didn’t turn me on at all. Should the personal tastes of the anthologist be the deciding factor? If we go by literary quality I’m not sure any of these stories are worth remembering.

Even though these stories entertained me I’m not sure I would recommend them to my friends my age, or younger readers. Science fiction from 1939 represents such a unique perspective on reality that I’m not sure they will be meaningful to many readers. I expect only old hardcore SF fans like myself who grew up reading these stories in the 1950s and 1960s will actually enjoy reading The Great SF Stories #1.

The only reason I can find for reading these stories is for understanding their influence on science fiction’s evolution. In terms of entertainment value, they can’t compete with modern science fiction found on Netflix or Amazon Prime. To a young person watching TV science fiction, 2018 science fiction is like shooting fentanyl and 1939 stories are like a watery Coors.

Ultimately, I decided the value of reading old science fiction comes from the pleasure of being an archeologist of science fictional ideas and themes. Think about it this way. There was a time in your life before you knew the concept of time travel. Can you remember when you first encountered it? The first time you conceive of traveling in time is mind-blowing. Of course, science fiction is so pervasive in our society that most children encounter all the classic ideas of science fiction before they go to school. They probably can’t remember the first time.

When I read these old stories I pay attention to the idea put across, and the historical context in which it was first created. I’m hoping by reading all these years of science fiction short stories will help me compile a list of themes and cite the progression of ideas through the years in the stories.

Here are briefly some of the themes I noticed from 1939. Over time I wish to expand them into full essays. I’ll try to avoid story specifics in case there are people who actually want to still read these stories. Even if you can’t find a copy of The Great SF Stories #1, most of the original magazines are available online for free. I read them with my iPad Mini by loading them in Dropbox.

Robots

There are two robot stories in this collection. The subject of “I, Robot” by Eando Binder is the first intelligent machine. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth. Both stories use robots for their POV, with Adam Link in “I, Robot” even using the first-person. I previously wrote, “I, Robot” by Eando Binder” to explain why I thought it a standout story in the history of fictional robots. In 1939 few people knew about computers. In fact, the term computer was a job classification for humans. I also like that Adam Link tells us his limitations.

“Rust” combines several SF themes, including the extinction of humanity, the extinction of robots, the creation of artificial intelligence, and programmed behavior. The robots in the story wonder why humans couldn’t overcome their instincts and they regret that their programming makes them kill. This is an early story of fearing the consequences of military robots.

“Rust” is a wistful story about the last three intelligent robots after man has become extinct, reminding me of Clifford Simak’s stories about robots telling each other tales of mythical mankind. I assume Simak read Astounding Science Fiction since his serial novel Cosmic Engineers ran in the magazine during 1939, so he probably read “Rust.”

“I, Robot” and “Rust” make bookend robot stories to include in this anthology of 1939. “I, Robot” is about the first intelligent robot, and “Rust” is about the last. Men want to kill Adam Link, but X-120 regrets exterminating humanity but blames humans for designing him to be a weapon. At one point X-120 obliterates a poor rabbit only to feel terrible remorse.  Unlike Asimov’s robots, the robot X-120 was programmed to kill.

Neanderthals

There are two stories in The Great SF Stories #1 about Neanderthals: “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp and “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey. Both are about the last Neanderthal, however “The Gnarly Man” develops another science fiction theme, immortality. So in one story, the last Neanderthal was in the distant past, and the second he’s still living with us today. This idea has been bouncing around ever SF ever since, including “The Alley Man” by Philip Jose Farmer in a 1959 issue of F&SF, and recently in the 2007 film, The Man from Earth.

“The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey really grabbed me emotionally and is about the passing of a Neanderthal man who was living on Cro-Magnon charity. “The Day is Done” suggests Neanderthals interbred with modern man, which wasn’t a common belief back in 1939, but is considered fact today. It’s a lovely story that’s been often reprinted. You’d think stories Neanderthal life would be filed under historical fiction, but for some reason, science fiction has claimed them. See “5 SF/F Novels About Neanderthals That Aren’t The Clan of the Cave Bear” that barely mentions a few of them. I think the first story I remember reading on this theme was Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver from the old Winston Science Fiction series. Asimov and Greenberg even did a whole anthology of such stories called Neanderthals.

Dangerous Aliens

This is one of the wonderful benefits of reading old science fiction is discovering the origin of popular modern SF stories. Ideas in new stories we read today are often old ideas being recycled. Anyone who knows “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt assumes the film Alien (1979) is its descendant — and Van Vogt shows us Coeurl’s POV, which is missing from H. R. Giger’s horrifying being.

