The Elegance of Quiet Science Fiction Films

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 29, 2019

Advantageous (2015) is the kind of quiet science fiction film I love. It was directed by Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote it with Jacqueline Kim, the star of the film. Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix and I have no memory of it ever coming to the theater (even though it has an 83% Rotten Tomatoes rating). I watched this movie with my friend Annie. She thought the show was only okay, but I loved it. But then my favorite science film is Gattaca. I prefer quiet science fiction movies without chases, explosions, and dazzling special effects. Annie prefers more action.

Advantageous is set in the near future where AI are taking jobs from people. Advantageous is about Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) who is the spokesperson for a rejuvenation corporation who is being fired for looking too old. Gwen is desperate to get another job to keep paying for the expensive schooling for Jules (Samantha Kim), her daughter. In this future, the unspoken belief is its better to give jobs to men because if too many of them were unemployed it would cause civil unrest. Gwen feels Jules can only have a future if she has an elite education, and she’s willing to do anything give her daughter a future.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but let’s just say that Advantageous explores a number of popular current science fiction themes in written science fiction. The film is set in an unnamed city with a breathtaking skyline of ornate skyscrapers that are occasionally hit by terrorist explosions. The citizens of this future passively ignore these attacks as a powerful government deals with them without alarm. We are shown other flaws in this tomorrowland just as quietly. This is a utopian world that is beginning to reveal hairline cracks.

One requirement of enjoying quiet science fiction films is reading between subtle lines. It helps to be well-versed in written science fiction. Gwen is given a decision to make, a “Cold Equations” or “Think Like a Dinosaur” decision. If you don’t know these classic science fiction short stories you might not appreciate the impacts of her choice. The ideas in Advantageous have been explored in great detail in written science fiction. That makes me wonder if movie-only Sci-Fi fans will pick up on the finer points of this story.

Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times was less enthusiastic about the film than me:

Ms. Phang, who wrote the script with Ms. Kim, throws a lot into her movie — ideas about maternity, identity and technologies of the female body swirl alongside nods to the French New Wave — without always connecting the pieces. Eventually, a picture emerges that at times suggests a strange if alluring mash-up of “Stella Dallas” and Michel Foucault, with a smidgen of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and a hint of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ms. Phang has a way with spooky moods and interiors, and as a performer, Ms. Kim makes a fine accompanist, though she’s tamped down too much. It’s a kick to see how effectively Ms. Phang has created the future on a shoestring even if she hasn’t yet figured out how to turn all her smart ideas into a fully realized feature.

I thought Advantageous was fully realized. It set up all the science fictional speculation and then dealt with them in a satisfying way. It just didn’t cover everything explicitly, but quietly implied what we needed to know. Maybe that’s why this movie is an unknown gem. Too many filmgoers want action and obviousness. I watched the film last night and I’m already wanting to see it again. I’m sure there are little delights I’ve missed. Quiet films are perfect for meditation, they keep unfolding with additional viewing and contemplation.

JWH

 

Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 25, 2019

Love, Death + Robots showed up on Netflix recently. It has all the hallmarks of mature entertainment – full frontal nudity, sex acts of various kinds, gory violence, and the kind of words you don’t hear on broadcast TV or in movies intended for younger audiences. There’s one problem, the maturity level of the stories is on the young adult end of the spectrum. 13-year-olds will be all over this series when it should be rated R or higher.

When I was in high school I had two science fiction reading buddies, Connell and Kurshner. One day Kurshner’s mom told us almost in passing, “All that science fiction you’re reading is so childish. One day you’ll outgrow it.” All three of us defended our belief in science fiction, but Mrs. Kurshner was adamant. That really bugged us.

Over the decades I’d occasionally read essays by literary writers attacking science fiction as crude fiction for adolescents. I vaguely remember John Updike caused a furor in fandom with an essay in The New Yorker or Harpers that outraged the genre. I wish I could track that essay down, but can’t. Needless to say, at 67 I’m also starting to wonder if science fiction is mostly for the young, or young at heart.

