Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 14, 2016

The job of science fiction writers is to imagine things we haven’t imagine before. To speculate about the future, distant worlds, alternate histories, extrapolated trends, artificial life, machine intelligences, the future evolution of our species and so on. The territory of science fiction is quite large. As readers we are entertained by these feats of creativity, and all too often we are enchanted by the ideas that science fiction writers have given us. We want travel to distant worlds to be possible. We want to meet intelligent beings from other worlds, or build sentient machines. But I also think we should think carefully about science fictional speculation and reject ideas that aren’t rational.

ChildhoodsEnd(1stEd)ChildhoodsEnd(1stEd) (1)

I’m currently rereading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke proposes several ideas in this book, some of which I don’t like, and some of which I hope are wrong. In Clarke’s two most famous works: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End, he theorizes that advanced aliens have or will uplifted our species. I don’t know why this idea is so appealing to him. What’s really a strange is 2001: A Space Odyssey was published in 1968, coincidentally, the same year as Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken, which proposed a rather similar idea.

I find the theory that we needed aliens to uplift us, or accelerate our evolution, or explain some of our accomplishments, to be insulting. And these ideas have a strange kinship with religion. Powerful aliens are very much like how our ancestors imagined their gods. And as much as I dislike von Däniken, he spotted the religious angle. I wonder if Clarke knew what he was doing?

Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End even appear to want transcendence through alien intervention. Isn’t Clarke just wishing to be reborn into a higher form and live in heaven? Isn’t he rejecting our current existence and state of being? Which is what most religions do too, by their claims the physical world is imperfect, full of sin and suffering. I prefer science fiction that is full of hubris, and humans pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

The second speculation Clarke pursues in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the fear of artificial intelligence. This is more logical, and maybe even practical. But it’s rather oddly religious too. Isn’t Clarke rejecting our ability to create and conceive our own evolutionary replacements? Isn’t Clarke’s warnings against HAL much like the Bible’s warnings against the Tower of Babel? Isn’t it saying God and aliens can create intelligent beings, but we can’t? Are they both saying, don’t aim too high because we don’t have the abilities.

What if we substituted crosses for monoliths in this story, and God for aliens. Wouldn’t it still work? Aren’t both of Clarke’s most famous stories about salvation by high powers? Aren’t their parallels between the beginning of 2001 and the Garden of Eden story? These two novels are very popular. Yet, isn’t that easily explainable? Even today most people seek salvation via high powers. Look at the current election. Isn’t Donald Trump actual claiming he can save us, that he knows more, that he can work magic, and people believe him. But isn’t that also a rejection of our own abilities and accomplishments?

Sometimes when we read a science fiction story we need to reject its ideas. Even though both of Clarke’s masterpieces are compelling stories, I wouldn’t want them to be true. I’d rather believe we’re here alone in the universe, and we evolved through random events. Then again, I’m an atheist.


Classics of Science Fiction Version 4

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Classics of Science Fiction version 4 is finally finished. I could not have done it without my friend Mike. I had been dreading doing all the work required to update the eleven year-old version 3. In fact, months ago I had given up on the idea, and just moved the v. 3 lists off my hosting site to this blog. I just didn’t want to relearn PHP and MySQL. Mike has been studying new programming languages like Go and Swift, and I asked him if he thought there was an easier way of doing the project. I told him I didn’t want to mess with a hosting site, a SQL database, or creating a data entry system. We finally decided on using .csv files for data entry, and typed everything in Notepad++. Mike programmed the project in Go.  He then developed a complete template based system that generated all the .html files, which we copied to WordPress. It took us weeks to enter in the 65 lists used to create the new Classics of Science Fiction list. After all this studying of science fiction books we’re both looking forward to getting back to reading science fiction.


Titles and authors are linked to content on Wikipedia and Goodreads. Percentage ranks are linked to the actual lists each book were on. Unfortunately, this makes the main page rather large and slow to load.

I’m not sure how many science fiction readers care about such lists, but if you study the new site, it’s very revealing. I love studying how books become popular, and then how they are forgotten. The new main table which ranks the books by the percentage of lists each title is on, replaces the old method of just counting total lists. Not all books could have been on all lists, so to be fair, we calculated the percentage of lists they were on of all the lists they could have been on.

I know all this math might put some people off, so we show both percentages and counts on the tables were titles are ranked.

My favorite table is Versions 1-4 compared. Titles in red are those books that didn’t make it to version 4. Titles in blue are those new to version 4. This quickly lets you see what books are being forgotten, and which books are spreading in our memories.

Each time we make a new version of the Classics of Science Fiction list we love to see which newer books stand out in the crowd. This time we were anxious to see how many books by women writers had become popular in the last decade. We also made a separate list showing which books by women writers are the most remembered in all the lists we gathered. This time, we found eight lists devoted completely to women writers, but most of those lists didn’t try to rank titles. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le  Guin was on 43 of the 65 total lists. But we figured it could have only been on 48 of those lists at most. This meant that The Left Hand of Darkness was on 90% of the lists it could have been on. 43 of 48.

