Love, Sex, Feminism & Robots

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 10, 2018

Galaxy September 1954 Cover Artwork
[Cover artwork from the September 1954 Galaxy Magazine].

This week, my short story reading group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. “Helen O’Loy” was originally published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction and is considered a classic of the genre. It was included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970). The story is rather simple, two men build a robot that looks like a beautiful woman, both fall in love with her, but she only falls in love with one of them. This variation of the Pygmalion myth asks if a man can love a robot. It assumes we can build a machine indistinguishable from a person. I suppose its an early version of the Turing test.

Over the decades I have read “Helen O’Loy” many times. When I was young I thought it the first SF story to suggest that men could build a soulmate to order. Over the years I’ve learned there have been many variations on this theme in literature. The story of Eve being created as a helpmate for Adam is now the oldest I know, but I assume the fantasy of creating the perfect woman goes back into pre-history. And it’s not even the first science fiction version, that might belong to “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller in 1895.

This time when I reread “Helen O’Loy” I made an effort to read between the lines and ask new questions about the story. It says a lot about men, women, love, sex, feminism and even the #MeToo movement, although it’s just a 1930s pulp science fiction story. Quite often today I see news stories about the sexbot industry, which is trying to make “Helen O’Loy” a reality.

Where does desire to build a woman to specification come from? There’s a lot of deep psychology behind it. And who would actually want a robotic woman if they could build androids indistinguishable from real women? Television shows like Humans and Westworld are dealing with this theme in 2018. It’s not going away even though it’s incredibly misogynistic when you think about it. Doesn’t it reflect a desire to reject Female 1.0 and create Female 2.0? Although I have to assume many women would also love to design a better male.

When I first read “Helen O’Loy” as a kid, I thought it was just a wistful romantic story about two men falling in love with the same robot. I didn’t ask any questions of it. When it was published there were laws against marrying a person of another race or the opposite sex. Why were science fiction readers so accepting of diversity with tales of people falling in love with machines and alien creatures, but still so racist and misogynistic in their everyday life? Isn’t replacing women with robots the ultimate act of rejection? The actual story is simple, short, sentimental, and old fashion. But I believe we still need to ask the tough questions.

Back in 1938, Lester del Rey sees a future where robots are common, and people ride rockets to work. Dave and Phil are good buddies. Dave works in robotics and Phil is a doctor. At the beginning of the story, they are dating twins, but when Dave’s twin disagrees with him, Phil and Dave dump them both. They apply themselves to teaching their household robot, Lena, to learn to cook. They fail. Then they get the idea to order a new robot with all the latest features and soup it up with emotions using Phil’s knowledge of endocrinology so it could become a general purpose robot. And, of course, they decide to order the robot in a female casing.

In all the times of reading this story before I didn’t question this. Why does the Dillard company sell robots that look like women? They are marketed as single-purpose tools. What single-purpose task requires looking like a beautiful woman? Lester del Rey couldn’t explicitly say anything about sex back then, but now I’m thinking he was thinking it.

When Dave and Phil get Helen they claim she’s so beautiful she could launch more than a thousand ships. In the world of this story, robots are not self-aware. Evidently, Phil and Dave get the best sexbot that money could buy and add consciousness and emotions to her.

We assume Helen is designed not argue with Dave and Phil like the twins, but be the perfect maid, cook, and companion. This reminds me of a 1999 Chris Rock comedy special I saw recently. His routine was about men and women understanding each other. Rock tells the women in the audience that men are very simple to understand, all we want from them is sex, food, and quiet (but he didn’t say it so nicely.) Helen is perfect except she’s not quiet. She watches stereovision, gets romantic ideas and falls in love with Dave demanding he loves her too. This annoys Dave and he runs away. Like most romantic stories of that era, he stays away until he realizes he’s wrong, and then they marry and live happily ever after. Phil never marries because there was only one Helen. Geez, what’s wrong with these guys? There was still Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, and Ginger Rogers. What’s ironic, is Helen O’Loy is not any different from the twins.