“Black Destroyer” is a wonderful story on many levels. It feels like an episode of Star Trek, and this 1939 novelette includes many ideas that the 1960s TV show would explore in multiple episodes. The crew doesn’t include women, but it did have an important Japanese member.

“Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell is another kind of alien invasion story, where superior beings take over the Earth and enslave humans.  It also involves the SF themes of Far Futures, Super Science, Psychic Powers, and Matriarchial Societies.

Prejudice Against Science

Both “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein and “Trends” by Isaac Asimov are about anti-science prejudice. Of course, Heinlein’s idea was nutty, but he gave a decent enough explanation. I wondered if Heinlein and Asimov were reflecting anti-SF bias they felt from 1939 society. Science fiction and pulp magazines were considered trashy. Good parents didn’t let their kids reach such crap. SF fans often had to hide what they read, even though they thought of themselves as Slans (superior beings).

Both of these stories were about something else, predicting death and rocket travel, but I felt ultimately they were about prejudice to new ideas. When I was young I didn’t like “Life-Line” even though Heinlein was my favorite writer. But over the years, each time I reread “Life-Line” it gets better. For a first story, Heinlein was fairly savvy about storytelling, especially for writing for the pulps.

Mankind’s Extinction

Both “Rust” and “Living Fossil” a favorite story from 1939 not in this collection were about a time after humans went extinct. H. G. Wells started that idea I think in The Time Machine when he imagined the Eloi and Morlocks replacing us. Science fiction has often contemplated the end of humans, and well as our replacements.

“Living Fossil” did quite a lot for such a short story. De Camp nicely imagines monkeys from South America evolving our level of development millions of years after humans have disappeared. Even the interior illustration makes me wonder if Pierre Boulle ripped this story off for his novel Planet of the Apes. Evidently, L. Sprague de Camp isn’t as litigious as Harlan Ellison.

Living Fossil by L. Sprague de Camp - Astounding 1939 Feb

Matriarchial Societies

In “Pilgrimage” by Nelson Bond, we visit a far distant future after our society has long disappeared from the scene. Women rule. All the myths are about women gods. In “Cloak of Aesir” the alien invaders are ruled by the female of the species. I first encountered this idea in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from 1915. Goodreads lists 115 such books. Wikipedia has an article on “Single Gender Worlds.”

Psychic Powers

I thought psychic powers was an obsession of 1950s Astounding Science Fiction, but evidently, John W. Campbell had been thinking about it at least as early as “Cloak of Aesir” in 1939. “Star Bright” by Jack Williamson is a fantasy story about a man getting magical abilities from a meteorite piercing his skull and lodging in his brain.

“Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore is a powerful story about people in the far future projecting their thoughts to a man in our near future. Moore’s story is really about two roads the people of Earth could take in 1939. She just used psychic powers to show us two possible far-future outcomes–one a world united by power driven men (think Hitler), and the other a decadent world of peace and pleasure. Moore doesn’t want either, but she shows how both entice us.

Hard Science

There were two hard science stories in The Great SF Stories #1. The first was “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman that anticipates Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. The second is Heinlein’s “Misfit” about a spaced based future CCC unit moving a small asteroid out of the asteroid belt into an orbit closer to Mars, making it into a long-term space station. Heinlein promotes the use of mathematics, discipline, and hard work. This could be his first juvenile SF story.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed these old stories, but I’m not sure younger people will. The storytelling is often crude. Modern science fiction on Netflix is far more sophisticated, colorful, exciting, and dynamic. I am constantly pleased while reading these old stories to unearth ideas we still use today. I feel like a science fiction archeologist piecing together the evolution of science fictional ideas. That’s very rewarding to me. Throughout this collection of 1939 stories, I found ideas that first amazed me in the 1960s when reading 1950s and 1960s science fiction. I thought those ideas were original back then. Evidently not. But were they original in 1939?

I assume if you live long enough you start thinking like the person who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. I also assume if I could time travel back to 450 BCE I’d find people telling stories that contained the seeds of all the stories in The Great SF Stories #1 (1939).