Using percentages allowed newer books to rank higher than they did in version 3. We figure this is fair because we’re removing the penalty for being newer. Older books have an advantage under the system of just counting total lists. For example, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie was on just 11 lists, but because the maximum number of lists it could have been on was just 22 lists, it’s overall ranking was at the 50% rate.

Ultimately, meta-lists like these don’t mean much. It’s just a statistical way to track how books are remembered. But I find that fascinating. I’m sure fans will be outraged if their favorite science fiction novel doesn’t show up on the list. We didn’t choose these titles. Study the 65 lists we used. I’m sure you’ll probably find your favorite novel on some of them. For the main list, it took being on at least 10 lists. To create the list of books by women writers, we wanted it to be around 100 titles. That required using a cutoff of being on at least 4 lists.

We’ve learned that longer lists get boring for readers. I think ideal book list runs to around 100 titles, but for the main list we allowed it to run to 140. Version 3 ran to 193 titles and it was way too long. Probably for many bookworms, Top 25 or Top 50 lists are more appealing. Just scan down the ranked lists and stop when you feel titles are less than classic. The point of this project is to show which books other readers are remembering, and not to make any claims that these are the best books.


The Calculus of Collecting Science Fiction Short Stories

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, October 2, 2016

My calculations all began when I wrote about the science fiction of 1966. Starting with, and hyperlinking over to the World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967, (the 1967 volume covers stories from 1966), I researched each story on the internet. Reading about those stories made me want to read (or reread) the actual stories. So I checked for a copy World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. The cheapest edition was a paperback for $6.50, or $10 for a hardback without dust jacket (prices include shipping). Too much for me, considering their condition.

World's Best Science Fiction 1967

Here is the table of contents for World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick
  • “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
  • “The Keys to December” by Roger Zelazny
  • “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty
  • “Bircher” by A. A. Walde
  • “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock
  • “Bumberboom” by Avram Davidson
  • “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl
  • “The Wings of a Bat” by Pauline Ashwell
  • “The Man from When” by Dannie Plachta
  • “Amen and Out” by Brian W. Aldiss
  • “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny

I remember owning this paperback back in the sixties as a teen, and I probably read it then. Only four of the stories have stuck in my memory though. Writing about 1966 made me want to seek a deeper understanding of that year. Yesterday, I read “The Keys of December” by Roger Zelazny. I was both impressed and moved. It’s a story about the ethics of geo-engineering a planet with emerging life. I don’t remember thinking about such topics when I was young, but I do now. I guess I wasn’t ready. I also loved how Zelazny told his story. It resonated with the genes that make me love science fiction.

Reading “The Keys of December” made me want to read more from World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. What’s driving my current interest in science fiction is akin to being a science fiction archaeologist. Every story is a clue to how we thought in 1966. Instead of reading science fiction to imagine the future, I’m reading science fiction to understand my past, and why we all grew up wanting and fearing the futures we do. Finding each story is like digging up another artifact. On some days I think having copies of all the science fiction magazines is the way to do my research. That’s possible with digitized pulps on the net. On other days, I think just collecting the annual best-of-the-year anthologies is all I need. Then I wonder if buying a couple dozen retrospective anthologies would provide all the historical evidence I should read.

Then it occurred to me to ask how many of these stories I already own. I found “The Keys of December,” “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” “Day Million,” and “Nine Hundred Grandmothers.” Four out of twelve is not bad.

That made me wonder about the mathematics of collecting short stories. How many anthologies would I need to buy to get all the stories I wanted to read from World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967? Would collecting retrospective anthologies be a better purchase than collecting annual anthologies – if my goal is to acquire all the very best science fiction short stories ever written? I’ve generally read novels. Now I’m thinking about the classics of short science fiction.

How many major annual anthologies have there been? If you start counting with The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 1 (1939), edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, and assumed just one anthology a year, the minimum collection would be 77 volumes.  (There are many years with several annual anthologies, especially 2016.) Let’s guestimate the average annual anthology has 15 stories, that would mean 1,155 stories. If I could find large retrospective anthologies with more than 25 stories per volume, I could cut down 77 to 46. The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and And VanderMeer had over a hundred stories, two of which were from World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967. (“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” and “Day Million.”) I need just a dozen books that size.

So I went shopping on I got “Light of Other Days,” and additional copies of “The Keys to December” and “Day Million” by ordering The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg ($4.20). The best way to get “Behold the Man” was by buying The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume III, edited by Arthur C. Clarke and George W. Proctor ($8.99). That got me three stories I mentioned in my essay from 1966 that wasn’t in the Wollheim/Carr annual. The cheapest way I found “For a Breath I Tarry” was by buying Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology, edited by Eric S. Rabkin ($3.48).

