Who Still Reads 1950s Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why are people still reading science fiction from the 1950s? I’m always leery to read science books more than a few years old, but crave science fiction written before NASA was created. I’m not alone in preferring moldy, aged SF, but I have no idea how many other fans are like me. I belong to an online book club, Classic Science Fiction, and many of the members prefer 1950s-1970s science fiction. But then, most of us collect social security too, so it might be nostalgia. There are a few younger members, and I’ve wondered how they got hooked on reading SF meant for their parents and grandparents. I’ve been updating “The Defining Science Fiction of the 1950s” with links to Amazon. Most of the books listed are still in print, although many are only available for the Kindle, or from Audible.com.

Are these books bought by old folks remembering, or new folks discovering?

Defining My Task

I know this essay will interest damn few people. I’m going to put a lot of time and effort into writing it, and few will read it. My hope is it will be a honeypot that will attract those folks who also love reading 1950s science fiction, so please leave a comment. My theory is science fiction from this era has distinctive qualities and appeals. My goal is to begin to define those attributes and attractions. I say begin, but I’ve tried this before. Like psychoanalysis, you can’t discover all self-knowledge in one session. I don’t know why I can’t let this past go. And I don’t know how much debugging it will take before my brain will be free.

New is Better

Personally, I believe the best science fiction books written in the last twenty-five years are better crafted than the best science fiction written in the 1950s. Now I’m talking about writing, storytelling, characterization, plotting, and all the mechanics of creating a book. With every decade I believe the skills of writers are evolving. I also believe the imagination and science that goes into science fiction has constantly progressed over the decades. So, why bother reading old science fiction at all? Few science fiction readers read science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s just too primitive. Most have stopped reading science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s seems to be the oldest science fiction that many modern readers discover, with books like Slaughterhouse Five, Dune, A Wrinkle in Time, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Man in the High Castle.

Time is hard on science fiction. It doesn’t age well. Reading science fiction is the most exciting when you’re under twenty-one. And since every generation has its own hope for the future, the science fiction they embrace is what’s new and exciting. By its very nature, science fiction tends to invalidate its past. Except…

Nostalgia for the Golden Age

If you remain a science fiction fan long enough you come back around to where you began. Most readers go through a science fiction reading phase, and eventually move on to other genres. Most people just dabble with science fiction. The kind of reader I’m trying to identify is different. Science fiction was their childhood religion, born again into faith in the future, like the theological have a faith in the past. Sometimes I feel my obsession with comprehending old science fiction is a kind of exorcism. I’m trying to deprogram myself. Other times I assume it’s just a dynamic of getting older, and I’m merely seeking comfort reads.

I worry as I get older, I’m being sucked into a black hole of nostalgia. I fight this by reading as many nonfiction books and novels published in the current year as I can, but all too often I discover myself returning to books from the 1950s and 1960s. Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of Gunsmoke and Perry Mason, preferring the ones that came out in the 1950s. I even bought the first season of Gunsmoke from 1955. And I started listening to Gunsmoke’s radio show that came out in 1950. I don’t think that’s typical for folks of my age, since all my friends love new television shows, movies and books. I wonder if I have some kind of time disease that makes me want to travel to the past.

When I was growing up, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was considered 1938-1946,  mostly due to the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction by John W. Campbell. Certainly many of the classic science fiction short stories I read in the early 1960s were reprints from that era. Then Peter Graham said, “The Golden Age of science fiction is 12.” That felt so right that no other age has ever usurped it. The science fiction that imprinted on me at age 12 is the atomic clock by which I’ve measured all science fiction since.

My favorite SF novel in 2015 was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. I admire it for great intellectual speculation. But, it’s no match emotionally for my favorite generation ship story, Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein. Orphans first appeared in book form in 1963, reprinting two novellas from 1941, “Universe” and “Common Sense” that were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction.  I turned 12 in 1963. Aurora is a much more ambitious and sophisticated novel than Orphans in the Sky. Aurora had more to say about science and science fiction, but it’s the Heinlein story that resonates with my heart.

Time out of Joint by Philip K. DickAll my favorite Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke books were published in the 1950s. I came of age in the 1960s, and my favorite science fiction writers from that decade are Delany, Dick and Zelazny. All their books are dated. They weren’t always enlightened when it comes to political correctness by today’s standards. And they were all men. Two were gay, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The real question is: Are these old science fiction books still readable, still lovable, by later generations who have no nostalgic ties to the past? Who still reads 1950s science fiction?

When Old Becomes Classic

I recently wrote “The Classics of Science Fiction in 12 Lists” over at Worlds Without End. It’s fascinating to see which science fiction books from the 1950s are still being remembered. Because some of these lists were from polls, I assume many of the voters were young. Studying the lists though, show more titles from the 1960s than any other decade. Does that mean 1950s science fiction is finally fading away? Some of the 1950s SF titles are books now taught in school like The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Of the thirteen lists, here are the 1950s books that were at the top of those lists. I note how many lists each were on.

Literary Recognition

Most of the 1950s science books that are available today are from a few publishers that specialize in reprinting old science fiction. Not always. I was surprised to see The Chrysalids by John Wyndham in print from New York Review Books Classics. Does that mean the literary elite are finally accepting the genre hoi polloi? They also publish Chocky, a 1968 book also by Wyndham. What really blew my mind, was NYRBC has a collection of Robert Sheckley stories, Store of the Worlds. And just when I thought I couldn’t be anymore amazed, I saw they have reprinted The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1973) by D. G. Compton. This is about as shocking as when Library of America began reprinting Philip K. Dick. But, we’re getting away from the 1950s. On the other hand, it suggests that some science fiction is being remembered by people other than old farts who grew up reading science fiction.

I should note that The Foundation Trilogy has been reprinted by the Everyman’s Library, which is a nice distinction too.

Remembering Old Books at the Movies

Of course, the main way modern people remember old books are when they are made into movies. Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke, was recently shown as a SyFy miniseries. The Ray Bradbury books mentioned above have movie and television versions. The Day of the Triffids (1951), again by Wyndham, has had many visual interpretations. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), The Puppet Masters (1951) and “All You Zombies…” (1959) have film versions to remind young people to read his books. I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov was remembered in film, but only in title. It would be great if someone would film the stories. And I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson and The Body Snatcher (1954) by Jack Finney are remembered for their horror and science fiction. Most of the science fiction we remember from the 1950s actually comes from the classic SF movies of the 1950s.

