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

Judging Science Fiction by its Extrapolations

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Science fiction writers believe they can extrapolate from current events and imagine possible scenarios that will prepare readers for the world of tomorrow. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls that predict an exact future. Instead, they write stories that will never come true but theoretically could. Generally, they are of two types. Let’s make dreams come true (i.e. colonize Mars, build intelligent machines) or let’s avoid a nightmare (i.e. a fascist America, an eco-catastrophe).

But, how good is science fiction at extrapolation? What invention or social movement in the last 100 years has the genre fictionalized using extrapolation and speculation? Here’s an overview of the last 100 years that came quickly to mind. I put links to Wikipedia for those of you who want deeper reminders.

  • 1920’s – The Roaring Twenties, The Jazz Age, Prohibition, The Lost Generation, the stock market bubble and crash, Charles Lindbergh’s flight, women getting to vote, the rise of the KKK across America, gangsters
  • 1930’s – The Depression, talking movies, Big Bands, The New Deal, the Dust Bowl
  • 1940’s – World War II, the A-bomb, V-2 rockets, the United Nations
  • 1950’s – The Korean War, The Cold War, the H-bomb, television, Sputnik, NASA, interstate highways, Beatniks, Rock and Roll
  • 1960’s – The Viet Nam War, The Space Race, the Counter Culture, Civil Rights, Feminism, Gay Rights, Ecology, Apollo 11, Surveyor, Mariner, and Pioneer spacecraft, hippies, LSD, back to nature communes, muscle cars
  • 1970’s – The Oil Crisis, Watergate, Apple II, Atari video games, Viking Landers, Voyager spacecraft, environmentalism, organic farming, singer-songwriters
  • 1980’s – The Space Shuttle, MTV, IBM PC, The Macintosh
  • 1990’s – The Hubble Telescope, The Internet, World Wide Web, Amazon.com, Dolly the sheep, German reunification, the collapse of the USSR
  • 2000’s – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, iPhone, Barrack Obama, New Horizon spacecraft, high definition TV, Columbine
  • 2010’s – VR, Boston Dynamics robots, Donald Trump, Sandy Hook, active shooters

Were there any SF tales written before these decades that imagined their significant events? Science fiction’s big winner has always been space travel. Would we have gone to the Moon if science fiction hadn’t imagined it many times for hundreds of years? Did Robert Goddard build rockets because of the fiction he read? A few science fiction writers wrote about the atomic bomb before 1945, but they got their ideas from scientists who were already talking about them.

Of course, this is getting away from my topic. There is a difference between claiming science fiction speculates about the future based on current trends and saying science fiction pushed us into doing something. Science fiction lasts longer than people’s inspiration and brainstorming sessions. The more I read about the history of science fiction, the more I discover that science fiction writers were always inspired by inventors and scientists, rather than the other way around.

Analog Science Fiction July 1968

What I’m talking about is different. There’s a famous cover to the July 1968 issue of Analog Science Fiction for the story “Hawk Among the Sparrows” by Dean McLaughlin. It shows an SR-71 Blackbird-like jet sitting on a WWI runway with a biplane in the background. That cover represents fun hindsight for a time travel story. But what if a 1918 issue of The All-Story Weekly featured that cover painting? Extrapolating that biplanes would eventually evolve into something spectacular like the SR-71 is what I’m talking about. How often has science fiction done that?

unbelievable_time_required_to_cover_immense_distances_of_space__1918 by Harry Grant Dart

Here’s Harry Grant Dart’s 1918 artistic imagination of future aircraft/spacecraft. Not quite Lockheed SR-71s, are they? I’m not sure just how capable we are of extrapolation.

In 1911 Hugo Gernsback wrote Ralph 124C 41+ that contained many inventions he expected to be invented in the future. Just follow the Wikipedia link to read a rather long list of them. It’s 1925 hardback cover apparently shows a doctor interviewing a patient over a videophone. Science fiction has a pretty good track record of imagining possible future gadgets, but generally, their authors were inspired by current technology. Hugo Gernsback was probably the biggest proponent of technological extrapolation, but by the 1930’s science fiction had become 99% adventure fiction.

Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback 1925

Science fiction seems less capable of extrapolating Black Swan technology, especially the social repercussions of those gadgets. The genre just wasn’t ready for computers, especially personal computers, the internet, the web, smartphones, and most of the technology of the last several decades. Science fiction quickly embraced all this technology, but only afterward. Evidently, change is happening faster than science fiction writers can imagine it.

Books like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Stand on Zanzibar seem prophetic now because they appear to foresee our current social and political nightmares, but are they extrapolations? Weren’t they reactionary to the times in which they were written, and just happen to come into vogue again?

The 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster is one of the most prophetic SF stories I’ve ever read. But it didn’t seem so in 1970 when I first read it. It was only recently, well into the Internet Age when I read it again, that I thought Forster was such a genius for writing it. The main character, Vashti, an old woman, is essentially a blogger using a machine to communicate with other agoraphobic citizens. Everyone lives alone in their rooms, communicating through the machine. Forster knows nothing about computers and networks, only imagines a very clever machine. Her son, Kuno wants to escape the machine. Forster says he was inspired by H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” and it’s Eloi and Morlocks. But I can also imagine Forster thinking writing for magazines and book publishers was like being tied to a machine, and fantasizing about doing something in nature was appealing.

I am working on a science fiction short story. I’d like to think I’m imagining something people will do in the future that they don’t do now. But am I deluding myself? (I’m not going to explain my idea until the story is published.) I’d like to think I’m imagining something new, but I’ve got to analyze if I’m extrapolating or just describing what we do now in a new way.

The more I read old science fiction, the more I see science fiction in a different light. Science fiction has never been just one thing. Extrapolation has only been one aspect of the genre. Even as a kid, I didn’t believe people could predict the future. But I did think science fiction could be a cognitive tool for making good guesses. I’m now wondering if the best science fiction is deeply insightful about the present, and extrapolation about the future is a bunch of malarky.

I’m starting to wonder if I want to write a great science fiction story I should work as hard as possible to see into my own hopes and fears, set the story in the future, and then assume my dreams and nightmares might resonate with future readers.

JWH

 

We Need a New Frontier Because the Final Frontier is a Bust

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 10, 2018

Are you jaded with science fiction on television? Have you stopped seeing every new Sci-Fi flick at the theater? I have. On Wall Street, investors always assume a bull market won’t last. I’m wondering when the current science fiction bubble will burst?

During the pulp era, there were more western titles than any other genre. In the 1950s, there were more westerns on television than other types of shows. Then the genre all but disappeared. Could that happen to science fiction?

Westerns disappeared as western frontiers faded, and science fiction replaced westerns in popularity because it offered new frontiers.

Mars

If this observation is true, then science fiction won’t go away until a new genre offers an alternative frontier. Today, science fiction is often dystopian. The final frontier is tarnished by the reality of science. A few million still hope to run off to Mars to escape the looming apocalypses on Earth, but most know the Martian frontier is a destination only robots could love.

Science fiction has failed at convincing Earthlings to colonize other worlds. Instead, we stayed home and trashed the only sustainable planet for our species. Are there any frontiers left to offer new hope? Back when the Space Age was dawning, science fiction also envisioned colonizing the oceans. That idea never caught on and we’ve only sent our plastics to dwell there instead.

Oceans

Are there any frontiers left for our dreams? We need a new genre that inspires us to clean up the Earth. We need stories where a sustainable ecology/economy is the new frontier. We need fiction that depicts healing of the Earth. We need optimistic tales that aren’t fantasy. We need practical utopias.

And, this is very important, we need to stop using fiction to escape. Hasn’t fiction become the frontier that’s replaced science fiction? Aren’t we all trying to live in the imaginary worlds of books, movies, television shows, comics, computer games, and virtual reality? I have to wonder if we don’t all believe we’re passengers on the Titanic and fiction is our heroin.

JWH

The Mathematics of Buying Science Fiction Anthologies

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 17, 2018

Like the famous vehicle routing problem or the four-color map theorem, I’m proposing the science fiction anthology problem.

We’ve just published The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories that identified 275 short stories, novelettes, and novellas that are the most remembered in the genre. We gathered stories from 290 retrospective and annual best-of-the-year anthologies, several polls and lists, finalists from three awards (Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon), three recommended reading lists and put them into a database. We produced what we call The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list consisting of the stories that were on at least 5 of those sources. The Stories by Rank (with Citations) report starts with “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler. She got the most citations – 16. We’ve also created several other interesting reports from the data – see the site menu.

Sense of Wonder - A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman

Here’s the mathematical challenge that appeals to me. What’s the minimum number of anthologies to buy to get the most of the 275 stories on the list? I’ve already read 63 of these stories in 2018, and it’s been extremely rewarding. I believe anyone who reads a short story or novelette a day and takes two days to read a novella, could finish the list in one year. Sadly, there’s no 5-volume set of the classic science fiction short stories that collect them all.

Even more depressing, most of the anthologies we used are out of print. Anthologies don’t stay in print long. And some of the anthologies we used are textbooks priced far higher than the casual reader is willing to pay. I have spent the past year buying many of the anthologies on our Citation Bibliography list as I could afford, but my collection is far from complete.

My willingness to buy shelves of old SF anthologies to get all these stories isn’t typical. Thus, the mathematical problem I propose of finding the fewest anthologies that give readers the most stories from the 275.

We can’t claim these stories are the very best short works of science fiction. Neither did we pick them. They aren’t our personal favorites. We used math to identify the most remembered stories, which should be more valuable than mere opinion. By promoting the list, we are reinforcing the memory of these stories (maybe at the detriment of better stories). I could easily create “My 100 Favorite Stories Not on the List.” Those stories would be even harder to find. If you look at our Citation Sources Ranked report, you’ll see how many stories each citation source identified.

And let me be perfectly clear, not all these remembered stories are still worth reading today, at least to my taste. Time is cruel to science fiction. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima has ruined “Nerves” by Lester del Rey. Even though we have a methodology for revealing the most remember science fiction stories, I’m not sure all of them are worth remembering. But I do believe the stories that got the most citations are.

I want to promote the reading of short science fiction. Most fans don’t like short stories or buying anthologies. They need to try short science fiction to see what they are missing. Maybe it will change their minds. So part of this mathematical problem is also recommending the most recommended of the 275 stories, especially the first 100.

I believe the single most useful anthology that’s in print is Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman. It contains 133 stories, of which 50 are on our 275 Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. However, it’s $40 for a Kindle edition. (Granted, it is a huge book that’s probably best read on a Kindle.) And I sure wish it was available on audio because I love listening to short science fiction! If you eyeball our Stories by Rank (With Citations) list, you’ll see that many of the top stories are collected in this anthology. Still, $40 for an ebook book will scare most buyers off. Sense of Wonder is priced as a textbook, so it also contains essays about science fiction putting each story into context. That does add extra value.

The next volumes that are story-list full and in print, are the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. They contain just 48 stories, of which 39 were on our list. This year I listened to all three on Audible. But that’s a commitment of 3 credits to get 39 stories. Buying printed copies of Volume 1, Volume 2A and Volume 2B would be almost $57, so the $40 Grossman book seems less expensive now. I immensely enjoyed hearing these old stories and got them for around $30 by buying credits in bulk. Using full price credits would be $45. But 39 out of 48 stories is a very high hit rate.

Now if you’re willing to buy used, the three anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin Greenberg give you 188 stories to read, of which 53 were on our list. These books are:

If you’re lucky, you could find these books for a few bucks at a library book sale, or all three on AbeBooks.com for maybe $15-30.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction is in print for $29. It will get you 49 stories to read, but only 34 of which are on our list. You can get it even cheaper used.

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeerThe best bargain is The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. For $17.00, you get 107 stories, but only 25 are on our list. It’s also available as an ebook for $18, making it much more convenient to read all those stories. The paperback is like an old-style phonebook. Even though it only has 25 of our stories, I think it’s a fantastic collection.

Between Sense of Wonder and The Big Book of Science Fiction, many of the top stories are collected. Unfortunately, you also get duplicates. That’s another factor in solving the science fiction anthology problem – how to keep duplicate stories to a minimum.

By now, you’re probably sensing the mathematical headaches this problem generates. How to calculate the minimum number of anthologies to buy that cover the most stories. If you factor in costs, it becomes even wormier.

I haven’t figured that out how to solve this problem. It’s very tricky. I’m open to suggestions. Just buying three of any of these volumes I’ve mentioned so far, only gets you just over a 100 of the 275 stories. It might take buying 10 books to get to 200, and 30 to get to 250. I wonder if there’s a mathematical progression involved?

The minimum number of citations to get on the list was 5. But some of the 275 stories might have only come from polls, awards, and recommendation lists. And it’s possible that several stories came from 5 different books that don’t overlap with any other missing story.

I’m not sure if the answer isn’t 290, the total number of anthologies we used.

JWH