Science Fiction Books That Start Snowballing Themes

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 3, 2016

2017 Sci-Fi ExperienceOver at Stainless Steel Droppings, Carl Anderson has started his 2017 Sci-Fi Experience early. It’s based on Andrea’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. Usually, Carl reads old science fiction in January and February, but decided this year to switch to December and January. Since I’m already reading old science fiction I decided to join in. But I want to put a focus on my efforts. I recently read “17 Science Fiction Books That Forever Changed The Genre” and although I agree with some of their selections, I disagreed with others. However I really liked their idea of identifying the books that either changed the rules/direction of science fiction, or inspired other writers to explore their ideas. I like to think of certain science fiction books as snowballs rolling down a slope getting bigger and bigger – or even causing an avalanche.

James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History does just that for The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Wells’ little book has started a huge snowball rolling down the decades. It might be the best example of what I’m talking about. And Gleick describes many classic time travel novels that came afterwards, but he doesn’t come close to covering all the major time travel stories, just look at this list of books, television shows and films at Wikipedia. Hasn’t every possible speculative variation on time travel been imagined by now?

I want to make my reading of vintage science fiction about studying science fiction themes. I keep wondering if there’s a limited number of science fictional concepts. But then I read something like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine by Greg Egan, and think speculative fiction is unlimited. I do believe we can identify snowballing books, and that will help us count up the themes.

Another good example would be Starship Troopers, a book that inspired such novels as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, plus seems to have launched the Military SF sub-genre. When I watch movies like Aliens, I think Starship Troopers. When I watch Star Wars I think of Asimov’s Foundation books.

Under-the-Ocean-to-the-South-Pole-2What other books, or series of books inspired a sub-genre in science fiction? Did Heinlein start the YA science fiction market with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947? But then, does anyone remember The Great Marvel Series by Roy Rockwood (1906-1935)? Carl’s reading challenge generally focuses on books from 1950-1979, but what about books from 1850-1950? Have we already forgotten the books that inspired the Golden Age writers to write those 1950-1979 classics? Older fans today can remember juvenile series by Heinlein, Norton, Asimov and Wollheim, but science fiction for young people goes way back.

Did The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart start the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction last man on Earth stories? Remember Wells hinted at that in The Time Machine. And didn’t The Time Machine set things up for Olaf Stapledon? All that stuff about future species of humans.

The Stars Are Ours - NortonI’ve been been wondering two things. One, is there a limited number of science fictional ideas, themes, subgenres? And two, how far back do they go? For my science fiction book club, we’re reading The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton from 1954. It presents two interesting themes. One, conservative/religious groups repress/destroy science and scientists, and two, people need to escape Earth to start over again on another planet. Both themes are relevant today.  Can we find books from the 19th century or even 18th century that first got those snowballs rolling? Do those themes ever stop being relevant? Will science fiction written in the  22nd century add to the existing snowballs? Will science fiction fans in the 2050s read many SF books from the 1950s? Or even known about them? Or will they think the science fiction they discover in adolescence as having original ideas?

At what point does vintage science fiction become forgotten science fiction, and newer, but older science fiction, become vintage? SF of the 2010s will be vintage by the 2050s. The appeal of vintage science fiction might be due to fans getting older and realizing what they once thought of as original ideas might be as old as the hills. As I’ve said before, Noah’s Ark might have been the first generation ship story. I find parts of The Book of Genesis to be very science fictional. If you squint at it in the right way, doesn’t the whole tree of knowledge of good and evil story seem like speculation about the evolution of human awareness? I can easily imagine a writer, male or female, living under Babylonian occupation, trying to imagine how everything got started, and wrote about a powerful alien being creating us. What’s really science fictional, is people think that story is the literal truth 2700 years later.

Generally, we read for story. We want to be entertained. But I think as we read and reread these vintage science fiction tales, we should examine the ideas they present. Then speculate about what inspired those ideas, and finally, evaluate how well they were implemented. As a liberal, I was rather shocked by the 2016 election results. The lesson I learned is don’t trust my assumptions. I’m applying that lesson to reading vintage science fiction. For example, should we assume that humans can leave Earth and start over on another planet if we totally screw things up here? I hated that Interstellar depended on that idea.

Some snowballs rolling down a hill just fall apart. Can we also count them as we read?