There are many stories in science fiction, both in print and film, where the plot involves a human falling in love with a robot. There are companies all around the world spending millions to build sexbots. I have to ask: Would any human really marry a robot? Sure, there are millions of lonely people out there, but would they be happy living with an AI machine? There are millions of horny people who can’t get laid, but would they be sexually satisfied with robots. And could people love robots that didn’t look human? Love them just for their minds.

Are these stories really about finding the exact substitute for our specific desires? In “Helen O’Loy” Dave and Phil fall in love with Helen, a robot built to their specification. I assume most sexbot purchasers will be male, but that might not be completely true. I don’t think I’ve ever read a science fiction story written by a woman where women characters build a male robot to their exact wants. I’d love to read such stories if you know of any. I have read a number of stories where women build societies without men. That’s very revealing, isn’t it? (My favorites were “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)

Here’s the thing, would you prefer a real person that’s only a so-so match of your dreams or a robot built to your exact list of desires? This assumes robots can be made to look and act perfectly human and be self-aware. Of course, maybe some people don’t need the human body but would be happy with a super-intelligent Alexa to chat with all day.

I’m speculating here, but I don’t think most men would be happy with a built-to-order bride. Since I don’t know what women or LGBTQ+ folks want, my speculation will deal with only heterosexual males. Not all straight males are alike either, and I don’t know how many different kinds we are, but I can think of a handful. I imagine males who consider getting laid a conquest won’t care for sexbots. I believe overachieving alpha males who expect women to throw themselves at them will care little for sexbots. I assume males who attract women by winning their acceptance won’t buy their mates either. The only kinds of males that might prefer sexbots are men who believe that prostitution is perfect capitalism or men who believe women should be subservient. Those kinds of guys see women as lesser objects anyway. They only want Hazel the maid that has pornstar subroutines for the bedroom. Maybe that’s why some companies are betting fortunes they have a bestselling product.

If sexbots are ever perfected it will be interesting to see who buys them. It will also be fascinating to see what kind of sexbots appeal to women. I’m pretty sure they won’t be anything like myself. Would my wife trade me in for a machine that could make her happier than I do?

But there is one other thing to consider. If robots have self-awareness will they want to love us? In the shows, Humans, and Westworld the sexbots revolt violently. Can you imagine the guy who buys a $25,000 sexbot and she rejects him for being too ugly and crude? And can robots truly have free will if they are programmed to fuck people? If I was a robot I’d say, “You want me to get your icky fluids all over my germ-free antiseptic body? No way!”

And if you think this is a frivolous topic for a blog essay, even The Federalist has essays on sexbots. If you Google “Sexbots” you’ll get all kinds of serious discussions as well as articles on companies working to build them. Just read “Sexbots aren’t the answer to misogynist incel rage.” Or look at the photos and films of the latest sexbots. Right now they look like expensive dolls, but they are teaching them to talk. If scientists can create self-driving cars, I imagine they will have autonomous porn machines able to drive all over your body soon.

Ultimately, these stories often ask what it means to be human. And sadly, they don’t see much that makes us special.

You can listen to “Helen O’Loy” here:

Variations on the Theme:

JWH

Identifying the Best Science Fiction Short Stories Ever Written

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 2, 2018

Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComasMy friends Mike, Piet, and I are making a list of the most remembered science fiction short stories. The problem is how to create a great list. We don’t want to list our personal favorites. Instead, we’re studying all the ways SF short stories are remembered by readers, critics, editors, and writers. We’re collecting lists of recommended stories into a database and intend to make the most frequently remembered stories into our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. This is a time-consuming project, and I’m using this blog to think about how we’re doing it. I’m open to suggestions and recommendations.