Jim

Could A Robot Read Jules Verne?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 12, 2018

I’m listening to the AmazonClassics audiobook edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, a novel originally published in France in 1864, and first translated into English in 1871. The translation I read was by F. A. Malleson, from 1877, and is considered a pretty good translation. Verne suffered from many bad translations, often ruining his reputation in the English speaking world.  The story is impressively narrated by Derek Perkins. His voice perfectly matches this 19th adventure tale. This audiobook sounds more thrilling and real than most of the silly movie and television productions I’ve seen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 26Journey to the Center of the Earth 36

However, I have one problem with Verne’s story. It’s not very believable. Of course, it’s well over a century-and-a-half since Verne imagined it, and science has progressed a great deal, but was it even believable in his day? I wish I had an AI robot that could read and understand fiction and nonfiction. I want to talk to it like Alexa but it would be much smarter. I want my AI mind to crawl across the web and answer questions for me. Google is so goddamn stupid that it drives me crazy. I searched for [19th-century reviews of “journey to the center of the earth”] but it only brought up modern reviews of recent book editions and movie versions. I thought my query was quite explicit. If Google is such a leader in AI, why can’t it understand my query? Don’t you get tired of all the crap Google searches return?

I want to build an AI mind that I could input texts of all the science fiction stories and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries and have it analyze those works by correlating that content with information found on the internet. Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in a magazine for boys. I’ve love to find diaries, journals, essays, and books by 19th-century readers who read Journey to the Center of the Earth when it came out and to know their reactions. Verne adds a good deal of science from his day into his story to make it sound plausible, but was it?

Hollow Earth theories and stories go back much further than Verne. Were its proponents and speculating on real possibilities and taken seriously? Or, were they the UFO nutters of their day? I get the feeling that the concept of dinosaurs had inflamed 19th-century imaginations and Verne used his story to speculate how dinosaurs could still exist. He was doing the same thing that Doyle’s The Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park did, creating a theory to present live dinosaurs. I have many theories about the evolution of science fiction, and having an AI collaborator could really help.

I’d love to build an AI robot that I could chat with me about science fiction. I picture talking my digital companion like Mannie did with Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) by Robert A. Heinlein. I imagine creating my AI friend like the AI machines in When HARLIE Was One (1972) by David Gerrold or Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers, where Harlie and Helen came into consciousness by interacting with a human mentor. I fantasize talking with this AI and collaborating on articles about the history of science fiction. And what if it woke up and became conscious?

Computer scientists are building AI machines using machine learning to do all kinds of things today. If they can master games like Chess, Jeopardy, Go, and old Atari 2600 games, or analyze MRIs and X-rays for cancer, why couldn’t they learn everything to know about science fiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning ML (machine language) using Python. I’ve been daydreaming about building a machine after reading (“Deep Confusion: Misadventures in Building a Deep Learning Machine,” “The $1700 great Deep Learning box: Assembly, setup and benchmarks,” and “Build a super fast deep learning machine for under $1,000“) or just paying for a hosting service like Paperspace. There’s a new edition of Python Machine Learning: Machine Learning and Deep Learning with Python, scikit-learn, and TensorFlow by Raschka and Mirjalili that could get me started, or Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron.

Of course, I doubt if I could ever program such a fantastic AI machine or even learn the basics of ML at my age. I’ve been watching a series of videos from Google Developers on Machine Learning Recipes. I’ve also been reading about Natural Language Processing with Python, a book I bought years ago when this idea first came to me. The concepts aren’t hard, but it would be just the first steps on a journey of ten thousand miles. I’m not sure I have the concentration power or memory space anymore. I’m probably too old and too feeble minded to do it, but that doesn’t mean some youngster couldn’t.

I’m quite envious and jealous that young people today can choose this kind of work for their career. I programmed databases during my work years, and that was fun enough, but imagine getting to develop robots, AI minds, and machine learning? What an exciting time to be a programmer.

JWH

Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Christmas came early this year for me. I’ve been wishing since 2002 for an audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One and my wish was finally granted sometime after midnight this morning. (For non-Audible.com members there’s a CD version but it’s $45.)

Science Fiction Hall of Fame v. 1The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One is probably the most loved science fiction anthology of all time and comes in #1 at Goodreads list of Best Science Fiction Anthologies. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) voted for its contents when they formed in 1965 to recognize the best science fiction stories published before the Nebula Awards were created. The anthology was edited by Robert Silverberg and first published in 1970.

Just after five in the morning, I began the download. Sitting in the dark with my headphones I sampled the stories. There are 26, narrated by an array of professional readers that bring these tales vividly alive to my ears. I’ve long recognized that my reading skills are poor compared to the hired guns of the audiobook world. Since I joined Audible.com in 2002 I’ve been searching out all the science fiction I loved in my youth to reread by listening. When I hear these old favorite stories it’s like when Dorothy opened that door in The Wizard of Oz and the black and white movie switched to Technicolor. I get so much more from hearing than when I read with my eyes.

