As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.

Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.

robinson-crusoe-on-mars

The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist.  Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.

Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?

The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.

f&sf-sept-1958

I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?

I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.

The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.

mars rover

I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?

Or do you still want to go?

JWH

Why I Love Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 2, 2019

I’m sure I’ve consumed thousands of science fiction stories in the last sixty years if you count all the novels, short stories, movies, and television episodes. Now that’s something to think about. Especially, when you consider science fiction has a limited number of themes in its repertoire. Science fiction concepts are like legos, a finite set of building blocks to assemble an infinite number of stories. What makes our genre unique is the blending of the standard elements of storytelling; character, setting, plot, dialog, POV, description, with one or more science fictional themes.

Whether we call them themes, memes, ideas, or concepts, they’re each a unique mind-blowing concept that evokes a sense of wonder. Most are far from new, and even the latest popular concepts, such a brain downloading, are variations of older ideas. For example, I recently read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke that first appeared in the May 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s so chock-full of science fictional memes that I’ve made a game of identifying and counting them.

I liked reading this story so much I immediately reread it by listening to the audiobook version in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. In case you don’t own this story, you can read it online here, and listen to it here. It was Clarke’s first professional sale, and his second story to be published. In 2013 Escape Pod did a full-cast audio version and presented another online copy to read.

2018 was the year of the science fiction short story for me, reading twelve anthologies of classic SF tales. I expect I will continue the trend in 2019. More and more I’m paying attention to those science fiction building blocks, and I realize its the science fiction concepts that make me love science fiction. I’m realizing how important they’ve been to me over my entire lifetime. When I was young, those far-out ideas gave me hope for the future, and now that I’m older and wiser, I realize most of them won’t be coming true, at least in my lifetime. They are now a kind of legacy of desires.

I was especially impressed with “Rescue Party” because Clarke weaves so many different SF themes into one story. I’ve decided to write this essay and identify as many of them as possible. I might even start tracking science fictional ideas in a database. Looking back over my lifetime of reading science fiction, I see Sci-FI’s addictive properties comes from these sense-of-wonder concepts. They are the colors on an SF writer’s palette.

Forbidden Planet

Interstellar Exploration Ship

I believe today when fans think of interstellar exploration ships they first think of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Star Trek, but there were many examples of this idea before 1966. Ten years earlier, in 1956 there was Forbidden Planet and its starship C-57D. And ten years before that, in 1946, there was “Rescue Party” with its vessel the S9000. And even before that, in 1939, A. E. van Vogt began his Voyage of the Space Beagle stories with “Black Destroyer.” Science fiction writers have borrowed Darwin’s five years of scientific exploration on the sailing ship HMS Beagle many times. Instead of visiting distant lands and people, science fiction visits distant worlds and aliens. Instead of botany and biology inspiring the concept of evolution, astronomy, and cosmological events give cause to science fictional plots.

Belonging to the crew of a giant vessel exploring the galaxy is probably one of the more appealing fantasies in science fiction. Of course, most SF fans will picture themselves as the captain or one of the executive officers. Does anyone ever see themselves as a janitor on an interstellar ship?

Wikipedia has a long and fascinating article on interstellar travel. It describes the scientific details behind science fiction’s number one fantasy. As a kid watching Star Trek, the best possible future I could imagine for myself was traveling on an interstellar exploration ship. But after a lifetime of also reading science books, I doubt this concept will ever become real. I can picture this future for AI machines, but not us humans. In my old age, I fantasize about being an AI mind living for millions of years in a robotic probe of the galaxy.

Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clarke 2

Aliens POV

In most science fiction stories about aliens, we see them from the human perspective. In “Rescue Party” the aliens are the POV characters, and humans are the mystery of the story. I’m sure there are other SF stories based solely on the aliens’ POV, but they are rare and I can’t think of any others at the moment. Often, the alien is the enemy in science fiction, like the classic World of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. In the 1930s, many space opera stories had alien sidekicks. All too often, aliens are just humans with a few physical and mental quirks, like Spock and Worf.