I believe science fiction represents a collection of speculative ideas that have been around a very long time. Eventually, they become real – like heavier than air flight, traveling to the Moon, cloning, constructing robots to do our work – or, we can eventually give up on the idea. I think time travel stories are now considered fantasy by most people. I hear they are remaking filmed versions of Starship Troopers and A Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a recognition that those themes are still valid to a mass audience. But are they considered fantasies or science fiction? Do we believe space marines and horrible theocracies are possible? I think we do.

I’m currently listening to The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, a short novel that was first published in 1962. Ballard wrote several eco-apocalyptic novels back in the 1960s. They are part of a speculative snowball that now includes The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson. In biblical times God caused such catastrophes. After Darwin, it was nature that could destroy us. Now we imagine species suicide. But the theme is the same. Either all, or nearly everyone, gets wiped out. That theme isn’t new – it might have existed in pre-history.

I want to contemplate vintage themes while reading my vintage science fiction.

drowned-world

JWH

65 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 25, 2016

Hothouse - Brian W. AldissHappy Birthday to me! Last year I wrote “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for my 64th birthday. It was published at SF Signal. I had hoped audiobook publishers would have granted my wish by now. Unfortunately, only one title has shown up at Audible.com – Nova by Samuel R. Delany. I bought it and it sounds wonderful. Maybe more will show up by the time I’m 66. But guys, I can only live for so long.

Here’s the list updated to 65 titles for my 65th birthday. I’ve substituted some collected works for older original short story collections. I figure it’s probably easier to get the audio publishing rights to the most recent collections.

If I had three wishes from a genie, one wish would be for Adventures in Time and Space (1946) edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas in a perfect audiobook edition. Great anthologies on audio are rare. I expect publishing rights are hard to arrange. I’m still wishing for six completely out-of-print volumes to come out in audio. Most of these books below are available in print or ebook editions. Does it take a certain demand for print/ebook editions before publishers will risk an audio edition?

A Mirror for Observers - Edgar PangbornMost of the great science fiction classics have shown up on audio. Starting in 2002 when I join Audible.com, I’ve been “rereading” my favorite science fiction books from youth by listening to them. I love hearing old science fiction when read by a great narrator. If you can think of an old science fiction book that’s not on my list below, chances are its available on audio at Audible.com. If you haven’t gotten into audiobooks yet, I recommend starting with an old favorite. You might be surprised to hear something you missed.

Many of the books below are forgotten classics, especially the older ones. People from my generation might remember them, but younger readers may never have heard of many titles. The real question is whether or not these books still hold up. Just because I want to hear them doesn’t mean they are great stories. They are just books I often read about when reading about science fiction.

What amazes me are the authors that have no Audible.com editions of their work. Or next to none. I can’t figure out if this is for legal reasons, or there’s no interest in their work. These include:

  • Eleanor Arnason
  • Alfred Bester
  • Michael Bishop
  • Pat Cadigan
  • R. A. Lafferty
  • Maureen F. McHugh
  • Eric Frank Russell
  • James H. Schmitz
  • William Tenn
  • James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Wilson Tucker

65 Books I Want to Hear

H=Hardback  T=Trade paper  M=Mass market  E=ebook  *=OOP

  1. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay – HT
  2. The World of Null-A (1948) by A. E. Van Vogt – TE
  3. The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A. E. Van Vogt – T
  4. Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore – TE
  5. The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester – TE
  6. A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn – H
  7. Mission of Gravity (1954) by Hal Clement – TE (as Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories)
  8. Cities in Flight (1955) by James Blish – E
  9. The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester – TE
  10. Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell – E
  11. The Lincoln Hunters (1958) by Wilson Tucker *
  12. Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys – E
  13. The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson ME
  14. Hothouse (1962) by Brian W. Aldiss – E
  15. Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn – H
  16. Empire Star (1966) – T (combined with Babel-17)
  17. The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz – ME
  18. Dangerous Visions (1967) ed. Harlan Ellison – TE
  19. The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  20. Camp Concentration (1968) by Thomas Disch – TE
  21. Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty – T
  22. The Last Starship from Earth (1968) by John Boyd – *
  23. Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock – T
  24. Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad – TE
  25. Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony – HTE
  26. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin – HTME (OOP on audio)
  27. And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ – *
  28. Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970) edit by Robert Silverberg – T
  29. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) by Wilson Tucker *
  30. The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971) by Roger Zelanzy – TE
  31. The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe – TE
  32. The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn – T
  33. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and 2B (1972) edited by Ben Bova – T
  34. The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner – TE
  35. Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov – *
  36. A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1974) by Stanley G. Weinbaum – *
  37. The Centauri Device (1974) by M. John Harrison *
  38. The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ – T
  39. The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner – TE
  40. Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  41. On Wings of a Song (1979) by Thomas M. Disch – E
  42. Ridley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban – HTE
  43. No Enemy But Time (1982) by Michael Bishop – E
  44. Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin – TE
  45. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  46. Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop – TE
  47. The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy – E
  48. Mindplayers (1988) by Pat Cadigan – TE
  49. Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper – TE
  50. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990) by James Tiptree, Jr. – T
  51. A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason – E
  52. Sarah Canary (1991) – Karen Joy Fowler – TE
  53. Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan – TE
  54. China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh – TE
  55. Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith – TE
  56. The Rediscovery of Man (1993) by Cordwainer Smith – H
  57. Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers – TE
  58. Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson (1995) – H
  59. Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling – TE
  60. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) v.1 and v.2 by Gene Wolfe – T
  61. Immodest Proposals: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 1 (2001) – H
  62. Here Comes Civilization: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 2 (2001) – H
  63. Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) by Samuel R. Delany – T
  64. Strange Relations (2008) by Philip Jose Farmer – M (The Lovers, Flesh, Strange Relations omnibus)
  65. The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer – TE