The pulp fiction punch came through right from the first with “The Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum. Science fiction is often attacked as poorly written, yet while I jumped from story to story sampling how each sounded, I felt the writing was lovely and vivid. Each story began with distinctive details that envisioned a uniquely imagined concept. Sure, this is pulp fiction, but it’s pulp fiction at its classic best. These old stories showcase how science fiction writers back then felt compelled to invent a novel idea to fictionalize. I often read stories today that improvise off these original themes.

These stories all get their own entries in Wikipedia, which attests to their longevity. I’m borrowing this table from Wikipedia in case you want to read about them and their authors.

Author Story Title Year of first publication
Stanley G. Weinbaum A Martian Odyssey 1934
John W. Campbell Twilight 1934
Lester del Rey Helen O’Loy 1938
Robert A. Heinlein The Roads Must Roll 1940
Theodore Sturgeon Microcosmic God 1941
Isaac Asimov Nightfall 1941
A. E. van Vogt The Weapon Shop 1942
Lewis Padgett Mimsy Were the Borogoves 1943
Clifford D. Simak Huddling Place 1944
Fredric Brown Arena 1944
Murray Leinster First Contact 1945
Judith Merril That Only a Mother 1948
Cordwainer Smith Scanners Live in Vain 1948
Ray Bradbury Mars is Heaven! 1948
Cyril M. Kornbluth The Little Black Bag 1950
Richard Matheson Born of Man and Woman 1950
Fritz Leiber Coming Attraction 1950
Anthony Boucher The Quest for Saint Aquin 1951
James Blish Surface Tension 1952
Arthur C. Clarke The Nine Billion Names of God 1953
Jerome Bixby It’s a Good Life 1953
Tom Godwin The Cold Equations 1954
Alfred Bester Fondly Fahrenheit 1954
Damon Knight The Country of the Kind 1955
Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon 1959
Roger Zelazny A Rose for Ecclesiastes 1963

I consider”A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny the epitome of pulp science fiction style, and the story I was most anxious to hear. It came out in 1963 just before the Mariner IV mission to Mars forever ruined the planet for pulp fiction adventure. After NASA science fiction had to grow up and accept a new reality. Mars and Venus could no longer be home to ancient races, and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a wistful elegy of an era.

It’s quite elegant that The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One begins with “A Martian Odyssey” and ends with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” using the two best short stories about Mars as bookends for the anthology. These stories are the sense of wonder of my childhood. I can’t recommend this anthology highly enough. It captures the essence of the science fiction that baby boomer SF fans discovered in the 1960s and defined the genre for us.

I thought I’d close out this essay with cover images that first featured these stories. What’s funny is many of them didn’t make the cover art — which is a pity. Makes me wonder if the editors didn’t recognize their greatness at that time, or if they thought other stories were superior. I’m also going to include the link to the story’s Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDb) entry so you can see how often it’s been anthologized over the years.

My many thanks to the gods of the audiobook world. You have given me many hours of happiness.

A Martian Odyssey – by Stanley G. Weinbaum

1 - A Martian Odyssey

Twilight – by John W. Campbell

2 - Twilight

Helen O’Loy by Lester del Rey

3 - Helen O'Loy

The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein

4 - The Roads Must Roll

Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon

5 - Microscopic God

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

6 - Nightfall

The Weapon Shop by A. E. van Vogt

7 - The Weapons Shop

Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore)

8 - Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Huddling Place by Clifford D. Simak

9 - Huddling Place

Arena by Fredric Brown

10 - Arena

First Contact by Murray Leinster

11 - First Contact

That Only a Mother by Judith Merril

12 - That Only a Mother

Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith

13 - Scanners Live in Vain

Mars Is Heaven! by Ray Bradbury

14 - Mars is Heaven

The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth

15 - Little Black Bag

Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson

16 - Born of Man and Woman

Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber

17 - Coming Attraction

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher

18 - The Quest for Saint Aquin

Surface Tension by James Blish

19 - Surface Tension

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

20 - The Nine Billion Names of God

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby

21 - It's a Good Life

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin

22 - The Cold Equations

Fondly Fahrenheit  by Alfred Bester

23 - Fondly Fahrenheit

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight

24 - The Country of the Kind

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

25 - Flowers for Algernon

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

26 - A Rose for Ecclesiastes

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