I enjoyed the 18 short mostly animated films in the Love, Death + Robots collection, but I have to admit they mostly appealed to the teenage boy in me, and not the adult. Nudity, sex, violence, and profanity doesn’t equate with maturity. But what does? I’ve known many science fiction fans that think adult literary works are equal to boredom.

So what are the qualities that make science fiction mature? I struggled this morning to think of science fiction novels that I’d consider adult oriented. The first that came to mind was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Orwell died before the concept of science fiction became common, but I’m pretty sure he never would have considered himself a science fiction writer even though he used the tricks of our trade. Margaret Atwood doesn’t consider herself a science fiction writer even though books like The Handmaid’s Tale are both science fiction and mature literature. Other mature SF novels I can think of are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are all novels that use science fiction techniques to tell their story but were written by literary writers.

Of course, I could be howling at the moon for no reason. Most television and movies are aimed at the young. Except for Masterpiece on PBS and a few independent films, I seldom get to enjoy stories aimed at people my own age. Which brings me back to the question: What makes for mature fiction? And it isn’t content that we want to censor from the young. If we’re honest, nudity, sex, violence, and profanity are at the core of our teenage thoughts.

Mature works of fiction are those that explore reality. Youth is inherently fantasy oriented. The reason why we’re offered so little adult fiction is that we don’t want to grow up and face reality. The world is full of reality-based problems. We want fiction that helps us forget those problems. Getting old is real. We want to think young.

Love, Death + Robots appeals to our arrested development.

Love Death + Robots - robots

I’m currently reading and reviewing the 38 science fiction stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m writing one essay for each story to discuss both the story and the nature of science fiction in general. I’ve finished 10 stories so far, and one common aspect I’m seeing is a rejection of reality. These stories represent what Dozois believes is the best short science fiction published from 2002-2017. On the whole, the stories are far more mature than those in Love, Death + Robots, but that’s mainly due to their sophistication of storytelling, and not philosophy. At the heart of each story is a wish that reality was different. Those wishes are expressed in incredibly creative ways, which is the ultimate aspect of science fiction. But hoping the world could be different is not mature.

Science fiction has always been closer to comic books than Tolstoy, Woolf, or even Dickens. And now that many popular movies are based on comic books, and the whole video game industry looks like filmed comic books, comic book mentality is spreading. The science fiction in Love, Death + Robots is much closer to its comic book ancestry than its science fiction ancestry, even though many of the stories were based on original short stories written by science fiction writers. Some reviewers suggest Love, Death + Robots grew out of shows like Robot Carnival and Heavy Metal.  Even though Heavy Metal was considered animation for adults, it’s appeal was rather juvenile.

I know fully well that if Netflix offered a series of 18 animated short science fiction films that dealt with the future in a mature and realistic way it would get damn few viewers. Even when science fiction deals with real-world subjects, it seldom does so in a real way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a genre to be mature that wants to offer hope to the young. Yet, is its hope honest? Is it a positive message tell the young we can colonize other planets if we destroy the Earth? That we can solve climate change with magical machines. That science can give us super-powers. That if we inject nanobots into our bloodstream we can be 22 again. That don’t worry about death because we’ll download your brain into a clone or computer. Doesn’t science fiction often claim that in time technology will solve all problems in the same way we rationalize to children how Santa Claus could be real?

Actually, none of the stories in Love, Death + Robots offered any hope, just escape and the belief you can sometimes shoot your way out of a bad situation. But only sometimes.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, one story, “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs is about a very realistic situation that is solved by logical thinking. Strangely, it’s the only story by a woman writer. A “Cold Equations” kind of story. That’s a classic 1954 short story written by Tom Godwin where the main character has to make a very difficult choice.

My favorite three stories (“When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots”) were all based on stories by John Scalzi and have kind of zany humor that provides needed relief from the grimness of the other tales. I actually enjoyed all the short films, but I did tire of the ones that felt inspired by video game violence. Even those films like “Secret War” and “Lucky Thirteen” which aimed for a little more maturity, rose higher than comic books, but only to pulp fiction.

The two films based on Alastair Reynolds stories, “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquilla Rift” seemed to be the most science fictional in a short story way. I especially like “Zima Blue” for its visual art, and the fact the story had an Atomic Age kind of science fiction feel to it. So did the fun “Ice Age” based on a Michael Swanwick story. Mid-Century science fiction is really my favorite SF era. Finally, “Good Hunting” based on a Ken Liu has a very contemporary SF feel because it blends Chinese myths with robots. World SF is a trending wave in the genre now.

I’m still having a hard time pointing to mature short SF, ones that would make great little films like in Love, Death + Robots. Maybe “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, which I reviewed on my other site. I guess my favorite example might be “The Star Pit” by a very young Samuel R. Delany, which is all about growing up and accepting limitations. Most of the films in Love, Death + Robots were 8-18 minutes. These stories might need 30-60. It would be great if Netflix had an ongoing anthology series of short live-action and animated science fiction because I’d like to see more previously published SF stories presented this way. Oh, I suppose they could add sex, nudity, violence, and profanity to attract the teenagers, but what I’d really want is to move away from the comic book and video game plots, and into best better SF stories we read in the digests and online SF magazines.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Improving My Memory by Remembering the Science Fiction I Read in High School (1965-1969)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 25, 2019

In recent years my ability to remember has become rather haphazard. I’ve even forgotten the names of some of my closest friends – at random times for several long unpleasant moments. My memory access times are just flaky. Retrieval times are their longest when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. It makes me wonder if memory functionality doesn’t correlate to the time of day.

However, in the past week, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my recall ability. At first, I’ve even wondered if I’ve eaten something with memory-boosting vitamins. Or could I have increased my exercising or gotten better sleep? Then I remembered I’ve been dredging my deepest brain cells to recall my high school years. This was set off a few weeks ago when I realized 2019 was the 50th anniversary year of my release from the K-12 imprisonment.

Marshall-Brent

Has a prolonged effort to recall the past strengthened my memory muscles? The other night I watched Lifeboat, the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock film and the next day I could recall all the actors’ names. Last night I watched The Rains of Ranchipur, a 1955 film that starred George Brent. I never can remember his name and always confuse him with Herbert Marshall, whose name I never can remember either to great frustration. Here I am remembering both of their names. What has changed?

Has all my effort to remember somehow opened up clogged neural pathways?

The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein 1967

This morning I found a history of the Science Fiction Book Club. I joined it in early 1967, and the 1965-1969 monthly select list triggers memories of which books I bought during those years. I’m working to distinguish which books I bought from the Things to Come monthly sales flyer, and which I bought later. Making such a distinction helps to remember. My memory tells me the first book I ordered was The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein. It was the April selection for 1967. But my memory tells me I got it in March. However, the sales flyers came weeks earlier so this memory could be true.

It just occurs to me that “the past through tomorrow” are ironic words to come up right now.

I often feel like a detective looking for clues to my own past. I know from personal experience and books to distrust memories. We constantly fool ourselves. We work on the assumption that our memories are accurate. They aren’t. That’s why I’m always looking for external clues to verify what I think I remember.

I’m pushing my memory to recall how I bought books during the 1965-1969 high school years. In the 8th and 9th grades (1963-65) I was getting books from my school libraries at Homestead Junior High and Cutler Ridge Junior High School. Around this time I started making money from cutting lawns and a paper route. The first books I remember buying new at a store were two paperbacks. Well, that’s not exactly true. In the 6th and 7th grade I ordered paperbacks from Scholastic Book flyers they gave out in class, and my mother gave me the money to buy them. But in 1965, but maybe early 1966, I remember going to a shopping center on my bike to buy The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein and Stranger in a Strange Land on separate occasions They were from a spinning wire rack at the back of a drugstore. I just checked ISFDB.org and the first book was 1966 and the second 1964. So that validates my memory. Here are their covers as I first saw them back then:

First-Heinlein-books-I-bought

In August of 1966, we moved to Charleston, Mississippi, a very small town without a bookstore, but with a very tiny, very ancient, very dusty storefront library. Charleston’s drugstore had one twirling rack of books, but without science fiction. I bought Popular Science magazines instead. I also got a job throwing papers for the afternoon paper from Jackson. I got my first checking account at 15. This is when I first joined the Science Fiction Book Club. We moved back to Miami in March of 1967 to Coconut Grove, Florida, the oldest section of Miami (if I can trust my memory). It was here that I visited my first new bookstore, and even then it was half bookstore and half stationary store. It only had a couple of shelves for science fiction, but as of now, I can’t remember buying any specific books there.

I did get a job at the Kwik Chek in Coconut Grove in November of 1967. This is when I got my second checking account, at 16. With my first paycheck I remember being around $40, I ordered the twelve Heinlein juveniles in hardback directly from the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons. (They cost $3.33 each, or $39.96 for the set, so that verifies.) I’ve forgotten how much postage I had to pay. Those books arrived on 2/18/68. I know that because I still have them. I had signed and dated them.

My collection of science fiction was growing. I had a two-shelf bookcase I built in shop class in the 9th grade. My collection took about half of one shelf. I can visualize myself shelving I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov along with Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein. Using the listing of the Science Fiction Book Club I believe I added the following books to my bookshelf during 1967-69 years. This included buying some of SFBC’s older selections. Looking at the covers instantly verifies my memories. I’m also surprised by the famous SF books I didn’t buy during those years but bought much later once I discovered what they were. So some classic science fiction novels I read when they came out and others way afterward. This exercise is also teaching me which books I bought but didn’t read.

  • A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (2 volumes) edited by Anthony Boucher (January 1960)
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (August 1963)
  • Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein (September 1963)
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (October 1963)
  • Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (May 1964)
  • Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein (November 1964)
  • The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov (December 1964)
  • Prelude to Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (August 1965)
  • Twice 22 by Ray Bradbury (March 1966)
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley (May 1966)
  • The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard (Summer, 1966)
  • Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov (August 1966)
  • Earthblood by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown (January 1967)
  • The Artificial Man by L. P. Davies (Febrary 1967)
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein (April 1967)
  • Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (December 1967)
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (January 1968)
  • Cryptozoic! by Brian W. Aldiss (May 1968)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (September 1968)
  • The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd (November 1968)
  • Nova by Samuel R. Delany (May 1969)
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas by Fritz Leiber (June 1969)
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (July 1969)
  • Omnivore by Piers Anthony (July 1969)
  • The Pollinators of Eden by John Boyd (August 1969)
  • The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (September 1969)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 1969)
  • The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner (November 1969)

If you are still reading I hope this hasn’t been too boring watching me walk down memory lane. If it’s helping me to exercise my brain then I’ve got to keep doing it. During this period I also bought paperbacks, but not very often. It wasn’t until 1969-1970 that I got into buying used books in volume (by the cardboard box). That’s because I discovered flea markets and trade-in paperback bookstores. I especially remember three paperbacks I purchased during my high school years: Empire Star, Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection. Samuel R. Delany was my second favorite author after Heinlein and my favorite 1960s science fiction writer. Delany was younger, so I felt he represented contemporary science fiction and Heinlein represented the 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

Looking at these titles really does define my reading memories from high school. And their dustjackets trigger old emotions. I wonder if that’s why my memory is improving All this remembering is stirring up the chemicals in my brain?

A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

I Robot by Isaac Asimov

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

Earthblood by Laumer and Brown

Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

Omnivore by Piers Anthony

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

JWH

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