Collecting Pulp Magazines

Robert A Heinlein_Have Space Suit Will Travel F-SFCollectors might be a large segment of 1950s science fiction fans. They seek out old science fiction magazines, first editions from specialty presses like Gnome and Fantasy, or first editions of what’s now consider classic science fiction of the the 1950s. Some collectors go after hardbacks with dust jackets or paperbacks with wraps by artists they love.

By the the 1950s, the magazines had switched from pulp format to digest size. So true pulp collectors mine the 1940s and earlier for their collecting habit. Some of those digest magazines are showing up on the internet. A mostly complete run of If Magazine is available at Archive.org, part of its Pulp Magazine Archive. It’s a shame that some authors felt the need to request their stories be pulled. It’s like they have erased themselves from 1950s SF history. I wish the copyright laws made an exception for magazines, so that any periodical older than 25 years could be archive online if the entire issue was scanned as one document. I doubt authors would lose sales. Evidently many people wanted to read the old If Magazines. They have over a quarter-million views. From time to time I meet pulp magazine collectors. Lately they swap digital scans, but in the old days I knew guys who owned thousands of the original magazines, but those artifacts are disintegrating. It’s great pulps and digests are being preserved online, but it’s a shame copyright laws don’t support those efforts. Many of the novels we know from the 1950s first appeared in a 1940 pulp. Another favorite title, Galaxy Magazine, is showing up at the archive. I’m waiting for F&SF and Astounding, the top venues.

What Was Unique?

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. HeinleinUltimately, any novel is about the times in which it was written. Science fiction books from the 1950s were really about the 1950s, and not the future. For those people who didn’t grow up during that decade, what does 1950s science fiction convey about those years? I was born in 1951, so the 1950s were my childhood. My memories of the 1950s were of vast suburbs filled with tiny track houses, hordes of kids playing in the streets, wearing cowboy hats, six-guns, fake coon-skin hats, or space helmets, watching Saturday morning cartoons, or Saturday afternoon Tarzan flicks, hanging around at night observing the grown-ups smoking and drinking, begging for sips, while listening to them argue about divorces and shrinks, or kooky stuff like UFOs, Bridey Murphy and Edgar Cayce, or scary stuff like atomic bombs and fall-out shelters. My 1950s wasn’t Leave It to Beaver 1950s, but we loved watching those television shows that define the 1950s today. Even back then we knew life wasn’t like television, but we wanted it to be.

My life as a kid in the 1950s was a whole lot like Peanuts. The adults lived in their world, and we kids lived in ours. By today’s standards my parents would have been jailed. I walked to school starting in the first grade. When we lived in cities I ranged for blocks on my bike, when we lived in the country, I ranged for miles hiking the woods. I discovered science fiction in the 1950s via black and white television, with tales of space patrols, alien invaders, and monsters. Even though my mother forced me to go to church, I never got Christianity. I believed in rockets and space travel. And that’s probably why I keep returning to 1950s science fiction. It was my religion.

Strangely, the book the reminds me most of my 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. It was written in 1959, but not published until 1975. Most people were Beat back then, not just the Beatniks. Life was simpler, but it had an edge that doesn’t come through in the old TV shows. Maybe that’s why I like Gunsmoke today, it showed more of the grit of my childhood. Actually, all of the PKD’s literary novels remind me of the 1950s. But so does his science fiction novels. Those were about nuclear war, paranoia, invasions, and alienation. Americans in the 1950s worried that Russia was going to bomb us out of existence, and commies had infiltrated our friends and associations. The pod people of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers were a perfect stand-in for fear of communism. Ditto for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. And those writers combined fear of communism with the UFO craze. Few today remember the wackiness of UFOs.The Body Snatcher by Jack Finney

1950s science fiction spent a great many words imagining the collapse of civilization. But it also imagined colonizing the solar system, and even other solar systems. 1950 began with children’s shows about space patrols, that many adults got hooked on. Long before 1966’s Star Trek we had 1956’s Forbidden Planet. 1950s science fiction often pictured a space patrol as another branch of the American military services. 1950s imagined World Governments, United Planets, and Federations of Star Systems. You have to wonder what happened to America when in 1977, the galaxy became an evil empire.

Another common theme in 1950s science fiction was psychic powers. Science fiction writers believed supermen and superwomen would evolve any day. Childhood’s End in 1953 imagined our replacements, Homo superior, doing away with Homo sapiens. Clarke recycled that theme in the psychedelic sixties with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon and Zenna Henderson wrote about strange people that you wondered if they were mentally ill, gifted or psychic. And John W. Campbell went overboard at Astounding promoting Psi-powers. I don’t know why so many sci-fi stories in the fifties were goo-goo for the woo-woo, but maybe it was a wish for transcendence. In many ways it prefigured the New Age movement that emerged in the 1970s. But some Americans have been hung-up on psychics since 1848, and the Fox sisters.

That’s the thing about reading 1950s science fiction today, or even other novels from that decade. I came of age in the Psychedelic Sixties, and we thought we were unique. But the more I read from the 1950s, the more I realized everything that was going to happen in the 1960s began staging in the 1950s. Before Hippies there were Beats. Before Timothy Leary and LSD there was Aldous Huxley and The Doors of Perceptions (1954). Even though I didn’t discover Jack Kerouac until the late sixties, he became a substitute father-figure when my dad died in 1970. They were about the same age, and both were drunks dying months apart. I’ve been trying to grasp their 1950s ever since.

A harder thing to explain about 1950s science fiction is the humor. You’ve just got to read Robert Sheckley to understand what I mean. Or Fredric Brown. Or the satire of Vonnegut, Tenn, Pohl and Kornbluth. Or the bizarreness of Philip K. Dick. Both F&SF and Galaxy featured lots of humor and satire. I didn’t start buying these magazines until the mid-sixties, but I grew up devouring their old annual collections I found in libraries. I began unearthing the 1950s in 1962.

So many of the great science fiction stories of the 1950s were about the end of the world, or the collapse of civilization. Some of my all-time favorite novels are about the end of the world as we know it, like Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart, On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute, or Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank.