the-last-starship-from-earth-by-john-boyd_thumb

JWH

Twisting My Brain Around Time Travel

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 17, 2016

There’s a book by Clifford D. Simak with a title I love, Time is the Simplest Thing. It’s not. Try to define “time” in words. You can’t. Everyone tries, but has anyone ever succeeded? In Time Travel: A History, James Gleick covers the science fictional subject of time travel, and the scientific subject of time. Thus, if you’re a science fiction fan, you’ll have a wonderful stroll down memory lane of many iconic time travel stories. But it’s the other half of the narrative, the one where Gleick explains the science of time – that tied my mind in knots.

Time-Travel_James-Gleick_coverI don’t believe in time travel. H. G. Wells didn’t believe in time travel. James Gleick does not believe in time travel. So why spend so much time speculating about an impossible subject? That’s what Gleick’s book is about. One big spoiler warning to anyone planning to write a time travel novel – after Gleick described so many time travel stories I wondered if there’s any need for more. Can anyone read this book and think of a new angle on time traveling? Time Travel: A History illustrates just how speculative one idea can be. For me Gleick’s book is a celebration of the concept of time travel, and an eulogy. Time travel stories are fun, especially when young, but other than escapist entertainment, speculation about real time travel feels as valuable as counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. This book is about speculating on time travel. When we are young we hope concepts like God and Time Travel are real, but when we’re old such thoughts fade, but it’s pleasurable to contemplate old thoughts of fancies. I know I won’t be traveling in time, or outer space, or even to heaven or hell. Now is all I’ve got. Being old makes me want to know the real nature of time. Gleick’s book combines the two.

What’s really rewarding about Time Travel: A History is the respect it gives to science fiction. Gleick uses famous SF stories to illustrate how we struggle to understand time. Of course, it’s also bait and switch. Science fiction fans will buy the book to read about time travel, but Gleick spends a good deal of “time” conveying the thoughts of Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Proust, Bergson, and other heavyweight thinkers about the nature of time.

Time-Machine-Norton-Critical-EditionOf course, Gleik covers The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, including some of the serious reactions to that story. I wish he could have gathered a sample of man-on-the-street reactions. How did the average person respond to the idea of time travel in 1895? How did the standup comics of the day, or whatever they were called, poke fun at the idea? Did the story generate 1890s pop culture buzz? In some ways I would have liked this book to have been The Time Machine: A History. Looking at the publication history of The Time Machine at ISFDB, I’m not sure it was an instant hit. I have a copy of the Norton Critical Edition that features early reviews and later scholarly essays, but it doesn’t offer what everyday readers thought. I wonder if such a history could be written? (Or has?)

One of the trickier aspects of reading this book is paying attention to when Gleick uses the phrase “time” or “time travel” because my mind often wanted to switch them. For example, when he quotes Lee Smolin, “I no longer believe that time is unreal” my eyes tried to read it as “I no longer believe that time travel is unreal.” I assume my unconscious mind wanted a scientist to claim time travel is possible. As a species, I believe we all wish to travel in time. Don’t we do this is so many ways: art, history, journalism, fiction, nostalgia, dreams, memories, and so on. Gleick covers all this too.