For $16.67 I got all the stories I wanted, plus several other great 1966 stories, and a huge number of SF stories from over the last two hundred years. Compared to spending $10 for the World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967 in hardback, $16.67 was a great bargain. I decided I didn’t need “Bircher,” “Bumberboom,” “The Wings of a Bat,” “Amen and Out,” and “The Man from When.” They aren’t often reprinted, and I’ve never heard of any of them since. Which suggests that not all stories in the annual collections are worth remembering. How many great shorter works are produced each year in science fiction? If we say 10, then that’s 900 stories since 1926. That’s not an impossibly large number to consume. Reading three a day, would let me finish in a year. Such a pursuit would be a fascinating education in science fiction evolution and history.

Fantastic - Sept - 1966

I’ve always believed the heart of science fiction is the short stories that appear in the science fiction magazines. That’s ninety years of stories. Theoretically, it would be possible to collect (especially with pulp scans on the internet) all those issues of Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories, Planet Stories, Unknown, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Analog, Fantastic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and even read a good fraction. But that would also be more reading than I have time left in my life.

Then I wondered, would it be possible to collect all the annual anthologies and read them. Would reading the yearly best of the best be worth my time? The 77 volumes since 1939 is not a huge number of books. I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of old science fiction, but I could finish that pile of 77 books in a decade.

The Big Book of Science Fiction

Then I wondered about the mathematics of retrospective anthologies. I already own The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. It has over one hundred stories. I could read it in a year. What if I read one large anthology a year that collects the best science fiction short stories ever written, how many years would it take before I felt I had read the greatest short works of the genre?

I’ve already read countless SF stories in my life, yet I don’t remember most of them. That’s because I consumed science fiction, like eating M&Ms. What if I studied science fiction like I used to study American and English literature in college? Could I create a taxonomy of science fictional themes? I’ve been reading science fiction long enough to see it evolve. For most readers, science fiction is merely entertainment. Exciting stories well told. But I’m starting to see that the science fiction writer has a unique job in society.

Their task is to speculate about possibilities that science has yet to thoroughly explore. Most of the time science squashes these speculations, but not always. Over the centuries many writers speculated about building flying machines. We don’t think airplanes are science fiction anymore because aircraft are mundane now. At one time, speculation about flying machines was science fiction. I wonder how many science fiction stories written fifty years ago have either been shot down by science, engineered into reality, or still a realistic speculation? I also wonder how many science fictional ideas we still want to come true? We’ve been wanting colonies on Mars for a very long time now. Ditto for intelligent robots. Will that change once we’ve been to Mars or lived with AI? What will science fiction writers write about once we’ve settled the galaxy?

That’s why I wonder about numbers. How many science fiction stories have been written? How many unique themes have been developed. How many variations on each theme have emerged? How long does an idea take to die once science has covered it’s territory?

F&SF November 1963

Think about the story “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, first published in F&SF (Nov. 1963). It was one of the last great stories about life on Mars. On July 15, 1965, Mariner IV flew by Mars, and 21 grainy pictures of the red planet forever killed any hope of finding Barsoom. I remembered when that happened. I was so disappointed. Mars looked like the Moon. Yet, we still want to read stories about Mars like we imagined it before Mariner IV. People haven’t stopped reading The Martian Chronicles. Writers and publishers still put out books like Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Science fiction isn’t only about speculation, it’s also about the dreams we want to dream. When does science fiction become fantasy?


I wonder if I studied 19th century science fiction thoroughly, and understood the hopes and fears of 19th century people had for the 20th century, would I better understand our hopes and fears for the 22nd century?

How many people will go to Mars if Elon Musk builds the rockets to take them to the red planet? Where did Elon Musk get his desire to go to Mars. Will there actually be a hundred people willing to go, even if they think they might die, or never return to Earth? It’s one thing to read science fiction, its another thing to actually live it. Is reading hundreds of old science fiction stories a way to understand why?


Science Fiction: Books v. Television v. Movies

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 29, 2016

50 years ago tonight, “The Naked Time,” the fourth episode of Star Trek was shown. “The Naked Time” allowed the actors to chew the scenery, but wasn’t that science fictional. The context of Star Trek was very science fictional, with a spaceship exploring the galaxy, but often the episodes plot’s were centered around mundane conflicts or fantasies. Mostly the show liked allegories over speculation. My assumption then and now, was television and movie science fiction had to appeal to millions, and thus any real science fiction was watered down.

The Naked Now

This will reveal my media snobbery, but I’ve always felt science fiction I read was more advanced than science fiction I watched. That might be less true in 2016, because television has evolved a great deal in fifty years, but I think it’s still true. Because we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek premiering in 1966, I thought it might be fun to look at the other science fiction from that year. Were the 1966 SF novels and short stories more sophisticated than first fifteen episodes of Star Trek? I’m not comparing the quality of storytelling, but examining which science fictional ideas from 1966 was most innovative.