The 1950s were strange in that people thought civilization was coming to an end and hoped to expand civilization across the galaxy. What a schizoid dichotomy.  And I grasped that as a kid. Maybe that’s the trip that got laid on me that I’m trying to understand. To me, the absolutely best inheritance I received from the 1950s were the Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964, when I was still twelve (the Golden Age of Science Fiction). In fact, all my reading of science fiction feels like it’s been downhill ever since I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, The Rolling Stones, Red Planet, Starman Jones, Farmer in the Sky, Between Planets, Space Cadet, Citizen of the Galaxy, The Star Beast and Rocketship Galileo. There were other young adult SF from the 1950s that I loved; books by Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Donald Wolheim, and the whole series from Winston Science Fiction. But the Heinlein twelve were always the pinnacle of SF for me.

All those kid SF books from the 1950s instilled a belief I’d grow up and live in space. That didn’t happen. Maybe its that promise of a future that never came to be that keeps me reading old science fiction. In some ways I feel like a person that’s died and learns there’s no heaven. Do those of us who read old science fiction do so because we’re trying to recapture the promises of the golden age? I’ve long known science fiction was my religion substitute growing up. Even though I became an atheist to SF long ago, it still haunts me. I just can’t deprogram myself. I will never go to Mars or Heaven. Which is funny, Ray Bradbury has a story called, “Mars is Heaven!”

This self-revelation came to me in 1967, when I read “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, in the February issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. It’s about the barriers we face in life, about understanding our limitations. Delany knew in 1966 he and I were never going into space, and his story is symbolic for all of us who dreamed those 1950s science fiction dreams, but who would never leave in our space ships.

JWH

p.s.  I know this is a bone I can’t stop gnawing. Anyone who has regularly read my blog, knows I’ve covered this territory before. I write these posts as a form of psychoanalysis. I usually come to two realizations. One, I’m disappointed that the future I imagined as a child, is not the future I found as an adult. Two, I was conditioned as a kid to love certain kinds of stories, and I can’t get away from that pleasure. I’m like an addict that says, “I can stop any time I want” but I don’t. Sometimes I rationalize reading old science fiction by telling myself that I’m studying it as an academic subject. But that’s not quite honest either. One thing I keep urging myself,  is to move forward in time. To relive the science fiction of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, etc.

Cleaning Up My Kindle Library

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 23, 2016

I had 501 ebooks in my Kindle library when I started this essay. I have 401 now. After reading an article that said 40-45% of all ebooks bought are never opened, I loaded up Kindle for PC, put it in cover view, and scanned my books. Damn, they were right. I’ve been acquiring Kindle books since 2007, and many of those books I had gotten for free in promotions, downloaded for free because they were in the public domain, or ones I bought on the cheap because their authors were anxious for me to try their work. Most I had never opened. Psychologically I assume, I’m buying books for a future, for when I have 72 hours in a day for reading.

This made me contemplate my Kindle library. I love shopping for used books every week and I also love snapping up ebook bargains. But scrolling through the cover images I saw several books I thought I wanted to buy that I already own. Damn! My Kindle library has gotten completely out of hand. I’m constantly buying $1.99 specials because of BookBub, Kindle Daily Deal, Book Riot Deals, or Early Bird Books.

SF Books On Kindle

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon and permanently deleted 100 books I knew I’d never read. This has proven to me that free ebooks aren’t something I actually want. From studying the dates purchased, I had already stopped adding free books years ago. However, I switched to compulsive buying. I bought 146 Kindle ebooks in 2015, probably three-fourths of them for $1.99. Since I average reading one book a week, I’m buying three years worth of reading every year. That’s illogical! You’ll think I’m even more insane when I tell you two-thirds of the books I “read” each year are with my ears, so I’m actually buying about seven years worth of ebooks each year. (I’m not sure if that fractional math works out—haha, a word problem for you.)

It would be a huge help if Amazon created some way to mark books read or unread. I need some method of reminding myself of how many books are waiting patiently for me to spend a week with them. I’m guessing I have a decade’s worth of unread Kindle books in my library. (I need to stop buying those sale ebook!!! It’s an addiction.)

When I scroll through the Kindle library now, I see only books I want to read, or have read and want to keep. But it’s in one big jumble, ordered by title, author or recent (date last accessed). I wish Amazon would let us permanently classify books in their “Manage Your Content and Devices” web application. I can create subject collections, but only for a device, like for Kindle for PC, and sometimes it seems, when the software gets updated, I lose those collections. The photo above is part of my “SF Novels” collection.

In recent years I’ve been buying classic science fiction book when they go on sale for $1.99, and have 70 novels, and 48 short story collections and anthologies. Today, I realized that I need to browse my collection at least weekly, to remember what I own, and inspire me to read rather than shop. Between hundreds of printed books, a thousand audio books, and these 401 Kindle ebooks, I have 30-40 years worth of reading queued up. Since I’m 64, I’m covered for the rest of my life. I should stop buying books. I won’t, but I should. At least, I should browse the covers as often as possible, to remind myself of all those books waiting to be consumed, and at least stop me from buying duplicates. That might slow me down some.

Spending the afternoon working with my Kindle for PC app has shown me the value of looking through my collection. Especially in cover view mode. I wish I had similar software for viewing my Audible books, or even wish the Kindle for PC could manage my Audible collection too. Amazon does own Audible. It would also be nice if I could enter my physical books into the same system, so I’d only need one program to browse my entire collection. I like seeing the covers. There’s software for the PC, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS that allows this, but it would mean maintaining two databases, and that would be a pain-in-the-ass.

Since I buy most of my books from Amazon, it would seem they should be responsible for helping me manage my library.

JWH

Dear Noah Berlatsky;

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Noah, I wanted to drop you a line for writing an essay about one of my essays. I think this is the first time someone has ever written an essay about me. Unfortunately, it’s about the tempest in the teacup I caused over at SF Signal. I’ve found it quite educational to be publicly shamed by that incident, especially when it leaves readers believing things about me I don’t think are true. I am impressed with your essay because you come closer to attacking my thesis and not the false impression everyone got, although you do get caught up in that too.