The exciting challenge for science fiction writers is to come up with truly alien bodies and minds. The crew of S9000 in “Rescue Party” is quite diverse, but their distinguishing feature that makes them alien seems to be tentacles. The Paladorian is not an individual, but part of a collective, so it doesn’t have a singular consciousness. But the dialog of the other characters, who Clarke had to invent alien names like Alveron, Rugon, Orostron, Hansur, Klarten, Alarkane, T’sinaderee, and Tork-a-lee, still sound rather human even with their funny names and tentacles.

There have been several science fiction books where far from human alien-POVs have played a significant part of the story. Titles include Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, The Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Gray_lensman

Galactic Federation

The concept of a galactic federation is so widespread that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page. Again, we think of Star Trek. “Rescue Party” has a unique twist on the concept, because Clarke has an all-alien federation and humans are not in the federation yet. Of course, the original film of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel, and many other science fiction stories have galactic federations showing up and inviting us to join. I’ve never thought of this, but in Star Trek, did the humans create the federation, or join it?

Of course, most science fiction with galactic federations is humancentric. John W. Campbell, Jr., the famous editor of Astounding Science Fiction was adamant that our species should be the dominant life-form in the galaxy. If Arthur C. Clarke hadn’t provided the coda to “Rescue Party” I’m not sure Campbell would have bought his story.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The End of Humans

One of the most haunting scenes in all science fiction was at the end of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, when the time traveler went forward in time to that lonely beach and knew humans had become extinct. I’ve always considered The Time Machine to be the archetype of science fiction because it had so many intense science fictional concepts in one novella. I wonder if it inspired Clarke to write “Rescue Party.” In his story, he has aliens visiting Earth and only finding deserted cities and wondering if our species was extinct.

Individual humans can’t comprehend their own death. Most humans believe our species is the crown of creation and all of reality is about us. So it’s quite wonderful to imagine people gone and reality continuing without us.

One of my favorite senses of wonder is to contemplate Earth without people. I love the book and documentary The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

End of the Earth

The Dying Earth

Again, Wells in The Time Machine gave us the image of Earth dying. 19th-century science had predicted the sun would eventually become a red giant, so Wells merely extrapolated to that time. In “Rescue Party” the Earth is destroyed by a nova a few centuries from now. That’s not very likely, but Clarke needed a cataclysmic event to do us in. The destruction of the Earth is fairly rare in science fiction, but it does happen. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy starts off with the destruction of our planet for a hyperspace bypass.

I know there were billions of years before the Earth existed, and I know there will be a time when the Earth ceases to exist and billions of years will follow. Probably, there is an infinite amount of time before and after the Earth, so its existence is rather fleeting.

Clarke also uses the Moon as an indicator of impending doom in the same way Larry Niven used it in “Inconstant Moon.”

 

Deserted Cities of Extinct Beings and Abandon Automatic Machines

One of my great sense-of-wonder experiences came when reading After Worlds Collide by Wylie and Balmer when the Earth people were walking through the deserted alien city of Bronson Beta. I was in the 7th grade and just discovered science fiction was a separate genre. Humans walking through alien cities of extinct beings is one of my favorite science fiction themes, so when the aliens in “Rescue Party” walk through our deserted cities it made the story even better. Clarke must have like this image too because he also used it in Against the Fall of Night when Alvin takes the ancient automated subway to visit abandon parts of Diaspar. The same theme plays out in Forbidden Planet when the humans inspect the abandoned technology of the Krell. This meme was also used by John W. Campbell in his class story “Twilight.”

Hive mind

The Omega Point and Hive Minds

In “Rescue Party,” one of the alien races aboard S9000, called the Paladorians, believe all beings are evolving towards one hive mind that transcends the physical limitations of individual bodies. Olaf Stapledon used this in Star Maker, and Clarke used it more than once himself, including Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This reminds me of The Omega Point by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Clarke who was known as a hard science writer often speculated about mystical theories that come to us from religion. I’ve long thought that science fiction is a modern substitute for religion.

Most science fiction rejects the concept of the hive mind and even shows a fear of the concept. The Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation is our ultimate enemy. I don’t think Heinlein or Campbell could stomach the idea. That probably explains why Clarke was never famous as an Astounding Science Fiction author.

I recently read The Feed by Nick Windo Clark, which starts out in the near future where all humans have internet like technology added to their brain. I thought it was going to be a positive hive mind story but it quickly turned into a different plot.

Radio telescopes

Enigmatic SETI

In “Rescue Party” the aliens find radio telescopes left on Earth pointing to a place in the sky where there are no planets and sending rather enigmatic messages. Eventually, we learn the messages are being sent to a fleet of rockets leaving the solar system, and the radio telescopes are monitoring the destruction of the Earth by the nova. But this reminds me of how often science fiction has been about deciphering alien signals from space, or writings in deserted cities of extinct aliens.

Starship Troopers

Humans Are the Top Predator Species of the Galaxy

John W. Campbell and Robert A. Heinlein loved the idea that humans would be the top predator species of the galaxy. Campbell couldn’t stand stories where humans were portrayed as lesser beings to aliens. The ending of “Rescue Party” has the aliens discovering the fleet of humans moving away from the solar system, and they finally make contact with us. But there’s a hint that humans will be a danger to the federation in the future. I like to think that Clarke included that to get Campbell to buy the story.

There’s Many More

If I wanted to take the time and examine “Rescue Party” line-by-line I could find many more classic science fiction themes in this story.

I enjoyed the heck out of “Rescue Party.” I can honestly say it’s my favorite Arthur C. Clarke story. Many fans have told him that, which began to bother him. Here’s what Clarke said in one of his introductions:

I don’t believe I’ve reread it since its original appearance, and I refuse to do so now — for fear of discovering how little I have improved in almost four decades. Those who claim that it’s their favorite story get a cooler and cooler reception over the passing years.

Like I said, reading “Rescue Party” makes me want to start a database of science fictional ideas. I’m pretty sure there’s a finite supply of them, but I have no idea how small or large the set will be.

JWH

Update 1/3/19:

I reread this story again by listening to the Escape Pod full-cast audio version and noticed even more details. Rereading stories is very important. I’m learning fiction becomes much more multidimensional in my comprehension through rereading.

I also checked the Analytical Laboratory for August 1946 to see how readers back then thought of “Rescue Party.” I was disappointed it wasn’t a standout story for them. Campbell will usually talk about a new author if they get a lot of attention or he thought they were great when he first bought their story. And for most readers, a score of 3.00 suggests that “Rescue Party” was seldom anyone’s first or second favorite story. But Clarke soundly beat several popular authors of that era. Because no story stood out, readers probably thought it was a ho-hum issue.

Why does the story stand so much to me now, but wasn’t popular then?

AnLab Aug 1946

 

Reading Science Fiction Year-By-Year

by James Wallace Harris

Back in February, I started reading The Great SF Stories series of 25 books edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They collect the best short stories of the year, starting with 1939 and running through 1963. I’m now reading on volume 8 covering 1946. I even started a discussion group hoping other people might join me. 27 people joined, but so far only a couple people have made comments, and only George Kelley has begun to read the books in order too.

George started first with reading Best SF Stories series edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty that ran 1949-1959, which he’s since finished. He felt science fiction stories in the 1950s were better than those stories from the 1940s. Many older fans consider 1939 the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the 1950s was science fiction’s Silver Age, but I have to agree with George, science fiction gets progressively better each year. I’m looking forward to reaching the 1950s.

Reading science fiction year by year is very revealing. For example, in 1946 many of the stories were about how to live with the atomic bomb. During the war years, there were a handful of stories that predicted atomic bombs, atomic energy, dirty bombs, nuclear terrorism, and how atomic age technology would impact society.

Science fiction had to change after August 1945 because of the reality of atomic weapons. What’s interesting is we remember the predicting stories like “Blowups Happen” (1940) and “Solution Unsatisfactory” (1941) by Robert Heinlein, “Nerves” (1942) by Lester del Rey,  and “Deadline” (1944) by Cleve Cartmill, but we don’t remember “Loophole” by Arthur C. Clarke and “The Nightmare” by Chan Davis, both from 1946. “The Nightmare” is of particular interest to us today because it’s about monitoring the trade in radioactive elements and the construction of atomic energy plants.

Probably the most prescience story I’ve read so far is “A Logic Named Joe” (1946) by Murray Leinster. Computers were still human calculators in 1946, so Leinster calls a computer a logic. He imagines a future where there’s a logic in every home, all connected to huge databases. And he foresees people would consult their logic for all kinds of information from the weather to how to murder your wife. He even imagines routines to keep kids from looking up stuff they shouldn’t. Leinster imagines banking, investing, encyclopedic knowledge, and all the other stuff we do with the internet.

The story itself is about an emergent AI named Joe begins to process the data himself and answers questions on his own that science and society have yet to know. Imagine if Google could tell you a great way to counterfeit money? Or how to invent something that would make you a billionaire. In other words, Leinster imagines disruptive technology. He even imagines kids searching for weird kinds of porn when the nanny-ware breaks.

If you’d like to see which science fictions stories were the most popular for each year, use this new tool we’ve set up that uses the Classic of Science Fiction data. Books come from over 65 lists recommended SF, and short stories come from over 100 anthologies that reprinted the best science fiction from the past.

To see the most remembered short SF from any year, just set the min and max year to the same year. Check the story radio button. And change the citations from 1 for all stories to 16 for the absolute best. Hit search. You can sort the columns by clicking on the column headings. For example, there are a total of 22 short stories remembered by our citation sources for 1946. For the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories, we used a cutoff of 5 citations. That meant only three stories were remembered well enough from 1946 to meet our standards. However, you can set your own criteria. The most remembered story from 1946 is “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, which had 10 citations. Here’s the CSFquery set to a minimum of 3 citations. You can see the citation sources by clicking on a title line.

1946 with a minimum of 3 citations

Notice “A Logic Named Joe” isn’t on the list. How can this be after I praised it so highly? Here’s a list of all the places it’s been anthologized. For some reason, it’s never made it in any of the great retrospective SF anthologies. That’s a shame.

Here’s the same query but with citations set to 1, which gives all the cited SF stories for 1946. I now have to worry that other stories with only 1-4 citations might deserve to be remembered.

1946 with a minimum of 1 citations

JWH

 

Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee On Sale for $2.99 for the Kindle

James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 13, 2018

AstoundingI don’t know why or for how long, but the new book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee is on sale for $2.99 for the Kindle edition.

I’ve already read it and can recommend it to anyone who loves reading about the history of science fiction. I bet it wins a Hugo award next year.

See my earlier review, “The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction.”

JWH

What To Do When Your Favorite Writer Goes Bad?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 3, 2018

This month, I’m forcing myself to read a book I hate for a book club I moderate. The book is Friday by Robert A. Heinlein. I first discovered Robert A. Heinlein in 1964 when I was still twelve and in the 8th grade. By 1966, I believe I had read all his then published novels and most of his published short stories. He was my favorite writer by far, and I was a voracious bookworm. By the end of the 1960s, I was regularly rereading his books.

Then in 1970, Heinlein came out with I Will Fear No Evil. It was the first hardback I bought as a new release. I remembered how excited I was to delve into that book and just how disappointed I was when I read it. I was surprised and disturbed that I could dislike a Heinlein book. Heinlein never wrote another book I liked. His last seven novels, published from 1970-1987 were horrible reading experiences for me. My reactions ranged from bored to being revolted. I’ve never been able to even finish Friday or The Number of the Beast, and never even tried To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

What is strange, is I often encounter Heinlein fans who prefer his later books. When I was younger I assumed the Heinlein I hated was bad Heinlein, but can that be possible when there are plenty of readers who love the works I consider bad? When I was younger I also assumed Heinlein changed. In more recent years I wondered if I had changed. I pretty much loved Heinlein in the 1960s when I was a teenager. Heinlein was a substitute father figure for me because my own father wasn’t around much. Ultimately, in the late 1960s when the generation gap was at its widest, I think I rejected both of my fathers because of political differences. Heinlein and my dad both supported the Vietnam War, and I didn’t.

In the last few years, I’ve thought about giving Heinlein a second chance. Maybe there are good qualities to his “bad” books that I missed. Maybe I am wrong in thinking books can be judged good or bad. Maybe I should also reread the “good” books to see if what I disliked about Heinlein was there all along and I just skimmed over those aspects.

I’ve also thought that Heinlein devolved as a writer as he aged. He did have medical problems that affected his thinking in later years, but supposedly surgery fixed that. Heinlein claimed until to the end of his life that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were his best books, the ones that defined his personal philosophy, and the ones he wanted to be remembered and judged by. As I’ve aged, I’ve turned against all his 1960s novels. I now consider his novels published from 1952-1959 as his best, from The Rolling Stones to Starship Troopers. I tend to like many, but not all, of his shorter work published from 1939-1959.

I’m not alone. Many science fiction fans my age prefer the earlier Heinlein. Heinlein was proud of the young-adult novels he wrote in the 1950s, but I don’t think he felt they represented his insight and art. When he went to G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959, Heinlein felt he had been freed to write what he wanted. I think that’s when he saw himself as a mature artist and wanted to be respected as a philosophical novelist. I believe he wanted to be another Ayn Rand. I’ve only read The Fountainhead, and I’m not an admirer of Rand, so I can’t really compare them. But I know they both wanted to be influential. From Alec Nevala-Lee new book, Astounding, it seems obvious Heinlein was anxious to make an impact and disappointed that his success didn’t go beyond writing science fiction.

This month I’m making a concerted effort to understand Heinlein from one of his later works, Friday. It was first published in 1982, just six years before Heinlein died. Friday was nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and Locus award, but did not win any of them. Jo Walton at Tor.com calls FridayThe Worst Book I Love.” She fell in love with the story at 17, but always knew it lacked a plot. Walton says in the end, “Even as it is, I love it for its moments of clarity and beauty. I wouldn’t be without it. I taught myself almost all I know about how to plot by lying awake trying to fix the end of Friday in my head.” That’s far more generous than I could ever be, but then she’s much younger than I am.

I can’t forgive Heinlein for creating a woman character who could rationalize being gang-raped as part of her secret agent job but wanted to slowly kill one of her rapists because he didn’t brush his teeth and use mouthwash first. The story itself is high-minded about accepting different people but spends an inordinate amount of time on when to kill folks for their bad manners. Friday Jones is an artificial person (clone) and rejected because of it, so you’d think she’d be a little more forgiving about all the capital killing snubs she feels.

The conflict in the novel is as contrived as religion. The good guys feel like bad guys to me, willing to kill people for what I think are trivial reasons, but ones they judge as highly offensive. Heinlein never defines his bad guys. They don’t have a philosophy. They don’t have an agenda. They are just a supposedly evil existential threat, ruthlessly killing and committing bad manners. But I wonder if Heinlein’s nebulous bad guys are really us, good guys from a rational world.

The “Boss” character who seems reprocessed from Heinlein’s 1949 story “Gulf” and a secret agent version of Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land is one self-righteous sanctimonious know-it-all. I worry that Heinlein’s great philosophical message is this character’s beliefs? If that is true, then Heinlein’s art is only the conceited gospel of his opinions.

But I have my own faults as a reader to confess. I should have set higher standards for my favorite author long ago. I can’t separate my boyish love of science fiction from any discernment of great writing. It’s taken too long to realize that great writing should be those stories that enlighten me about reality and not the fiction I most want to escape into.

The reason I loved Heinlein in adolescence is that Heinlein shared my fantasy for colonizing the solar system. That was my psychological substitute for religion when I became an atheist at age 13. Heinlein after 1959 gave up on space exploration. His fiction became all about rationalizing his personal philosophies. He gave up his ability to tell a story and create characters. Tragically, he took many of his old characters I cherished and turned them into puppet mouthpieces for this Heinlein philosophy. I never could forgive what he did with the Stone family from The Rolling Stones when turned them into sleazy swingers in The Cat Who Walk Through Walls. Even worse, they all lost their unique voice and became zombies speaking in Jubal-tongue.

But am I being too harsh on my literary hero? That’s why I’m rereading his later books. Maybe I just don’t get it. I’m giving Heinlein one last try. One of my other favorite genres is literary biographies. Most writers are tragic figures. Maybe I need to be more forgiving of Heinlein the man, and not judge him by his bad books. The literary heroes I replaced Heinlein with in the 1970s were Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Philip K. Dick, none were angels, and certainly wrote their share of sinkers. Maybe I need to approach Robert A. Heinlein like I do Jack Kerouac, as a deeply flawed human who tried to justify his existence with his writing. In some ways, Heinlein is my Bronson Alcott father figure, and if Louisa May could come to terms with her crazy father, maybe I should with mine.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Science Fiction in Prehistory

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 2, 2018

It is my belief that Homo sapiens have been cognitively the same for the entire lifetime of our species. Sure, cavemen could not pass an ACT test today, but then we couldn’t pass a hunting and gathering IQ test if we traveled back to their time. I need to make that assumption because I want to also assume our cognitive tool for speculation that we call science fiction today has always existed in us.

Think of fiction as a spectrum with pure fantasy to the left and absolute realism to the right. When ancient storytellers narrated their tales sometimes they wanted their audience to believe exactly what they’re saying, sticking close to remembered details as possible. Other times, they make everything up and the audience knew it was all supposed to be make-believe. Science fiction lies in the middle of the spectrum, where the storyteller is making things up, but also wanting their audience to consider some ideas possible. They were speculating that something could happen or be discovered. They used known quantities to suggest other things are possible even though the idea is currently fantasy.

Noahs Ark

One of the best examples that go back into prehistory is building an ark to survive the great flood. Humans knew about floods. It’s my contention that the first storyteller to suggest building an ark to protect people and animals from a flood was using their cognitive abilities for creating science fiction. The story of Noah’s ark is how the story has survived prehistory, but we know it existed in earlier ages. It’s a fantastic idea for a story. It involves super-technology and the apocalypse, two major themes of modern science fiction. Plus, it shows humans trying to outwit fate, a kind of hubris against nature. Even the more modern version of Noah’s ark adds the helping hand of a superior being not from Earth. How does that story differ from modern science fiction that imagines aliens from space coming to save humans from a world-destroying disaster?

What I’m claiming is humans have always had this capacity to imagine wild possibilities they hoped to avoid or make to come true. We call it science fiction today, but this ability to speculate is an innate quality that’s always existed in the species. The trouble is science fiction speculation from prehistory has come down as accepted belief, and not theory. People forgot the original idea was a “What if?” proposal and not fact. Imagine if after our civilization collapses and thousands of years into the future people believe stories about invaders from Mars or time travelers from our times were true and H. G. Wells is deemed a prophet.

I’m quite sure early humans asked, “What if there are unseen beings that do things we can’t.” We can do things that animals can’t, so it’s not much of an extrapolation to imagine there are beings that can do things we can’t. Plus, early humans could do things that animals couldn’t perceive us doing, like set traps. Speculating about gods, fairies, ghosts, angels, demons, God, etc., are a kind of science fiction. Religious people consider them dogma now, and scientific thinkers dismiss them completely, but at one time such beings were part of speculative fiction, just theoretical brainstorming, the kind of hypothesizing that science fiction does today.

 

Trojan horse 2

Prehistory humans used this ability for all kinds of inventions. Think of the Trojan Horse. Another example of applied imagined technology. It’s a killer gimmick for an ancient story plot. It’s doubtful that such feat of trickery was ever built. It’s hard to believe Trojans would have been fooled. But it’s a great idea, and one people would love to believe is possible. And it’s exactly the kind of plot solution a science fiction writer would use.

The problem with prehistory is in its very definition. Prehistory is history before writing, but from a time we can only speculate about from physical artifacts, archeology, anthopology, DNA, pattern analysis of languages, studying the existing hunting and gathering cultures, and assuming the earliest stories at the beginning of history came down from oral prehistory. If we read enough origin stories from all over the world, we begin to see patterns in how people thought about explaining reality with speculative thinking. Science fiction uses the current models of science and technology to imagine possibilities that science and technology haven’t discovered or invented. I think it’s easy to see we’ve always done that. At the dawn of science, philosophers and science fiction writers compared the universe to clocks. Later writers compare the workings of nature to steam engines. We compare them to computers. Is it such a stretch to think citizens of prehistory lack the same ability to speculate?

JWH

 

The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 26, 2018

AstoundingOn October 23, 2018, the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction was remembered in two ways. First, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series came in at #49 on the PBS Great American Read, and second, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee was published.

For a subgroup of the G.I., Silent and Baby Boomer generations, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was from 1939 to 1950, and mostly due to one magazine, Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. There was one other book in the PBS Great American Read where Campbell was the first editor to buy – that was Dune by Frank Herbert, which came in at #35. So, Campbell had two books in the top 50, not a bad legacy. Dune appeared in his magazine just after the name changed to Analog Science Fact & Fiction.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book, Astounding, isn’t the first history of the magazine, and I doubt it will be the last. As I listened to the audiobook edition I thought about all the ways writers have tried to tell the story of Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. Alva Rogers in Requiem for Astounding did an issue by issue overview. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a memoir about how the magazine shaped his youth in Astounding Days. And Alexei and Cory Panshin focused heavily on Astounding, Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt in their Hugo winning book, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. All those books focused on the stories. Nevala-Lee focuses on Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, giving us the biographical background to the editor and his three most famous writers.

There’s been plenty written about Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, but other than tributes and collections of letters, I’m not sure how much has been written about John W. Campbell, and he is the real focus of Nevala-Lee’s book. However, his story is so intertwined with the magazine and his famous writers that Astounding is a history of the magazine and a biography of four men.

Reading Astounding was both rewarding and depressing. It’s depressing because we endure the painful deaths of all four subjects, but even worse than that, they all fall from grace. I’m not sure if I should reveal what they become. If I did, some would call it spoilers, but others might call them trigger-warnings. Let’s just say this is a tell-all biography where Nevala-Lee gives us the best and worst on each man. All four men were autodidactic know-it-alls. All four men were egomaniacs. Three, maybe four, had severe delusions of grandeur. All four were hard on wives and women, and at least two of them would have thrown out of pop culture if they lived during #MeToo times. One turns out to be white-supremacist and another started a religion and has been defied by his followers, even though Nevala-Lee makes it abundantly clear he was a pathological liar, and his church is often vilified and has a reputation of being a paranoid cult.

Despite all of this, Astounding is a valuable history book on an important era of science fiction. By combining the four biographies, Nevala-Lee shows us the wizards behind the curtain. Yes, in many ways, they were all humbugs, but in many other ways, they were genuine magicians. Campbell and all the writers of Astounding Science-Fiction created art that inspired a generation. Astounding Science-Fiction was essential to the evolution of the art form we know today as science fiction.

There has always been a problem calling 1939-1950 the golden age of science fiction because for many people it wasn’t. I’ve been systematically reading The Great SF Stories volumes 1-25 (1939-1964) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I’ve finished the first seven volumes, and I’ve got to say, many of the stories are forgettable. Nearly all the stories come from Campbell’s two magazines, Astounding Science-Fiction and Unknown. I’m sure these stories were mind-blowing back in the 1940’s, but there’s been much better science fiction written since using the same ideas and themes. In 1957 Peter Graham said in a fanzine called Void, that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” That deeply perceptive observation has been accepted as truth ever since. I turned 12 in late 1963, and the science fiction I discovered was published in the 1950’s. Some of it was reprints from Astounding in the 1940’s, and others were stories that appeared in F&SF, Galaxy, and IF, the Young Turks that usurped Astounding’s reign in the 1950’s, as well as original science fiction books that began being published that decade. Today, I generally think of the 1950’s as the golden age of science fiction, and I’m sure people younger than I feel the same way about the decade they first read when discovering science fiction.

This alternate view of the golden age of science fiction will probably limit the audience to Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee, but it’s already the #1 book in Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy section. Today it is quite common for young people, especially women and minorities, to dismiss older science fiction as being too white-male dominated from an unenlightened era. Nevala-Lee’s book will only reinforce those beliefs. However, I think it’s important to read this book. It does capture the ambitiousness of science fiction’s most ambitious proponents.

Science fiction changed dramatically in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and again this century. I routinely read science fiction stories from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Surprisingly, the ideas and themes remain consistent, but not the storytelling and characters. Science fiction authors have become much more sophisticated writers creating deeper and diverse characters. I see Nevala-Lee’s book as one piece in a very large puzzle. If you look for them, you’ll find plenty of books being written today on the history of science fiction. Most remain obscure and little read. I’m surprised that Astounding is getting all the attention it’s getting. Does it represent a tip of an iceberg of science fiction fans hungering to know more about the evolution of their favorite genre? Or, has all the science fiction fans from my generation suddenly become nostalgic for Astounding again?

I worry if younger science fiction fans read Astounding they may be turned off to 1940’s and 1950’s science fiction. All four men in Nevala-Lee’s book eventually come across as emotionally flawed, delusional, egomaniacal, and if not diagnosable with several DSM disorders, at least very nutty. Until the genre label “science fiction” emerged in the 1950’s, people would call it “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” I’m afraid the history in Astounding will only reinforce the crackpot reputation of science fiction.

This isn’t a criticism of the book, Nevala-Lee is just telling it like it was. But I believe readers need more context. I’m not sure people today have any idea what the psychological fallout the first atomic bombs, ICBMs, and Sputnik did to the citizens of the 1940’s and 1950’s. They all were looking desperately for answers to monumental existential threats. The stress was tremendous. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Psychiatry almost became a fad in the 1950’s, including experimental use of LSD under psychiatric supervision.

I’m not depressed that Nevala-Lee reveals how science fiction went nuts, but I wished he would have put its breakdown in the context of how everyone was going nutty back then. We look back with embarrassment to Campbell’s embrace of psychic powers, but a large segment of the country was doing the same thing.

I was born in 1951, so I grew up with the 1950’s. I remember my uncles raving about the psychic powers of Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon, believing in the past lives of Bridie Murphy, excited by the multiple personalities of Eve, and dedicated followers the UFO nut, George Adamski. Nevala-Lee doesn’t mention how crazy America was in the 1950’s, so it seems Campbell is a standout nutter. He wasn’t. He was the mansplainer to mansplainers. He would pontificate to experts in their fields on their own subjects, telling them where they were ignoramuses.

I’ve also read other biographies of Heinlein as well as several biographies of Philip K. Dick, along with many interviews with SF writers of this era. It’s very hard to capture the crazy times from Hiroshima to Woodstock. And if you compare those times to our times, you’ll see that most people believed a lot of crazy crap by then. Of, sure, we still believe a lot of crazy crapola today, but those true believers in weirdness are far fewer now. And it is a fact that back then almost everyone had horrible prejudices and were unenlightened to equality. I’d like to believe society has evolved, and the percentage of crazy and prejudice people are down from those times. Of course, recent events suggest they were only hiding.

My one criticism of Astounding is by focusing on the biographies of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard Nevala-Lee didn’t convey the tremendous excitement and variety of the science fiction stories that Campbell published. And that probably wasn’t his goal. To most fans, Astounding Science-Fiction magazine was by far the best science fiction magazine of the times because of the stories. They didn’t care about the lives of the editors and writers. I hope future historians of this era include the other magazines like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Astonishing Science Fiction. I’m not sure Astounding deserves all of the attention and credit.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s book is one of a coalescing history. It is valuable because of its biographical slant. I wished he could have included more biographies of Campbell’s writers in his book, especially A. E. van Vogt, C. L. Moore, Clifford Simak, Hal Clement, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Ross Rocklynne, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more. Here is a list of all the stories that appeared in Astounding from July 1939 to September 1960.

Nevala-Lee’s book reminds me of the Beats. They were a literary subculture from the 1950’s that biographers can’t let go of. The Beat library keeps growing. I think the subculture of science fiction is attracting interest in the same way, and Alec Nevala-Lee is helping it by promoting the cult of the character. Heinlein, Asimov, Hubbard, and Campbell remind me of Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Over time, I believe the science fiction generation of the 1940’s and 1950’s will be remembered in biographies like The Transcendentalists, The Lost Generation, and The Beats.

Finally, I would like to also recommend The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It is coming to the Kindle next month and is currently just $3.99 for pre-ordering. And if you’d like to actually read copies of old Astoundings, click here.

JWH