By_His_Bootstraps_ASF_Oct_1941It’s when Gleick tries to define time, especially in relation to Einstein’s discoveries, that my head explodes. I want to believe there is one now that exists everywhere, all across this universe, to other universes in the multiverse, down into the atomic world, the subatomic, the quantum, and if they exist, to all the dimensions of strings, and then to what makes up strings, and so forth. But my understanding of Einstein, which is very limited, tells me the observer has their own time. What does that mean? I can understand if that means clock time is different in different locations – depending on the speed of the observer. But is Einstein saying  the nature/substance/structure of time is different for each observer? Do they each have a personal now? Many scientists doubt the existence of time, and consider it an illusion.

H. G. Wells confused things when he suggested that time was the 4th dimension, and we can travel through it, like we do through the 3rd. How does that explain Newton’s apple falling from the tree? How does that explain a light beam from a star 1,000 light years away? Is that a 1,000 year yardstick with ticks for all the nows that exist along its path – like counting tree rings? That light beam is a relic of the past, so it confuses us about the nature of time. Even though we think we see a star, what we’re seeing is 1,000 years old light. The star’s now is different. But does our sun and that star also share a same now regardless of the age of the light beams we see? Is there one eternal now everywhere? Is time merely a measure of how far points in the past and future are from the eternal now?

Think of it this way. We measure time on a timeline, and imagine the now moving down the timeline. What if we didn’t use the timeline, and used a constantly changing number for events in the past. For example, instead of saying I was born in 1951, I’d say I was born -65 years in the past, that Columbus discovered America –524 years ago. Of course, every year we’d have to memorize a new number for every event in history. It’s easier to give every event a year to remember, and let now always be an ever changing date. But isn’t that backwards? Isn’t now always the same, and the past an ever expanding number? And the future an ever shrinking number?

134-The-End-of-EternityWhat if we wanted to travel back 542 years to see Columbus. That requires moving our now back all those years. The essence of time travel is moving to another now. That’s why I personally don’t believe in time travel, I believe there is only one now for all of reality. What I want to know, and Gleick didn’t tell me in his book, is whether or not there are other nows, meaning multiple timelines, one for each universe. A great example of this problem is Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein. The premise of this book is some twins have telepathy, and that this telepathy is always instantaneous over any distance, so use them as radios for interstellar flights. The twin that stays home gets older much faster than the twin that travels to the stars. They always share a telepathic now, but they can tell there’s a difference. What the space traveling twin hears in his mind as he travels faster is his twin talking slower.

I can’t remember when I first grasped the idea of time travel. I saw the George Pal movie in the early 1960s, before I read the classic novel by H. G. Wells, but I’m not sure if I hadn’t seen cartoons, television shows or movies that also dealt with the topic. Before H. G. Wells few people thought of time travel, now, I doubt many people haven’t thought about it. Before Wells, writers wrote about people sleeping into the future. Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but had he invented time travel? Wasn’t Twain really inventing alternative history? Gleick does go into all the philosophical old variations on time travel, such as prophecy, fortune telling, eternal life, and so on. It’s amazing how many ways we play with the idea of time.

That’s the thing about this book – it demands rereading. Is that another form of time travel? Read Maria Popova review of the book. I wish I could think and write like her. And isn’t her essay an example of actual time travel? We constantly revisit the past, to annotate and evaluate. Reading my review, hers, and others, we’re all traveling to the same spot and time – the book Time Travel: A History.

JWH

[I wrote two versions of this essay. Microsoft decided to update Windows when I left the machine unattended, and I lost parts of the first version. Rewriting this essay feels like time traveling itself, and this version is the result of my mind going back and interfering with the timeline of the first version.]

Do Judge Books By Their Covers!

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 6, 2016

I created a page for the Classics of Science Fiction where readers could shop for the books at Amazon. And because I love book covers, I listed the books by cover images. However, those are their current covers, and not the ones I grew up seeing. I thought many of the modern covers were ugly, uninspired or garish. So I decided for my blog to collect the covers that I remembered and loved best. Many are the covers I first saw at libraries in the 1960s. That was a long time ago, when I was still a kid. So maybe it’s just nostalgia. But to me, these older covers seem more enticing. Which ones would make you want to buy the books?

Now for some honesty. As I searched for the covers I remembered, I realized for the most part the covers that I feel best are the ones I first discovered when young. Does that mean they are better covers? I don’t know. Y’all decide. Maybe I’m remembering the past better than it was. Or maybe covers that came out in the 1980s and 1990s imprinted on young people the same way covers imprinted on me when I was a teen in the 1960s. I was lucky, because my favorite library, at Homestead Air Force Base, had many of the Gnome and Shasta titles from the 1950s.