Most people read the title, “The Cutting Edge of Science Fiction” and then looked at the list of books and assumed they were books I claimed were top science fiction books. They weren’t. You at least read the essay, though you put a narrow spin on it that I really didn’t intend. First off, my essay was saying the cutting edge of science fiction are those science fiction stories written after a scientific discovery that speculated on that discovery and before additional scientific discoveries would close down that speculation. It was never meant to be specific books. And the list of books I gave were never meant to be a list of great books, but only science fiction books that covered my sample subject: emerging AI.

marginalized

Anyone familiar with science fiction should have known that list contained some awful books. They’d Rather Be Right is considered the worst novel to ever win the Hugo award, and no one reads it today. Vulcan’s Hammer is bottom of the barrel PKD. What I assumed is readers would know enough about AI to match real history with science fiction history. They’d Rather Be Right came out the same decade the discipline of artificial intelligence emerged as an academic subject.  The authors learned about AI, and speculated a very large computer could create artificial consciousness. That turned out to be wrong. In the sixties, after we started networking computers, Heinlein suggested network computers would lead to AI. All the books in that list reflected a writer using current ideas about computers to imagine how a self-aware artificial intelligence could emerge. Later on Robert Sawyer suggested the world wide web might spin off one. Or the movie Her, suggests the AI in smartphones will grow into an intelligent being. Actually, if you think about, very little of what I’m calling cutting edge science fiction does any big thinking. Only Richard Powers and David Gerrold actually tried to explore what it takes to program an AI, and their books are hardly read today.

Noah, your essay assumes I meant only gadget oriented stories could be science fiction. I didn’t mean that, but I can understand why you’d assume it. My sample was about computers, and you assumed all my samples would be about machines. You also assume I think science fiction is only about progress. I didn’t mean to imply that either. Science fiction can be about anything, but I do think SF is generally speculation coming between two time points. The first time point is when a new concept emerges. The second is when another concept comes around that squashes speculation that arose between the two points. One of your specialties is the history of Wonder Woman. I bet you have seen ideas emerged about her through the years that were later dismissed. My essay was only meant to suggest there is a cutting edge of speculation that moves through public awareness as ideas change. The “cutting edge of science fiction” was never meant to be specific books, or even specific kinds of ideas, just a time when science fiction speculates about specific ideas. I was also suggesting that writers had to keep up with such speculations because quite often they’re eventually shot down.

Noah, you suggest I should read more novels like those by Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. And I have—for over fifty years. Delany was my favorite writer back in the 1960s, and I often write about him here at my web site. Delany is still one of my top 3 SF writers.

Most of the attacks on essay claimed I didn’t know about women science fiction writers. This hurt because I’ve been paying attention to women writers in science fiction since I started reading the Judith Merrill annual anthologies of best SF back in the mid-1960s. This topic is not new. I’ve bought nearly every annual best of the year anthology for SF since 1965, so I’ve watched how the field has changed. I’m also a long time reader of fanzines, and I’ve read Locus Magazine off and on since it was published in New York City on plain white paper. The topic of women writing science fiction is not new, and I’ve read lots of science fiction written by women. Sad to say, I often like male writers more often than female writers , at least in science fiction. But in general literature, especially, literary works, I’m more partial to women writers. My current all-time favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. But I hold absolutely no store in the fact that it was written by a women. I love books, not writers.

But this brings up another problem. Even though my list wasn’t a list of great SF novels, I have to question the assertion that my attackers made that lists of books should contain a percentage of women writers. You mention the intrusion of the Sad Puppies into Hugo awards. I felt my attackers were demanding a political stance just like the Sad Puppies. If I ever make up a list of my favorite science fiction books I’m not going to consider the writer. I’ll only consider the books. Too many of my favorite books have been written by folks I wouldn’t have liked, so if I considered various aspects of who wrote the book it might cause all kinds of problems. I only love books. I really don’t care about the author. But there’s more at issue than that. I’m a bookworm and consider the books I love the most defining aspects about my personality. To be told I what my favorites should be is incredibly insulting. To me, that’s far more offensive than the Sad Puppies pushing their political agenda at the Hugos. It’s also embarrassing that people would think the list of books I used were my favorites. Some were very bad.

The thing about the reaction to my article that was so upsetting is everyone assumes I’m an old conservative. I consider myself an ultra-liberal and have been since the sixties, and hate the idea of being lumped in with conservatives. Basically, you and the commenters at SF Signal used a false characterization of me to promote your beliefs. No one took the time to even read the other essays I have at SF Signal. In an earlier essay, “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want To Hear” I begged audiobook producers to publish editions of books I loved so I could hear them. Ironically, that list included a book by one of the women writers who was attacking me in the comments for excluding women. Sure, even that list didn’t have 50-50 ratio of men to women writers, but it had a number of women writers. But even here, it was a personal list, and I think it’s unethical to tell people what to read based on political correctness.

Back to your essay Noah. I agree that science fiction is about more than technological progress. If I wrote my essay knowing what I know now, it would be very different. First off, I’m not going to include book lists in the future. The internet is full of people that make snap judgments about lists. Not every list of books is a list of great books. I also need to explain myself more explicitly, and clarify my statements better.

My editor said 11,000 people came to the article that afternoon. I don’t know how many read the essay the way the comments implied, or how many read it based on my intended assumptions. I don’t know if I can ever write any essay that will be read perfectly as I intend, but I obviously need to do better. I’ve taken up essay writing as my retirement hobby, and I know I need to improve, so this experience was a great writing lesson.

I’ve learned a lot from my public shaming, but not quite what my shamers expected. One thing I’ve learned is don’t write about people I don’t know, especially drawing conclusions about them from one essay. I don’t want do to any writer what I felt was done to me. I feel most of what people assumed about me is not true, and it’s disturbing to think that’s how some people do think of me.

Overall, I liked your essay “Why Cutting-Edge Sci-Fi Is Often Penned by Marginalized Writers.” It would have been better if it hadn’t been based on an attack on me, but just on your own thesis about writing and reading in general. By the way, I’m not a sci-fi writer—I wish. I’m only a blogger. I still stand by my statement: “Great science fiction explores the philosophical possibilities of science’s impact on reality.” Don’t you think that’s what Le Guin and Delany were doing in their books? I believe The Left Hand of Darkness does that perfectly. By the way, I’m currently rereading Dhalgren by listening to it, since it just came out on audio, and it meets my requirements too. Dhalgren is extremely cutting edge by my thesis, because it went way beyond the territory of traditional science fiction. You see Noah, I think the knowledge we gain from science covers more than just gadgets, and you and I might not be that far apart on what we want to label as the best of science fiction, by any label.

JWH

How To Review Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 12, 2016

I’ve been reading science fiction for over fifty years—mainly for fun and entertainment—but also to speculate about reality in a way that science and philosophy do not. Now that I’ve written a book review for SF Signal, and working on another one, I’m wondering about how to approach book reviewing. I’m not interested in describing new books and then judging them by a rating scale. Any book I take the time to write about will be one I’m recommending. What fascinates me is why a book grabs me in the first place. After reading a couple thousand science fiction novels, I would think science fiction has nothing new to say to me, but it does.

No matter how many times an old idea is used in a new novel, some writers find new angles to examine. To be perfectly honest though, most writers don’t. Most new novels bought by publishers (as oppose to self-published novels) are pretty good at telling their story, and should find readers to admire them if they get the right promotion. What I look for is a book where the writer uses their story to express a philosophy about literature or science, or both.

How you tell a story conveys your philosophy about storytelling. If you bring attention to how the story is told, you’re making a statement, if you write solid prose that enchants the reader without drawing attention, you aren’t. The approach to science fiction takes two paths also. The first is to take a tried and true science fictional concept that readers love and work it into an appealing new story. The second, which is much harder, is to invent a new concept, or find a novel way to look at an old concept.

And Again by Jessica Chiarella

The novel I just finished, And Again by Jessica Chiarella, takes a standard literary device of telling four 1st person accounts in a round robin fashion. These people have new cloned bodies, which is her science fictional idea. Cloning is not a new concept. What Chiarella does new is make their stories very personal. There’s no plot. No heroes. The world doesn’t need saving. There’s no war between the normal folk and the clone folk. All Chiarella does is to ask: If you had a new body because you wore out your old one, how would it feel to start life over again. I found her four characters engaging, realistic and revealing. A novel worthy of recommending. But how do I review And Again to prove that it is interesting to would-be book buyers? Is my word good enough? I wouldn’t think so. What details could I offer as evidence? And would giving those details spoil the story?

I wrote a piece for SF Signal called “The Cutting Edge of Science Fiction” that was about how ideas are the cutting edge of science fiction. I believe there’s a period after science makes a discovery when science fiction writers can speculate about the possibilities of that discovery before further scientific research kills off or validates those ideas. I called that the cutting edge of science fiction. Unfortunately, the readers thought I meant the cutting edge of science fiction were specific books, and missed my idea. (By the way, the lesson I learned from this is don’t list books if they aren’t meant to be a best-of list. Because people ignore the narrative and see only the list, and think it’s a list of great books. My list had some stinker novels, but I was only listing them for their ideas though.)

Where I believe Chiarella was being an innovative science fiction writer (and I’m not sure her publisher is promoting her as such) is by her take on the clone story. Generally cloning is used in science fiction to explore the big ideas of serial immortality, brain downloading, new forms of humanity and rejuvenation. Clone stories often make for complicated SF murder mysteries or intricate mysteries of lost identities. Chiarella takes a rather mundane approach. It appears her characters had portions of their brain transplanted in a accelerated grown clone body. That side-stepped a bunch of philosophical issues. (Did the person die in the transfer, how can we download a mind, etc.)

This puts Chiarella in that zone I call the cutting edge—after the science of cloning, but before we know the limits of brain transplants. Until science proves that brains can’t be transplanted, it’s a viable science fictional concept. However, her setting is contemporary Chicago. Her characters’ stories are ordinary as New Yorker short stories. Other than how they got their new bodies, there’s no science fiction. So is the story science fiction? I think it is. How do I prove that in a review?

What I’d like to prove is my theory about science fiction. I think a story should be labeled science fiction if the storytelling is in the style of science fiction, or if it explores a science fictional idea. I don’t think And Again uses science fictional storytelling techniques, but I’m not sure how to prove that. It’s completely literary. However, her story is based on a science fictional concept.

I’m not sure if readers of SF Signal want to hear all of this in a book review. I often write long-winded pieces, that fairly often toss off comments that annoy people, like “Can Science Fiction Save Us?” Such extended wool-gathering bores the average site visitor hoping to discover a new book they want to read. Most review readers want something short, to the point, and convincing. Which makes me think I need to learn how to say what I have to say in many fewer words. But I’ve got to write more than, “Hey this book is great, read it.”

For my blog I can write anything I feel like. But now that I’m teaching myself how to review science fiction books I’ve been studying various websites and magazines, and have noticed that they each present a certain style in their reviews. Print magazines are confined by space. Web pages are scanned by hyper-readers in 20-second visits. I wish I had both the writing ability, and the scholarly knowledge to write book reviews like I read in The New York Review of Books. Their reviews are so educational that just reading a couple of columns overwhelms my brain with new knowledge.

I’m playing a game at SF Signal. For decades I’ve concentrated on classic science fiction. This year I’m trying to discover new novels that are published in 2016 that I think will be on reviewers “Best SF of 2016” lists in December. I think And Again has a chance, if SF reviewers consider it science fiction.

[This took 11 paragraphs. Could I have said it in 4?]

JWH

Remembering Pulp Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 20, 2016

I grew up reading science fiction written by writers who grew up with pulp magazines. That generation assembled anthologies in the late 40s and early 50s of their favorite stories from Amazing, Astounding, Thrilling Wonder, Planet Stories, Unknown and other legendary pulps. Reading those anthologies was like listening to the old Blues records in the 1960s that inspired The Rolling Stones. Those anthologies put me one generation from the pulp era when I started reading science fiction in the early 1960s. As a kid, I’d haunt the gloomy backroom stacks of the downtown Miami Public Library searching out musty old collections by Groff Conklin.

I think we all remember how popular culture impacted us between ages twelve and twenty. Did you remember how your pop culture heroes were slightly older? Maybe you even paid attention to their influences, who was one generation older still. In other words, our favorite books and songs were usually created by the folks from the two previous generations. And depending on your age, you might have noticed that you aren’t keeping up with current pop culture. Some folks can stay hip with the generation after themselves, and a smaller number can keep up with one more generation, but eventually we become clueless about what’s new and cool. Most people have a pop culture window of four or five generations depending on their age. Of course I know some people stuck in a two-generation window.

For example, my generation, the Baby Boomers, loved The Beatles, but John, Paul, George and Ringo were not Baby Boomers. They were from the previous generation, and they were inspired by music produced from even an earlier generation. There’s a trailing off affect in both directions of time.

Adventures in Time and SpaceA Treasury of Science Fiction

This chart represents the distribution of SF short stories in several famous anthologies from 1946-1995 that I remember reading.

Year 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s
1946 2 13 22          
1948 1 6 23          
1950 3 4 16 7        
1952 2 6 12 22        
1959   1 7 16        
1965   3 12 4 2      
1970   3 10 12 1      
1973     3 29 4      
1974   2 1 7 8 3    
1979 3 8 10 11 14 3    
1980     5 15 11 8    
1981   1 7 16 7 9    
1995     2 5 4 12 15 4

Women of Wonder 1Women of Wonder 2

If you click on the above titles the link will take you to ISFDB.org where you can see the actual story titles in the anthology. As you can see, over time, anthologists started forgetting about the 1920s, then the 1930s. I consider the pulp era over by 1949, and that the digest magazines of the 1950s were a horse of a different color. The digest era is slowly dying out today, being replaced by online magazines. If you’re old enough, this is kind of sad.

When I was growing up in the 1960s it wasn’t hard to run across old pulp magazines. You’d see stacks of them in old bookstores, or I’d meet men who are my age now, who collected runs of their favorite science fiction magazines from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. They nostalgically collected Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and Planet Stories that meant so much to them when they were young. Sometimes I’d meet older guys, and they were always guys, who collected All-Story and Argosy from the beginning of the 20th century. And even older still, and these guys were extremely rare, were collectors of dime novels from the 19th century. It’s been decades since I met a dime novel aficionado, or even an old guy who collects Argosy. I still run across guys who collect Astounding or Unknown, but they are fading away like old WWII vets. Out on the net, if you search for them, you can still find fanatical pulp collectors, but I’m afraid their species is becoming extinct. Folks my age, and that does include some rare women, prefer to collect the digests like F&SF, If, Galaxy and Astounding.

Amazing Stories 1940STARTLING-STORIES-42.09

I don’t know how many fans of pulps still exist, but I see reprints of pulps at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive, and run into guys who collect scans of old pulps as digital files. I used to buy old pulps occasionally, but eventually gave them all away. Every once in a blue moon I like to buy an anthology that resurrects the old stories. Last night I bought The Best of Amazing Stories: The 1940 Anthology. Amazing Stories still exist, in case you didn’t know. And I noticed that facsimile editions of old pulps have started showing up on Amazon for $12.95 or $14.95. (However, you can sometimes find the original issues for less on Ebay.)

If I collected old digest magazines, I’d be tempted by the Cele Goldsmith and Ted White runs of Amazing and Fantastic from the 1960s or early 1970s, or F&SF and Galaxy from the 1950s. However, it’s a pain to deal with old magazines because they are all decaying. Pulps existed before acid free paper, so they’re quickly disintegrating. I also assumed they’d disappear as the generation of collectors before me died off. So I’m surprised that people still love pulp SF. There’s now four generations between the current new generation and the pulp generations. You’d think they’d be forgotten by now.

But is all this interest in old SF pulps from people my age, or are newer generations searching them out? I recently came across The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. The VanderMeers appear to be early Generation X, and their anthology had a few pre-1950 stories in it. One of my favorites is “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, but it’s one of the most anthologized stories of all SF stories from the pulp era. I guess a few pulp fiction stories will become classics.

Interest is short stories seems to be declining but it’s hard to tell. Every year Gardner Dozois reports on the decline of subscriptions to the printed digest magazines. I don’t know how many people are reading web magazines. Studying ISFDB shows there were over 400 anthologies in 2014, when The Time Traveler’s Almanac came out.

When I first discovered science fiction, the short story was the heart of the genre. That seemed to be a legacy of the pulps and the digests. For 50 plus years I get all the major best-of-the-year anthologies and it seems that people still love short stories, even though I know damn few people who read them. Most of the genre fans I know love to read novels, especially novels that come in long series. And some of my friends are obsessed by giant books that go on forever, like The Wheel of Time series.

Tonight I read “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” by Don Wilcox, which Wikipedia claims is the first story about a generation space ship, coming out a year before Heinlein’s “Universe.” It’s a quaint tale, that’s not very well told, but was probably very exciting back in 1940, and obviously, it presented ideas that inspired later authors of generation ship stories. I should be reading new stories, which are more sophisticated in their storytelling, and have better science, but sometimes it’s fun to read the old tales from the early days of science fiction.

What’s been fun lately is to find even older stories. I recently reread “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster, from 1909. It anticipates the Internet Age rather creepily, and might have inspired Asimov’s The Naked Sun. When I was a kid, I thought the science fiction I read represented new ideas. Now that I’m old, jumping back in time, I’m finding those ideas were old when I thought they were new. I’m currently haunted by the notion that ideas we think of as science fiction has always been around, maybe even before recorded history, and a small percentage of the population always had a sense of wonder.

JWH

Can Science Fiction Save Us?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 12, 2016

Science fiction has always used world-wide worries to inspire story ideas, and since we have more problems than ever, no science fiction writer should have writer’s block. Science fiction about climate change is a growing sub-genre, and our lists of future-shaking events keeps growing. Any current concern in the news can be extrapolated into the future, becoming a muse for science fiction. But how effective is fiction at solving real world problems? Can science fiction save us?

When I was growing up the future was so bright we had to wear mirror shades. Now, our tomorrows are clouded over by menacing speculative storms. Most of the 7.3 billion passengers on spaceship Earth are so preoccupied with their day-to-day survival that any thoughts about the future are reserved for escapes into imaginary wonderlands. And I can dig that too — who desires realism when its dreary? Anyone who has seen Sullivan’s Travels, a Preston Sturges film about The Great Depression misery, knows that people don’t want stories with messages, but stories that let you forget your problems. I assume Lois McMaster Bujold has more fans than Paolo Bacigalupi.

dark clouds 3

Science fiction has always taken two paths. The first, and most common, is to entertain. The second, and harder to travel, is to philosophize about the discoveries of science and imagine what they mean to the future. Science fiction has always produced wild speculations, but for most of its history, was never taken seriously. SF was often ridiculed, even though it can be considered a cognitive tool for a highly specific task. Serious science fiction can warn us about emerging dangers through extrapolation, but it also has the potential to create desired goals with creative speculation.

Yet, I’ve got to wonder if science fiction can save us. When I was growing up you’d hide your Heinlein inside a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to avoid the embarrassment of being caught reading science fiction. Science fiction was childish fantasies for weirdo kids. Trufans rationalized science fiction was serious stuff, claiming it prepared readers for the future, but that was mostly laughed at. Things changed May 25, 1977 when Star Wars came out, and science fiction became the favorite form of fairy tale for the information age. Now, billions say they love Sci-Fi, but few take it seriously. Should they?

The future is shaping up to be everything we never wanted. Maybe it’s time to reconsider’s science fiction’s role. Christians believe that studying the teachings of Jesus can save people, at least after they die. I’d like to believe studying science fiction could save our species before we reach self-extinction. I’m not asking that science fiction become boring and pedantic. I’m just wondering if it’s possible for science fiction to imagine desirable futures that are sustainable. Project Hieroglyph was one attempt.

Novels like Among Others by Jo Walton and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders convey how painful it used to be growing up nerdy. SF fans were outcasts. In my day they’d call us zeroes. But now that the geeks have inherited the Earth, science fiction fans seemed to have taken over the world. Is its appeal large enough to be influential? Science fiction must compete with two older literary traditions, The Bible and The Quran, for explaining reality. Science offers the only consistent explanation of reality, but evidently the majority of folks on this planet can’t comprehend it. Science fiction is only slightly more rigorous than religion, but it might be a step in the right direction since religion desperately seeks to focus on the past.

Just because pop culture has embraced comics and science fiction, doesn’t mean they have social impact. Can any novel change society? Maybe. Consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. That tale of Big Brother and newspeak did more to undermine communism than all the John Birchers put together. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed a nation against slavery, so we know novels can help reshape morality. How many Victorian minds were blown by H. G. Wells? And didn’t Catch-22, M*A*S*H and Slaughterhouse-Five convince many Americans to turn against the Vietnam War?

Every day the mass media brings us more stories about how the future is going to bring humanity retribution for its evil ways. Political conservatives and faithful fundamentalists from around the globe have dedicated themselves to denying science. If billions refuse to listen to scientists, why should they pay attention to science fiction? Christianity uses Hell as an effective tool to sell salvation, so why doesn’t frightening futures work for science fiction? Of course Christianity has made the purchase price of salvation so ridiculously cheap that most people figure why not buy. Saying “I believe” is a micro-payment compared to the painful expense of self-disciplining our souls.

Where the rubber hits the road to tomorrowland is the fact that we all need to change the way we live. Most people can’t lose weight even when the incentive is not to die a miserable death. As a species we’re very adaptable at surviving in diverse environments, but we can’t adapt ourselves to stabilize the environment. In 1968, I read Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner. I was horrified by his vision of 2010. Brunner claimed two common themes would exist, worldwide terrorism, as well as daily TV news stories about crazed individuals committing mass killings. I really didn’t want to grow up to live in that future. But we all have. Could we have studied Brunner in the sixties to avoid the now in which we live? Brunner didn’t offer any prophecy. By the way, prophecy isn’t about predicting the future, but about convincing people how to live, so as to create a desired future. Can any science fiction novel be truly prophetic? Science fiction can create elaborate extrapolations leading to scary tomorrows, but can it find paths to greener pastures?

How often has the fate of the Earth been the plot driver of science fiction? 99% of the purpose of science fiction is entertainment, and even that 1% of serious speculation needs to be entertaining secondarily. Some science fiction writers have been prophets. Unfortunately, as people who read The Bible know, few people listen to prophets, which probably answers my title question.

I bring up this question now after reading All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, the first SF/F book I’ve read for 2016. Anders’ book is getting great reviews and buzz around the net. It’s a wonderful YA/SF/F/Literary mashup about many things, including the forces of magic and the forces of science separately fighting climate change. Not to give anything away, but I found their desperate solutions rather horrifying, which I think was Anders intention, but other recent science fiction stories have also come up with similar solutions that are even scarier.

The most extreme example is Interstellar, which preaches sacrificing all to build spaceships to seed other worlds before Earth collapses. Their logic is we’ve used up Earth, so let’s abandon it and go find a new home. There was never any suggestion that we try to save our planet. It’s the ultimate example of disposable consumerism. Our home world is a used Kleenex, so toss it out and get a new one.

In Seveneves, the latest novel by Neal Stephenson, the Earth is destroyed by an astronomical event, but humans were given enough time to build a fleet of Noah’s arks in space. This avoids the ethical issue of self-destruction. The story is extremely optimistic about our technological potential. But one of the common reasons now given to justify the colonization of other worlds is that we need to get all our genetic eggs out of one basket. Even scientists like Stephen Hawking are promoting this idea. And it’s logical. We could claim that science fiction inspired this philosophy. If we ever spend the money to colonize the Moon or Mars, we can give science fiction the credit. However, humans haven’t left Low-Earth orbit for over forty years, even after an explosion of science fiction popularity since the last man walked on the Moon. Taking care of Earth should be our prime priority — but it seldom is in science fiction. When will everyone realize that Earth might be our only home for millions of years?

We’re starting to see more science fiction deal with climate change. One very vivid novel last year, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, focused on water wars. Bacigalupi doesn’t offer any instructions on how to avoid that future, but does paint such a scary picture of climate change’s side-effects that he’s trying to scare us straight. The novel got some good reviews, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who’s read it and haven’t heard any buzz about it on the net.

Is preaching fire and brimstone futures the only tool science fiction has to convince us to avoid our life of sin? And let’s fess up here, climate change, mass extinction, polluted land, sea and sky, economic inequality, sexism, racism, xenophobia, and all the rest, are our sins. Yes, the world sometimes ends in a comet collision, gamma-ray burst or super-volcano eruption, but most of the time, Earth gets trashed by us.

There’s a growing library of climate change science fiction (Cli-Fi). But will reading such stories make us consume fewer resources? How many people read science fiction? Well, not that many. But multitudes go to the movies to see science fiction. What if HBO offered a mini-series based on The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi? Would it influence politics and lifestyle? The Windup Girl illustrates the results of climate change, monoculture farming, and using up all the oil. Even though it’s a very colorful future, it’s not one that most people would visit if they had a time machine.

All the governments around the world are working on reducing C02 in the atmosphere. Ninety-eight percent of the scientists and a large percentage of the general population know about the dangers of increase C02. The problem is many people refuse to believe there is a problem, including the Republican Party. Would more science fiction illustrating what life might be like after “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” make a difference? If all of us believed the science of climate change absolutely, would we change the way we live? Or are too many Homo sapiens fatalists?

1998 brought two films, Deep Impact and Armageddon about big rocks crashing into our planet. Since then, governments around the world have been spending money to develop early warning systems. And can’t we claim all the SF stories about malevolent emerging AI made the current client of skepticism of artificial intelligence what it is today? Hasn’t the phrase “living off the grid” come from SF-awareness? Haven’t all the Preppers gotten their philosophy from science fiction? Didn’t we go to the Moon because of science fiction? Cold war politics paid for the Apollo program, but wasn’t science fiction the original inspiration?

Science fiction can give us thousands of scenarios about ecological catastrophes, mass extinction events, and AIs transforming society, but are they useful? Do we all just read the stories to be thrilled, and then continue on with our excessive lifestyles, ignoring daily species extinctions, and even wanting our computers to get smarter and take over more jobs?

I have to be cynical here. Could science fiction be like religion, in that we’re willing to talk the talk, but not walk the walk? How many of the faithful swear absolute belief, yet make no attempt to live divinely? How many eco-evangelists live green lives? For the prophets of science fiction to succeed they must first imagine livable lifestyles, and then convince readers to live them. And isn’t the record for famous Biblical prophets something like Prophets 0, People 7? I don’t think we escape our fate by self-flagellation and choosing to live like ascetics. We need visionaries that can imagine new kinds of urban lifestyles that protect the environment yet offer self-sustaining forms of abundances to seek, rather than our rampant destructive consumerism we chase now.

Science fiction has always excelled at imagining Hells, but it’s awful at inventing Heavens. In fact, dystopias are what kids love today. Why? Isn’t it kind of sick that the chosen setting for escapist literature is a dystopia? Why have utopias gone out of fashion? Sure utopias are impossible almost by definition, but getting close might be possible. Utopias were popular hundreds of years ago, but I guess most of humanity gave up on Heaven on Earth back in the 19th century.

Donald Trump campaigns with the slogan “Make America Great Again” so we know a better future is a popular want because of his success. Yet, Republicans are so adamant about no new taxes that they are causing the country to slide into ruin and disrepair. You can’t make a great nation by penny pinching. All the anti-tax revolutionaries have done is ruined K-12 and higher education, neglected the infrastructure, deflated the middle class, fired first responders, teachers and other valuable governmental employees, gutted libraries, let parks run down, defund science and research, and the list goes on and on. America was great when we had the Apollo Moon program, or when we were fighting WWII—and we all paid a lot more in taxes. We weren’t cheap, and knew building a great nation costs money and requires sacrifice.

We have the scientific knowledge and technology to solve all our problems, but we don’t. Why? Because we’re not unified. All across the globe populations are divided between conservatives and liberals. Most of the Muslim world, and half the Christian, want to return to the past, to embrace an Old Testament view of reality. We all live in the same reality, but we each perceive it differently. Until we reach some kind of consensus about the nature of reality, we’re not going to solve our problems. This is where pop culture comes into play, it’s a kind of peer pressure of ideas.

At some point we have to do what the prophets ask, or face extinction. Did all the prophets of the past fail because they imagined unappealing lifestyles? Evidently convincing people to do what’s hard never succeeds over people choosing to do what they feel like. Can science fiction ever make us disciplined?

I didn’t write the above to make a political point, but to show that we lack vision for making life better. Most conservatives are arming themselves for the Armageddon, while liberals focus on their own brand of gloom and doom. Science fiction needs to stop thinking about the end of the world and focus on the goal of surviving a million years on this planet. If we don’t think about the future, then the future becomes whatever we’re doing without thinking.

JWH

How Popular is Reading Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What I’d really like to know is how popular is reading science fiction? It’s almost impossible to separate books, movies and television shows when discussing science fiction. Science fiction movies are certainly less popular than sex or sports, but they might give apple pie a run for its money. Trying to figure out the popular appeal of SF books is a complete riddle.

I have a life-long interest in science fiction, both as a consumer, and as a topic of philosophical study. Why did fascination with science fiction blossom in the mid-20th century, and spread like kudzu in popular culture ever since? I’ve been thinking about writing a book about science fiction literature, but I’m not sure how many people read about the history and nature of the genre. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Have you even heard of it? Probably not. It won the Hugo in 1990, for Best Non-Fiction Book.

The World Beyond The Hill - Panshin

Over the decades I’ve read a number of books about science fiction, but other than the people who write about science fiction, I don’t know anyone personally who buys such books. My guess is hundreds of millions of people love to watch science fiction at the theater or on television, and several hundred thousand love to read science fiction, but I’d guess only few thousand humans in this whole world like to read about science fiction.

To get some idea of science fiction’s popularity I used the Alexa site, an Amazon company that tracks web stats. If you study the numbers and sites, you’ll probably notice that interest in media SF drives most of the higher rankings. It’s very hard to gauge interest in just printed science fiction. I do know that decades ago some SF digest magazines had over 100,000 subscribers, and now they are all around the 10,000 mark. But far fewer people read science fiction short stories compared to novels. Science fiction novels don’t dominate the best seller lists like Sci-Fi does at the box office. Most fans prefer to see SF than read it.

Site U.S. Rank Global Rank
io9.com 36,961 1,675
starwars.com 1,343 3,928
tor.com 6,459 21,874
startrek.com 9,893 28,465
sciencefiction.com 36,977 105,387
scifinow.co.uk 113,513 122,368
sfsignal.com 49,097 210,023
locusmag.com 73,260 263,078
strangehorizons.com 72,413 278,212
sffworld.com 137,467 309,193
bestsciencefictionbooks.com 89,148 312,016
dailysciencefiction.com 99,167 383,305
lightspeedmagazine.com 130,384 417,852
sf-encyclopedia.com 170,106 454,412
clarkesworldmagazine.com 126,308 485,754
worldswithoutend.com 145,960 540,963
asimovs.com 256,251 856,963
escapepod.org 265,635 1,048,438
analogsf.com 643,265 1,147,547

You can look at Alexa’s Top 500 sites to get an idea of how well-known web sites rank. All the SF sites with short stories rank 99,000 and below in the U.S. So reading science fiction short stories is not very popular at all. In comparison, The New Yorker comes in at 491 for the U.S., and 1,582 for the world. The Atlantic rank 324/866. The super-intellectual New York Review of Books comes in at 8,100/20,016. For a more common read, People Magazine is ranked 151/549.

I guess I’m fascinated by a topic that has little interest to most people.

Essay #999 – Table of Contents