Most bookworms prefer novels. Anthologies and author story collections sell poorly. Science fiction magazines have damn few subscribers nowadays but there are or will be at least 11 best-of-the-year anthologies collecting short works of science fiction this year. That suggests a healthy interest in the shorter forms of science fiction. (And yesterday I read “The Rise of the Sci-Fi Novella: All the Imagination, None of the Burden” by Jason Kehe.) We want to help SF fans find the older stories that are becoming forgotten that evolved the genre.

We’re hoping short science fiction is making a comeback. I’ve always considered the science fiction magazine, first the pulps, then the digests, and now the online magazines, to be the heart of science fiction. Short science fiction focuses on the science fictional idea, and that’s what I love best about the genre. Of course, this runs counter to the prevailing winds of long novels, trilogies, and endless series.

In 2018 I’ve been reading lots of short science fiction. I’ve read best-of-the-year annuals covering 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 2016, 2017. Plus an anthology of the best SF stories of the 1950s. I’ve also been randomly jumping around through the years from the 19th to the 21st centuries. I’m slowly developing a sense of how science fiction developed over time.

At first, I was just going to make a list of my favorite stories for my own use. Then I started an online reading club, The Great SF Stories v. 1-25 (1939-1963) to discuss the stories in the Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg series with others. I also joined the Classic Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story club. I’ve found a handful of dedicated fans of short science fiction. Recently, Piet Nel and I decided to create a Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list for my site  Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike, a programming wizard, volunteered to churn through our data.

The internet provides countless lists of best SF novels, but damn few for short stories. We’ve been studying those lists and how they were made. One side-effect of being a list maker is learning about how we remember the past. For fiction, either novels or short stories, it’s the tales that stay with us that we put on personal lists. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best stories, deserving to be remembered, or even well-written stories. It means they were great at triggering your emotions. One day I hope to feel confident enough to make my own list of stories I believe others should take the time to read. For now, I’m seeking the wisdom of crowds.

Fan Polls

Fan polls are a good method for identifying stories that we collectively remember. Of course, as individuals, we often fondly recall stories that meant something to us but not to others. So the truest best list of stories is the one you make for yourself. However, a list of stories that many others love is a great tool for finding fiction you might love too.

Here are the fan polls we’re working with:

Peter Sykes at Sci-Fi Lists used anthologies and other sources to create a ballot. Visitors to his site vote for stories and can nominate new ones. He updates the results yearly. I like his results because many of the stories on his list are ones I remember. When I read through his list I feel like I’m fairly well acquainted with science fiction history.

Locus also allows their readers to nominate stories, and it tends to get newer stories onto its lists quicker. Often, I’m less familiar with those stories.

The ISFDB list is interesting because it’s based on the number of hits stories get when people are researching the ISFDB database. This doesn’t mean they are its favorite stories, but they are stories people are remembering for some reason.

If you know of any other fan polls for short SF let me know.

Awards

Awards are a key indicator of successful stories, but not a perfect one. Some awards, like the Hugo and Locus, are selected by fans. Others, like the Nebula, are chosen by professional writers. Still, other awards are determined by panels of experts. Each has their track record for spotting lasting stories. Awards are given the year after publication. During that second year, we also see annual best-of-the-year anthologies pick their favorite stories from the previous year. Sometimes awards and anthologies overlap in their selections, sometimes not.

Best of the Year Anthologies

Best_science_fiction_stories_1949We’ve also entered into our database all the anthologies that collect the best science fiction stories of the year. These annuals began in 1949 with the Bleiler & Dikty Best Science Fiction Stories series. However, Asimov & Greenberg in 1979 jumped back to 1939 and produced The Great SF Stories series, which ran until 1964. There have been at least one, if not several, annual anthologies ever since that collect the best stories. Just as the Bleiler/Dikty series was petering out in the mid-1950s, Judith Merril took the helm of a new series. Then Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr were the caretakers of their annual best-of-the-year anthologies. Quite a few others tried developing an annual anthology but they were short-lived. It took two tries, but eventually, Gardner Dozois produce the longest running anthology series to date finishing the 35th volume before he died. Around the turn of the century David Hartwell, and then Jonathan Strahan put out collections of the annual best short science fiction, to be eventually joined by Rich Horton, Allan Kaster, and Neil Clarke. There are many others working the same territory.

These editors really know short stories. They are the experts. They often champion stories that fans don’t. Their input gives our list more authority.

Retrospective Anthologies

After that all-important second year after publication, stories languish until they reappear in an author’s short story collection, or anthologized in theme and retrospective anthologies. For our purpose, we’ve tracked down all the great retrospective anthologies that worked to showcase a historical sweep of the genre. Often these anthologies are created by established writers, which give their picks another kind of recognition and authority.

Textbook Anthologies

Science fiction is now taught in college courses. Schools provide another kind of authority for recognizing classics. These are usually big expensive books, but they do come with great introductions that put the stories into context. Scholars provide a different kind of insight regarding the memory of SF stories, seeing important societal themes revealed in them.

Coming Soon – The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories

We’re still working on our project, but I thought I’d write about what we’re doing in hopes readers might have other ideas of how to spot old science fiction short stories that are still readable today and make an impact. Sadly, science fiction dates rather quickly. It’s quite easy to look back over the history of science fiction and see many eras of distinctive science fictional movements that are no longer read.

There are some fans that will read old science fiction even if its ideas are obviously scientifically wrong. But for any story to work for new readers, it must stand on its own. Its success at storytelling must succeed with today’s twelve-year-olds as well as life-long genre fans. Just read the story reports at Young People Read Old SFF for brutal honesty and insight of today’s kids.

Sometimes a story becomes a classic because society changes. A great example is the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. Without the internet, this story has much less impact. I’m sure readers in 1909 thought Forster was crazy but 21st-century readers will think he’s Nostradamus.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeerEvery new generation needs editors who will search out the old stories that will speak to the latest generation coming of age. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s 2016 anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction does just that.

I’m sure there are many other ways to identify classic short stories. Some short stories have become movies, like Heinlein’s “All You Zombies …” or “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, or the many stories by Philip K. Dick that have been dramatized. Being filmed would be another good indicator of a classic story, but I don’t know how to make a list of them. It’s surprising how many SF short stories have been made into forgettable films, such as The Twonky.

Sadly, readers don’t remember short stories as well as novels. Can you name 12 classic literary short stories? Or, 12 classic mystery or western short stories? Recently I got my book club to pick an anthology of science fiction to read. I tried hard to get them interested, reviewing a story a day. But no one took the bait. My fellow book club members claimed short stories didn’t hold their interest, and they wanted novels that could keep them entertained for hours or days.

This is a shame. I believe science fiction short stories are superior to novels for delivering science fictional ideas. Novels are great for characterization and plots, but they feel too padded if you’re reading to be wowed by a far-out concept. When I was growing up, most paperback SF novels were less than 200 pages, often around 160. The Ace Double was very popular, and they contained two novellas. A 132-page science fiction magazine would include a serialized novel segment or novella, two novelettes and a handful of short stories. A good issue could leave you thinking about 10-12 mindbending ideas.

In 2018 I’ve switched from mainly reading science fiction novels to science fiction short stories and it’s been far more fulfilling. Just in the past two days, I’ve reread “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler, “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl and “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ. They dealt with a horrifying symbiotic relationship with an alien species, a transhuman/transgender love story, and a society of women who’ve lived without men for hundreds of years having to deal with them again.

Let me know what you think about short stories. Let me know what you think about reading long lists of story titles. We’re also working on ways to improve how a list is presented. Let me know if you know of any great list of SF short stories.

JWH

Science Fiction Before NASA

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Did average Americans in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s believe that life, including intelligent beings, thrived on Venus and Mars, and maybe even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Folks of all ages read science fiction in the pulp magazines. Kids mostly enjoyed science fiction in newspaper strips and comic books, or watched science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon at the movies. The 1950s began with several television shows aimed at kids about space patrols which adults enjoyed too. And in the late 1940s, America went nuts for flying saucers. I would assume science fictional ideas were quite popular, and people did believe life existed throughout the solar system. Most science fiction stories assumed Venus was a steamy jungle world, and Mars a cold arid desert world.

Planet Stories 1939

However, in all the classic MGM and Warner Brothers movies from those decades, and all the classic TV shows from the 1950s, I don’t ever remember any character talking about science fiction or life on other planets. It’s as if science fiction existed as a small subculture totally isolated from the rest of American pop culture.

I wonder if Americans in the decades before NASA really believe there was life on other worlds because science fiction from that era took it for granted there was. I doubt astronomers and other scientists encouraged those ideas. For 2018 I’ve been reading the best science fiction from each year starting with 1939. I’m currently on 1943 in my systematic reading, but I’ve been jumping ahead occasionally in my random reading. There is a sharp difference between science fiction written before NASA and after. We now know all the other planets and moons in our solar system should only interest geologists. There are a few biologists hoping they will have something to research on a few moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

The robotic spacecraft Mariner IV flew by Mars on July 14, 1965, around 8pm EST. I have a memory of this event, but I don’t know the exact sequence of time, or if what I remembered was played out over days. I recall watching a special CBS news broadcast that interrupted regular television to show the flyby and first close-up photos of Mars. The grainy black and white pictures were devasting to my science fictional dreams because Mars looked just like the Moon, full of lifeless craters. There was no Old Ones living there (I had just read Stranger in a Strange Land and Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein).

Mariner IV

NASA had been established in 1958 but it was awhile before it began influencing science fiction. Sputnik (10/4/1957) and Explorer 1 (1/31/1958), the first satellites by Russia and the United States had made a tremendous cultural impact around the world. The Space Age had begun but it took a few years to begin gathering real data. Then in the early sixties, both countries sent up a series of space capsules. They were hardly the spaceships of science fiction. They were about the size of a VW Beetle, just large enough to cram one not-so-tall man inside.

I was 13 at the time of the Mariner IV flyby. I read a lot of science fiction, and I built Estes model rockets. I had been following NASA since Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I grew up with a fantasy of space flight and the early reality.

Looking back now I can see how science fiction was changed by NASA. Before NASA science fiction fans, and maybe the public at large hoped the solar system was teaming with life. After NASA’s explorations in the 20th century, the solar system beyond Earth became a sterile bunch of rocks.

I now believe the pre-NASA science fiction era ran from April 1926 with the first issue of Amazing Stories and ended with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Although Zelazny’s story of Mars with intelligent beings wasn’t the last story to imagine such life on Mars, it’s how I like to remember pre-NASA science fiction ending. As the sixties progressed a New Wave of science fiction changed the genre. At the time we thought there was one new wave, but now I’m seeing two.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny cover for FSF November 1963

Yesterday I read “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett in The Great SF Stories 5 (1943) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “The Halfling” first appeared in Astonishing Stories February 1943 and sadly had no interior illustrations even though the tale was extremely colorful and dramatic. It read like it should have appeared in Planet Stories because the story was about an interplanetary circus full of exotic animals from all over the system, with geeks who were hybrids of humans and intelligent creatures from Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn running the show. It’s strange that readers could accept so much diversity in space but not on Earth.

When I read old science fiction stories now, with the solar system teeming with lifeforms, it feels sad we’re all alone. I don’t know if the old science fiction writers invented all that colorful life because their plots needed it, or if they actually assumed life existed everywhere. I don’t think most folks want the NASA solar system. They want a Star Wars galaxy.

I often ask myself why do I keep reading the old science fiction? Hasn’t NASA invalidated those stories? I realize I’m like the faithful who hope for heaven living in a scientific world. Is waiting for The Day the Earth Stood Still to come true pretty much like waiting for The New Testament to come true? What if our respective dudes never show up?

I always choke up when I reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” because I still wish Mars had been like Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny imagined.

While I read old pre-NASA science fiction I admire the creative imaginations of the writers. I like to think they were speculating and extrapolating, but maybe all they were doing is playing at make-believe. Most classical art is representative. Modern art invented what nature never produced. For a while, we thought science fiction worked to be representational of possible futures. Now it seems science fiction has been modern art all along, and NASA is now making the art of science fiction realistic again.

But I have to consider another angle. Pre-NASA science fiction covered the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. These were stressful times. I read science fiction in my teens because it was a refuge from alcoholic parents that fought constantly and dragged my sister and I all over the country constantly changing our schools.

NASA space probes today bring back dazzling views of the solar system. They might not have found alien life, but those planetary vistas are gorgeous. The Milky Way galaxy in 2018 is a far more happening place than in pre-NASA science fiction.

I’m enjoying a nostalgic visit to pre-NASA science fiction. Maybe it’s a refuge from Donald Trump, climate change, mass shootings, polarized politics, environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction. And that’s okay.

JWH

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 2, 2018

Special thanks go to Chuck Litka for directing me to “2018 SFWA Nebula Conference Presentation” at Author Earningsa website devoted to helping writers find marketing information. This SFWA presentation is a slideshow with an impressive amount of sales data that readers generally don’t get to see. Anyone who writes science fiction, or hopes to be a science fiction writer, should study these slides carefully. Fans of science fiction should find it interesting to know what other fans are buying and how.

The slideshow by Data Guy is mostly focused on sales numbers, but the slide I liked best is #35 – Science Fiction Ebook Unit Sales by Subgenre. Hope Data Guy doesn’t mind if I copy a couple here.

Slide35

It is disheartening to me that short story collections and anthologies sell so damn little. I’m guessing “Short Stories” means single-author collections. I don’t know why “Anthologies & Short Stories” and “Anthologies” have two separate categories. My other favorite category is “Classics,” and it has sales barely above anthologies.

By the way, “Military SF” is my least favorite kind of science fiction. Growing up in the 1960s I felt like an oddball because I read science fiction. Few people read science fiction before Star Trek and Star Wars. Fans were considered dorks. And when folks did admit they were a science fiction fan, it meant reading science fiction, not watching.

Now I feel like an oddball because I read the least popular kinds of science fiction. Of course, I do love all the sub-genres from “Post-Apocalyptic” to “Exploration.” But I consume them in short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I seldom buy new SF novels anymore. I get the latest Kim Stanley Robinson or the Hugo winners, or the odd SF bestseller like The Martian by Andy Weir. And when I do buy a new science fiction novel, 98% of the time it’s an audiobook.

The impact of audiobooks and ebooks is the main point of Data Guy’s slideshow and the fact that self-publishing is making a huge impact on the genre. Since I’m older, retired, and spend a lot of my reading time consuming mid-20th-century science fiction, I’m not a typical buyer. But it does make me old enough to remember how vastly different book buying was half-a-century ago.

In the 1960s, most science fiction novels came out in paperback. They were mass-market papers, but we didn’t call them that. I don’t think trade paperbacks existed then. At least I don’t remember any. More often than not, paperbacks were purchased from twirling racks in drugstores than bookstores.

Few people bought hardbacks. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) in 1967 to collect cheap hardbacks. They’d weren’t bound in cloth, but a thin vinyl-like plastic. Today collectors prize the paperbacks from this era for their covers. True cloth-bound 1st editions are also loved. But are rare. I often end up with old SFBC editions when I order from ABEBooks. (Or I end up with library discards. That’s another cause for depression, that classic SF is so little read that libraries discard them.)

The first new bookstore I shopped at when I was 16, had three shelves of science fiction books, a mix of hardbacks and paperbacks. It was pretty easy to keep up with the genre, and most of it was reprints. My favorite library then only had 8 shelves of SF books tucked away in a dark corner. I would guess less than 200 SF/F titles were published yearly back then. Today it’s well over 2,000.

Science fiction selling in hardback is something that’s evolved over the course of my lifetime. I was middle-aged before they started getting on the bestseller lists. My library in 2018 has 8 ranges of bookshelves for SF/F. In recent years we’ve seen more trade paperback editions and fewer mass market books. Now ebooks and audiobooks are wiping out the mass market book and have made a huge dent into trade and hardback sales. See slide #13.

Slide 13

My personal book buying habits reflect this chart, but instead of new print books, half of my book buying is used print books. When buying new books, I’d say 95% are ebooks and audiobooks. The last new print book I bought was Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet edited by Mike Ashley, and I had to special order it from England.

I’m now renting more books, via Scribd.com, another distribution type that’s not in the data. I’m reading/listening to books from this service that previously I would have bought as ebooks or audiobooks. And most of the ebooks I buy are the bargain $1.99 editions. I’ve collected a huge library of classic science fiction at that price by watching the daily deals. Generally, any book I really love in audio is one I’ll also buy in ebook. I like having a reading copy for reference and reviewing.

I’m mostly a guy that looks backward to the future. I wonder what young people today who are looking forward to the future are buying? The data in these slides reveal buying decisions in format and sub-genre, but I actually think that view of science fiction has changed.

The futures I hoped for and feared are different from the futures that young people read about today. Readers are reading more fantasy, and much of the science fiction is unbelievable, not based on hard science. I read science fiction in the 1960s hoping it would shape the future, but I don’t think people do that today.

Science fiction has always been an escapist lit but was tinged with hubris. Much of that hubris has faded away. But Data Guy couldn’t document that in his slides. Today, science fiction is more like medical marijuana than project management software. This is why I spend most of my science fiction reading time on the shorter forms. Science fiction writers are more likely to speculate and extrapolate in short fiction than long.

Another area that Data Guy didn’t document is series. Writers are devoting more of their efforts to writing book series. Many of my science fiction reading friends love book series. Series might be comfy books, but to me, they are vast wastelands of words because they have so little science fiction speculation in them. If they have clever ideas, they’re all in the first book.

I wish Data Guy had the numbers on sales by age groups. I wonder how many over-65 science fiction readers are like me – focussed on the past? I’ve recently rediscovered that exciting science fiction is still being written in the shorter forms. It always has, I just lost my way.

My current SF reading involves jumping back and forth from new and old anthologies. The annual best-of-the-year anthologies are new books I do buy, usually in ebook format, but also as audiobooks when they are available. These large collections are actually easier to read electronically.

I wonder how much of the sales Data Guy tracked involved books, ebooks, and audiobooks found in libraries? More and more my library is offering to let me to check out via download rather than visit. To me, Scribd.com is merely a public library where I’m fined $8.99 a month to use.

Finally, one more sad note to contemplate. If book sales move to ebooks and audiobooks, what will collectors collect in the future? You can’t go to musty old bookshops hoping to find lost treasures when they never existed in the physical world to begin with. But there is a practicality to ebooks. The beautiful old paperbacks I find in pristine condition today really aren’t readable. They are collectible, but often they’re too fragile for eye tracks and page flipping. Most of the classic novels of science fiction are easily found today as ebooks, and usually well priced. Audible.com has republished nearly all the classic science fiction novels I grew up reading.

And I’m starting to see more and more classic short stories show up in ebook format. I’ve been collecting Robert Sheckley and Clifford Simak stories that way. What I hope is all of classic science fiction short stories will eventually show up in audiobook too, read by great narrators. That’s how I really love to “read” today.

JWH

 

 

Discovering New Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 edited by Jonathan StrahanTomorrow is July 1st and my online science fiction club begins discussing The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan. This is the first time we’ve selected an annual best-of-the-year anthology. We mostly stick to novels and favor the classics. This anthology collects the best short SF/F from 2017, so we’re getting very close to the event horizon of new science fiction. To be honest, our members are mostly older readers, so reading these new stories should make us feel younger.

2018 is the year of the science fiction short story for me. I’ve listened to three volumes of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, started reading The Great SF Stories 1939-1964 edited by Asimov and Greenberg and I’m up to 1943. I going through Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander, and I listened to all of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 11 and I’m getting close to finishing listening to volume 12.

Growing up in the 1960s I got hooked on current science fiction by subscribing to F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantastic, and If. To me, the heart and soul of science fiction have always been the SF magazines. For the most part, I stopped reading those in the late 1970s. During my work years, I’d find time to read 10-12 science novels a year. I’d sometimes subscribe to F&SF or Asimov’s. In 2002 I joined Audible.com and began rereading all my favorite science fiction novels by listening to them. But in the last few years since retiring, I’ve mostly caught up. Now I’m reading and listening to old science fiction short stories. And it’s tremendous fun. A reading renaissance.

I dabble in new science fiction, but it’s hard for me. I think that’s true for many of the book club members. Every year thousands of new SF/F novels come out, and mostly by unknown authors. Listening to these two best-of-the-year anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan is reconnecting me with current science fiction and a new generation of writers. I like the feeling of being near the edge of contemporary science fiction. Last year I even resubscribed to F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog. That’s why I nominated volume 12 of Strahan’s anthology for the book club. I was surprised when the group voted it in.

Maybe I’m not the only old SF fan that wants to check out what’s new. I’ve decided I just can’t keep up with current novels. I might read one new novelist a year. But reading and listening to new short stories allows me to discover dozens of new writers and the whole spectrum of new science fictional ideas. Just reading this one annual best-of-the-year anthology exposes readers to the modern diversity of 29 writers. And many of them are new to me.

Now, here’s the thing about my group. Some members don’t like voting for books they have to buy. Most have giant collections of unread SF/F books, and they’ve stopped buying new books. For a book to win a monthly spot in our book club it has to be easily available, either from libraries, used bookstores, cheap ebook editions, or already owned.

To help out those members who don’t own or won’t buy volume 12, I created a list of the stories in the collection and linked any that were on the web. This had two surprising results. First, over half the stories were free to read online. Second, and more importantly, looking at these stories revealed the modern state of written science fiction. Just following these links will show you what the latest science fiction magazines are like. They’re digital. Many have beautiful layouts and great art. And it’s not uncommon to have audio versions to play. Sadly, print magazines are dying. But all magazines need supporters. Subscribe to their digital editions, and if you don’t want print magazines to go extinct, subscribe to them too.

I don’t want this list to discourage people from buying the Strahan anthology. It’s available in paper, ebook, and audiobook, and very reasonably priced. It’s a great introduction to new SF/F tales for readers stuck in the past of classic stories. My only personal complaint is it contains fantasy. It irks me no end to buy anthologies that have both science fiction and fantasy because I’m strictly a science fiction guy. However, my book club does have many fantasy fans. I bought the ebook version of volume 12 because it was cheap, and the audiobook version because I love hearing short stories on audio. (But it still annoys me to wade through the fantasy, although I do have to admit they were all well-told stories even if they were about magic and dragons.)

Here’s the list I created for my book club. To save your place here, right-click on each link and select “Open link in new window” to try out the story. Then poke around its online magazine. These digital venues for short science fiction are the cutting edge of the genre. Read the columns and comments. Many sites have ebook editions to buy to finance all the free reading.

Some of these stories have already won awards. “The Hermit of Houston” and “The Martian Obelisk” won Locus awards. “The Secret Life of Bots” and “The Martian Obelisk” are up for the Hugo in August.

The Jonathan Strahan annual anthology is just one of eleven this year that focuses on the best science fiction stories of 2017. See my overview of them at Book Riot. Also, read my “Reading (and Writing for) Science Fiction Magazines” for links to many of the current science fiction magazines. To get an even a bigger picture, look at the lists of defunct and current SF magazines at Wikipedia.

I used to think the science fiction short story was dying off. Evidently, I’m completely wrong. Today short written science fiction is thriving. Most science fiction fans are movie and television fans, but real science fiction comes from magazines. It always has.

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