It’s rather ironic that the beautiful film version of Fahrenheit 451 premiered in England just days after Star Trek.  Directed by François Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction attacking a future where people gave up reading for television and comics. Few episodes of any version of Star Trek can compare to that film, but why haven’t we seen celebrations of its 50th anniversary? Why have we seen no public praise for the novels and stories below turning 50? Star Trek was loved by millions, and I’m afraid the science fiction books and magazines of 1966 were read by just thousands at the time.

Fahrenheit 451

We think of Star Trek as classic science fiction, but what most fans love are the characters, and the show’s allegorical content. If you compare it to the science fiction that was being written in 1966, I don’t think Star Trek was innovative, at least in terms of science fictional ideas. It was innovative television. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Star Trek. It was fun, and I’m very nostalgic about it. I’m just trying to put it into context of written science fiction of 1966.

The two Hainish Cycle novels by Ursula K. Le Guin that appeared in 1966, were far more mature science fiction than what Gene Roddenberry was pursing.  Even the two short novels published by the youthful Samuel R. Delany were far more philosophical, and intellectual. And if you compare the two tales of young men named Charlie, “Charlie X” and Flowers for Algernon, you’ll see that Star Trek went for the easy and obvious. And let’s face it, Star Trek just couldn’t take us to the strange alien headspaces that Philip K. Dick, R. A. Lafferty, and Cordwainer Smith could. Nor did it have the style of Roger Zelazny or J. G. Ballard. And it certainly didn’t have the elegant beauty of what Keith Roberts was writing. And it’s a real shame that Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, Keith Laumer, Gordon R. Dickson, Jack Vance and Fred Saberhagen weren’t writing for Star Trek because they had wonderfully cool ideas for galactic civilizations – although Desilu didn’t have the budget to produce what they imagined.

A great deal of science fiction from the 1960s assumed humans will be part of a galactic civilization in the future. The difference between the famous TV show and what we read was the depth of those assumptions. Star Trek existed between the two most remembered science fiction novels of the 1960s: Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969). Can you imagine Captain Kirk visiting Arrakis or Gethen? What kind of exploration of those societies could a 50 minute TV show give us? Especially, when the plots usually involved Kirk being held hostage, and centering around escape.


Episode Idea
The Man Trap Alien that can shape shift, or telepathically make people think it looks different. Reminds me of “Who Goes There?” (1938) and The Body Snatchers (1954).
Charlie X Human raised by advanced aliens and taught psychic powers, must learn to live with normal humans. Reminds me of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
Where No Man Has Gone Before Two humans acquire god-like powers. Reminds me of Slan (1940).
The Naked Time Disease causes crew to lose their inhibitions.
The Enemy Within Transporter creates two Captain Kirks – one aggressive the other passive.
Mudd’s Women Space age mail-order brides with siren like abilities.
What Are Little Girls Made Of? Robots replace people. Reminds me of Philip K. Dick.
Miri On a mirror-Earth, the crew meet children that have very long childhoods and die when they reach puberty.
Dagger of the Mind About a penal colony and mind control.
The Corbomite Maneuver Advanced alien plays cat and mouse with Enterprise.
The Menagerie, Part I Mr. Spock commits mutiny.
The Menagerie, Part II Mr. Spock takes Enterprise to planet where aliens can control human thoughts.
The Conscience of the King Unmasking a mass murderer. Made me think of Nazi war criminals in hiding.
Balance of Terror The Enemy Below played out with Romulans.
Shore Leave Crew visits a planet where thoughts come true. This was written by Theodore Sturgeon but it felt like something Thorne Smith would have written.



Title Idea
Samuel R. Delany
Linguistics, poetry. Language influences thought and perception. Code breaking an enemy alien language.
Empire Star
Samuel R. Delany
The novel referenced in Babel-17. About simplex, complex and multiplex thinking.
D. F. Jones
A U.S. military supercomputer takes control and allies with a U.S.S.R. supercomputer.
Destination: Void
Frank Herbert
Developing an artificial consciousness, and cloned humans.
Laumer & Brown
Trying to find lost mythic Earth after humans moved to the stars.
Retief’s War
Keith Laumer
Intergalactic diplomatic hijinks and humor.
Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes
Mentally challenge young man artificially evolved into a genius.
Make Room! Make Room
Harry Harrison
A 1966 extrapolation of year 1999, speculated about the horrors of an overpopulated world of 7 billion.
Robert Sheckley
A comedy about a man who vacations across the galaxy by swapping his mind into various alien bodies.
Now Wait for Last Year
Philip K. Dick
Drug causes time travel and addiction during a time of war with aliens.
Planet of Exile
Ursula K. Le Guin
Anthropological study, and racial conflict on a colony planet.
Rocannon’s World
Ursula K. Le Guin
An ethnological mission to another planet. The word ansible, for faster-the-light communication was coined here.
The Crystal World
J. G. Ballard
Apocalyptic novel about life on Earth turning into crystal.
The Eyes of Heisenberg
Frank Herbert
Genetically modified humans, and longevity.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein
An artificial intelligent sentient machine evolved out of a network of computers on the Moon. The AI joins an anti-colonial rebellion against Earth.
The Solarians
Norman Spinrad
Space opera, about a star-drive that can destroy stars.
The Dream Master
Roger Zelazny
Citizens of an overpopulated Earth suffer psychologically and use dream therapy where their therapist enters their dreams.
This Immortal
Roger Zelazny
A devastated Earth is now a tourist destination for alien races to view our ruins.
The Watch Below
James White
Humans are stranded underwater. Think if The Poseidon Adventure had been science fiction.
World of Ptavvs
Larry Niven
Earth and “Belters” in a cold war, with story of ancient alien discoveries, and telepathic amplifiers.


Short Stories

Title Idea
Neutron Star
Larry Niven
Humans and aliens study a neutron star.
Light of Other Days
Bob Shaw
Invents slow glass, where light can take years to pass through, thus capturing scenes from the past.
The Last Castle
Jack Vance
Far future humans battle enslaved aliens
For a Breath I Tarry
Roger Zelazny
After the extinction of mankind, a sentient computer remembers our species
Call Him Lord
Gordon R. Dickson
Aristocrat from galactic empire visits old Earth.
Bookworm, Run!
Vernor Vinge
About an uplifted chimpanzee.
Pavane stories
Keith Roberts
About an alternate history of England where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated and Protestantism failed, and the technology we know never developed.
Day Million
Frederik Pohl
Love affair between two altered humans on what would be the millionth day AD.
In the Temple of Mars
Fred Saberhagen
Humans versus intelligent machines.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers
R. A. Lafferty
Humans visit planet and learn about a strange ontology.
Philip José Farmer
Humans reincarnated in another existence, one that stretches along one immensely long river.
The Ship Who Killed
Anne McCaffrey
Spaceship with a cyborg soul.
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale
Philip K. Dick
Recording false memories.
Under Old Earth
Cordwainer Smith
A visitor to an underground world without laws.
The Age of the Pussyfoot
Frederik Pohl
A man from our time visits the future via suspended animation. He is given a computerized personal assistant.
When I Was Miss Dow
Sonya Dorman
Sexless alien impersonates a woman to understand gender.
You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
J. G. Ballard
Contemplating geometry and time
The Primary Education of the Camiroi
R. A. Lafferty
About a society where everyone is expected to be an expert.
Behold the Man
Michael Moorcock
Time traveler looks for Jesus.
The Keys to December
Roger Zelazny
Genetic modification.
The Secret Place
Richard McKenna
Science versus myth.



Title Idea
Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welch is made small enough to travel in tiny submarine inside a human body.
Fahrenheit 451 About a near future where books are banned, and society wants people to watch large flat-screen TVs or read comic books instead.
Seconds A rich middle-age man buys rejuvenation and attempts to be young again living with bohemians.
One Million Years B.C. Raquel Welch is cavewoman back when humans lived among the dinosaurs. (Not joking)

Is it surprising how many stories involved intelligent computers? In 1966, mainframe computers were common, but few people interacted with them. AI was a concept them emerged in the 1950s, and science fiction had grabbed it. Most of science fiction before the 1950s dealt with exploring the solar system. The idea of interstellar travel and galactic civilizations boomed in the 1950s, so by the 1960s writers were refining those ideas. Writers blended AI with spaceships. And sociology, anthropology, and psychology was embraced. Stories about human colonized worlds and aliens became richer. Much of the science fiction we read in the 21st century is based on science fictional ideas first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. What’s really evolved since then is the art of storytelling. We exist in a Baroque period of science fiction, where novels are gigantic, and often multi-part, but still exploring the same ideas science fiction fans first encountered in 1966.


Aging, and Reading Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, September 23, 2016

Humans are either doing something, or thinking about doing something. Evidently as we get older, we do less, but do we also think about doing less?

Do you ever wonder why we do the things we do? Why do we read science fiction? Most people read for entertainment and escape. Most bookworms dedicated themselves to one genre, even though there are so many wonderful kinds of storytelling. Why have we fixated on science fiction? When I was young, I mass-consumed science fiction, almost shooting it in my veins. Now the craving is falling off. I’m afraid there might parallels to my sex drive. When young we want sex all the time, because our hormones are in full production. When we get old, biology begins to fail. Desire may stay, but practicality wanes. Isn’t that true of science fiction too? I don’t fantasize about young women anymore, so why should I keep reading about going to Mars? Now that I think about it, my reading tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older.


When we were young, our hormones compelled us to procreate. What motivated us to read science fiction? Have you ever psychoanalyzed yourself about that? I have a theory. I doubt its any more scientific than dream analysis, but its worth considering. I believe we read science fiction because we wanted to exist in a different location in time and space. I think all bookworms want to be somewhere else. Literary, mystery and romance fans are quite content with this reality, maybe preferring a slightly different temporal location. Generally, they want a little more than their ordinary life gives them. SF/F fans appear to reject the mundane completely. Fantasy fans want to visit exotic places that can’t exist, and science fiction readers want to live in places that could exist, but on the edge of probability. In other words, science fiction readers want a degree of believability in their fantasies. Of course these fantasies are generally no more realistic than the sex fantasies of horny teenagers.

Strangely, as I’ve gotten older, my science fictional fantasies have become more realistic and closer to home. So have my thoughts of sex. I wonder if mystery fans who once loved thrillers now prefer cozies? If readers of romance novels imagine more realistic lovers?


We’re motivated by what we don’t have. Few people are content to sit and claim, “I have everything I need and want right here.” Most of us are tied to the mundane routines of our life. A few bold folks enact their dreams with great effort and determination, but most of us just VR what we want with books and television. If we live on a steady diet of science fiction, shouldn’t we assume its an indication of what we really want? Or, do we really desire, to just sit in a chair, holding pulped wood and stare at black ink stains, and imagine far out ideas?

I’m getting older, but not that old. Old enough to still dream, but too old to believe. Let’s say I’ve reached that age when I can’t pretend I’m young. If NASA or a beautiful woman offered to make my youthful fantasies come true, I’d probably turn them down. No use proving myself an old fool. So why do I still love books about colonizing the Moon and Mars, or generation ships traveling to other stellar systems? Or do I? Have my science fiction fantasies changed with age? I think reading science fiction is also a kind of collective fantasizing, or collective dreaming. This still parallels the sex drive. Sex is about making children, and children are about making the future. Everyone is future oriented to a degree. Science fiction fans just project a little further than average. But as we get older, the future has less potential. So don’t our fantasies become smaller? (By the way, if they had Viagra for your science fiction drive, would you take it?)


Of course, science fiction isn’t always about the future. For young readers who love Military SF, they could join the Army today. For readers who crave romantic science fiction, there are plenty of romantic locations on Earth, many of which are quite alien and exotic. And fans of post-apocalypse could travel to Syria, if they really wanted to live what they read. Bookworms could live more exciting lives if they made the effort, but is that what we really want? I use to think yes. Now I think no.

What we really want are spaceships, cities on Mars, brilliant chatty robots, contact with alien intelligent beings, immortality, to download ourselves to virtual computer worlds, or supplement our brains and bodies with cybernetic attachments. Or do we? I seldom chat with Alexa, my cybernetic companion. And if I had to really choose between retiring to Mars or Florida, I’m pretty sure I’d pick the Sunshine State. And I’m not looking forward to hearing aids, exoskeletons,  and cataract replacement lens.  Nor does living forever have any appeal to me.

Being old has changed my attitude towards science fiction. I’m less concerned with new science fiction, preferring to study the history of science fiction. Older people reevaluate their lives. Well, I’m an old science fiction reader, reevaluating the genre. For some reason, science fiction stories written in the 19th and 20th century are more fascinating than reading science fiction stories written in the 21st century. WTF? What a pitiful excuse I am for a science fiction fan. Well, so what.  Now, I’m just more interested in how I got here, rather than where I’m going. When I was young, where I was going was everything. Now, not so much.

I just started reading The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, from 1912, and it immediately reminded me of Earth Abides (1949) and The World Without Us (2007). How long have we been thinking up the same old science fictional ideas and assuming they are innovative? That reminds me of the essay, “The Graying Lensmen” by Alec Nevala-Lee. There is value is studying SF history. Alec is focusing on the 1940s, but I think we need to go further back.

All of this is making me rethink the common assumptions of science fiction. Maybe the future isn’t visions of science fiction coming true, but more science fiction. Science fiction that repeats itself. I used to think serious science fiction prepared us for living in the future, and less serious science fiction provided amusement and escape in the present. Now I’m wondering if the purpose of science fiction is a cognitive tool, for thinking science fictional thoughts. Religion, science, mathematics, history, logic, philosophy, journalism, etc., are all cognitive tools for understanding reality. Science fiction is not a very precise tool, more like religion than science. But thinking science fictionally, is a way to contemplate reality. I’m wondering if we think science fictionally different as teenagers, than we do collecting social security?


Where No Man Has Gone Before

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fifty years ago tonight, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second Star Trek pilot, was the third episode of the series to be shown in the U.S. (It was the first to be shown in the United Kingdom.) This was the first Star Trek episode I really liked in 1966. Partly because it had cool ideas, partly because it had Sally Kellerman, but mainly because of Mr. Spock. Leonard Nimoy shaped his famous character over many episodes. Spock was the only main character from “The Cage,” the first pilot, to carry over to the second pilot. Its fascinating to see how the famous Vulcan evolves in these early episodes. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before” Mr. Spock wants to kill Gary Mitchell as soon as he thinks he’s a threat, and at one points strides around with a very large phaser rifle looking like a hot-headed enforcer. This aggressive nature disappears after this episode.

Last night I watched For the Love of Spock, a documentary about Nimoy and Spock made by his son Adam Nimoy. I highly recommend this film, which I rented on Amazon, as well as rewatching these early episodes to see how the Spock character emerged on the show. Mr. Spock even looks different in each of several episodes.


For the Love of Spock is a wonderful tribute to Leonard Nimoy, and a history of a fictional character. I actually learned more details about Nimoy from William Shatner’s recent book, Leonard, but more about Spock from the documentary. Shatner’s book was about a friendship. The subtext of Adam Nimoy’s film was father and son. Nimoy was so much more interesting than his most famous creation, so I assume detail biographies in the future will be worth reading.

Mr. Spock was the only character in Star Trek that I really liked. In an interview in For the Love of Spock, William Shatner admitted feeling professional jealousy in the early days of the show, when Nimoy got the larger portion of fan attention. Shatner said Roddenberry told him that he should embrace Nimoy’s good fortune because that fan mania would make both Shatner and the show a success. I’m not sure Star Trek would have succeeded without Mr. Spock. And, this documentary could have been called Where No Man Has Gone Before, because its about a real man becoming a myth in his own lifetime. Early on Nimoy tried to escape that fate and wrote, I Am Not Spock. Eventually he wrote, I Am Spock.

For those who wish to know all the compulsive details of the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” I recommend reading about it as Memory-Alpha. What I want to do is continue my remembering of 1966 impressions of the show and compare them with my 2016 viewing. Every time I write about these old episodes of Star Trek I feel like I’m trying to get into character, of me in 1966. Seeing photographs and home movies of Leonard Nimoy and his family from the 1950s and 1960s reminded me just how different things were back then compared to today. In just a few years, normal life changed. Television is no measure of reality, but the transition from 1966 to 1969 was somewhat like going from That Girl to All in the Family. But the fifty-year transition was like the background life you saw in The Fugitive evolving into the background life you see in Breaking Bad.


Living from 1966 to 2016 could be filmed as “Where No Human Has Gone Before.” The fourteen-year-old kid who watched Star Trek in 1966 assumed the future would be dramatically different. I never figured we’d evolve powers like Gary Mitchell, but I expected the future would be science fictional. What’s weird is we’re living in a very science fictional era, but everyone seems to be wearing clothes fairly similar to 1966. People look about the same. Houses look about the same. Cars are different. TVs look different. But living rooms and bedrooms are very similar.

In 1966 you saw more ordinary, even homely people, on TV. Today, everyone is beautiful and buff. There were lots more character actors back then. Nimoy always said he wanted to be a great character actor. It was Shatner that wanted to be a lead. The walk-on characters you saw on Perry Mason often seemed like people you saw on the streets back then. If you want to see normal people today you have to watch the local news, or Walmart people on YouTube, because TV isn’t very representative.

To be honest, a story about flying to the edge of the galaxy and having two people become god-like in their abilities, is about as realistic in 1966 or 2016 as reading Greek Mythology or Marvel Comics. In 1966 I wished I could speed-read like Gary Mitchell, once his latent psychic powers emerge. It would have been great help with homework. But why did the writers of this episode assume Humans 2.0 would have no ethical qualms about killing 1.0 Humans? What was cool in 1966 to a 14-year-old kid, seems lame to a 64-year-old man. Why couldn’t writers imagine evolved humans actually being better beings?

Either as science fiction or allegory, the plot of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” reveals the pitiful nature of our species. Our one tool solution for every problem, no matter how smart we are, is to kill, kill, kill. In that, Star Trek pegged the future, our present.

It’s a shame we all didn’t become more like Mr. Spock, or at least more creative, like Leonard Nimoy.


Aliens With God Like Powers–“Charlie X”

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fifty years ago tonight, the second episode of Star Trek, “Charlie X” was first shown on NBC. As usual, follow the link to Wikipedia’s excellent summary. An even more extensive history is at Memory Alpha.

Charlie XI enjoyed “Charlie X” more than I did “The Man Trap,” both in 1966 and 2016, but not by much. The story is rather simple. The Enterprise rendezvous with the Antares to take on a passenger, a young man named Charlie Evans, who has been raised by aliens. He knows little of human ways. Charlie is friendly and anxious to please, but when his feelings gets hurt, he has god-like powers to punish his tormentors. On the Enterprise he meets a woman for the first time, and is smitten with her. Things don’t go well.

Even in 1966 this plot seemed borrowed. Stranger in a Strange Land was fresh in my memory. Charlie, like Valentine Michael Smith, had been raised by aliens, never seen girls before, and had god-like powers. They both could make people disappear with a thought. I had also seen “It’s A Good Life” on The Twilight Zone, based on the famous short story by Jerome Bixby. It featured a young boy with god powers who would do horrible things to people who displeased him. Much like Charlie. The story also reminded me of “The Sixth Finger,” one of the early episodes of The Outer Limits, about a man who artificially evolves to have, yes, you guess it, god-like powers.


Science fiction has a history of aliens with immense powers, or evolved humans with superpowers (Odd John, Slan, The Hampdenshire Wonder). But are god-like powers even possible? For humans, aliens from the sky, or even gods? Charlie makes the Antares instantly disappear with a thought, while light-years away. Is this science fiction or fantasy? Did Gene Roddenberry really think humans had untapped psi-powers? Did Heinlein? As a kid I took things literally, and imagined such things might be possible, but I don’t anymore.

As I’ve written in earlier essays about Star Trek, I have to watch the show and judge it by science fiction and by allegory. Gene Roddenberry, who wrote the original story for “Charlie X” was an atheist. Star Trek often dealt with aliens with various kinds of god-like powers, and generally Captain Kirk is pitted against them. Are these stories allegories showing humans v. gods?

Sometimes we’re given stories in science fiction where the goal is to evolve to the next level – i.e., Childhood’s End, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I never liked those stories because they reject normal human existence. Who really wants to have powers like Charlie Evans or Valentine Michael Smith? I now think of these stories as philosophical tales rather than science fictional speculation, which I did as a kid. Isn’t “Charlie X” a rejection of God? Who wants to be friends with someone who can punish you with a thought? Would you even want such a person for a father figure?

Aren’t ESP powers a kind of evil? Aren’t ESP powers a Pandora’s Box we should never want to open? If you could do something with a thought, would you ever learn how to do anything for real? But what is the science of thought power? There’s none. It’s wishful thinking. Any reality where thoughts had such powers would be less than real. Like a dream, or computer simulation. When it comes down to it, don’t we actually need the limitations of reality? Remember The Matrix movies, where Neo learns earlier versions of the Matrix failed because existence was too easy and perfect.

Why did Heinlein accept the powers, but Roddenberry reject them? Why do so many crave the superpowers of superhero comics? The two classic science fiction novels by Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, deal with telepathy and teleportation. Would you really want either power? Honestly? Have you read Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg? Telepathy is a curse.

the man with the sixth fingerAre there any super-powers worth having? If you could fly, and no one else could, wouldn’t that be psychologically isolating? Even being gifted is hard on most kids. Being absolutely beautiful or sexually irresistible has its downfalls. We don’t want to be average, but we don’t want to be outliers either. Athletes who break records would find it disappointing if they had no real challengers.

If you’re too far from the norm you risk becoming another species. And on Star Trek, the aliens that humans have the most contact with are the ones that are like us – Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans. Of course that’s due to needing human actors. Could Captain Kirk be pals with a Horta, from the “The Devil in the Dark?” Once they learn the creature is only protecting its young, we relate to that, and accept it. Isn’t the whole diversity movement about realizing we’re all the same, and differences shouldn’t isolate us? I could be friends with a Horta if we found something in common – for example, like talking about science fiction. Have you ever wondered if aliens on other worlds have science fiction?

The crew of the Enterprise liked Charlie Evans as long as he was acting human. When he used his powers they feared and hated him. What does that say about us being friends with god-like beings? Was that the intended message of “Charlie X?” It’s the message I got. In the end, Charlie Evans wanted to stay with the humans, and he wanted to be human, but his powers corrupted him. Charlie had to return with the aliens that raised him.

So what’s the lesson here? Ultimately, both science fiction and allegories have something to teach. In 1966, I expected science fiction to explore actual possibilities. At the time I accepted FTL travel and matter transmitters, but I had problems with lots of the plots. Now that I’m older, I see in 2016 that Star Trek was seldom scientific speculation about the future, but often allegories about the present.

If “Charlie X” wasn’t a dig at God, who or what was it satirizing? I wonder if it was Age of Aquarius hippies, Transcendental Meditation, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, psychedelic drugs, and other 1960s movements that promised to take people to states of higher consciousness. The kind of people who were wanting to be like Valentine Michael Smith. The kind of people who read Slan and hoped they would be one?

I watch old episodes of Star Trek to fathom science fiction in 1966. I was fourteen then, and didn’t comprehend all that science fiction could be, or was trying to be. I was a gullible kid who wanted the wonders of SF to be possible. I think some of it was written to promote space exploration. On the other hand, I think most of science fiction was personal commentary on culture by quirky writers like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Gene Roddenberry wasn’t that different from Rod Sterling. Star Trek eventually developed a reputation for promoting a utopian view of the future. That might be true starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I haven’t started rewatching it yet. So far, I see no utopian aspects of the Federation in the original series.