001-dune

002-a-canticle-for-liebowitz

003-the-left-hand-of-darkness

004-childhoods-end

005-nineteen-eighty-four

006-the-martian-chronicles

007-the-foundation-trilogy

008-neuromancer

 

 

 

 

 

 

009-the-stars-my-destination011-the-demolished-man012-ringworld013-hyperion014-the-man-in-the-high-castle015-ender-s-game016-stranger-in-a-strange-land030-more-than-human032-lord-of-light036-the-moon-is-a-harsh-mistress037-starship-troopers038-the-windup-girl041-do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep044-way-station045-earth-abides051-city083-babel-17097-double-star134-the-end-of-eternity

How Many Readers Avoid Books Based on a Writer’s Gender?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 3, 2016

I often see comments on the web where readers attack book list makers for not having enough titles by women or people of color. Sometimes the comment sections get rather heated over the topic, especially when people using Twitter get involved. How common is this sentiment? Statistically we know that women and people of color aren’t represented equally in society. How often do readers avoid books because of their prejudices? How often do buyers select books to read based on their desire to promote equality? Today, far more women and people of color are succeeding on the bestseller lists than ever before. Is that because some readers are choosing to purchase books by writers to promote diversity, or because readers are interested in great stories and pay little attention to authors? My best guess is readers are mostly indifferent to who wrote a book, all they want is to forget the world and immerse themselves in a compelling work of fiction.

Hugo award novel 2016

I bought The Fifth Season because it won the Hugo Award this year, and it got amazing reviews. I do assume there are readers out there that chose not to buy this novel because it was written by a woman, but how many people still think that way? I suppose the misogyny of the Donald Trump campaign is evidence that the figure could be large, but looking at lists of best sellers and books that have been made into movies recently, I wonder how large.

I do believe movies, television shows, and novels can spread the acceptance of diversity. But how many people consciously choose a book to broaden their outlook? I’m not sure if book lists created to promote diversity have much impact. I do think what has impact is success. A blockbuster movie or bestselling novel that brings people closer together will change society. But does making lists of them help change society?

As a list maker, I have some evidence to apply towards these questions. After reading many essays and comments by people advocating there should be more women writers on lists of science fiction books, I created a list of science fiction  books by women writers for the new version 4 of Classics of Science Fiction. Our list is generated by studying 65 other lists, and we’ve been doing this for over thirty years. The trend we see is more women writers are being read. However, I’m not sure readers are selecting books to read because they are written by women. I think more women are writing great stories readers want to read.

When I look at our stats page, the only list that people are interested in is the Classics of Science Fiction by rank. We also offer the list ordered by author, title and year published, plus this time, the most popular science fiction books by women writers. Any list other than rank gets damn few hits. Our lists aren’t that popular to begin with, so I tend to doubt many readers buy books based on lists, other than best seller lists. And our rank list is somewhat like a bestseller list, books that succeed over time. Readers seem interested in long term popularity, but that might be nostalgia. I think most readers prefer new books. I don’t see any indication in our stats that readers focus on authors. The popularity of a novel is everything. I do know authors have fans that read all their books, but our readers don’t seem to care to check our author list to see which books by their favorite writers made the list.

I’m disappointed that our list of science fiction by women writers gets so few lists. I thought it was a well made list. Promoting great stories worthy of reading. I hope the lack of hits isn’t because science fiction readers are prejudice against women writers. The most popular book on our rank list by total citation lists, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, had been on 43 of the 65 lists we studied. I like to assume it proves most readers aren’t bias by gender, but favor great storytelling.

I’m a lifelong liberal. I’d like to believe I’ve never avoided a book because a woman wrote it. But I have to admit that growing up I read very few science fiction books by women writers. As a teen I read Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Judith Merril, C. L. Moore, and a few other women writers. But to be completely honest, none of my favorite science fiction novels back in the 1960s were written those women. My two favorite authors growing up were Robert A. Heinlein and Samuel R. Delany. I knew little about them personally. Second tier was Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I didn’t like all their books, but the SF books I loved best were mainly by these five guys. Did their gender influence me? I don’t know. I do know my current all-time favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. And even though I think Gilbert is a fascinating woman, her book is my favorite novel because of the story.

And to be totally upfront, I wrote this essay to get people to read the list, “Science Fiction by Women Writers,” and hopefully try the books on it. I like list making. I want them to be useful. But I’m also learning the limits of their appeal and value. Lists are very popular on the web, but I’m starting to wonder if readers are becoming indifferent to them.

JWH

Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Classics of Science Fiction Version 4

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH