Where Did My Love of Science Fiction Go?

    For a long time now, years even, I’ve had an aching hunger to find and read a great science fiction novel. When I was a kid I stayed in a constant science fictional high – from opening my eyes in the morning, to dropping into unconsciousness at night, I kept a running sense-of-wonder buzz-on fueled by pulp fiction, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions, and fantasies about the future. This craving I have now is really a psychological need to return to that old passionate state of mind. Does the desire to be young again really mean wanting to be physically twelve again, or to feel mentally like I was twelve again?

    I remember when I was a kid, when the oldsters used to moan and groan about aging, I used to think, what’s the big deal about getting old? So what if I turned wrinkled and bald – I could handle that! No big deal. It never occurred to me that my mind would get old too, in some unimaginable way. Jeez, if someone could have put this emotion in a horror film, it would have been the scariest monster movie ever to frighten kids.

    I keep thinking if I could only find the right Sci-Fi tale it would be Viagra for my mind. This summer ABC ran four episodes of Masterpieces of Science Fiction on successive Saturday nights. I had great hopes, but my sense-of-wonder was left limp. It’s a crying shame when TV shows like Big Love and Mad Men, about renegade Mormons and 1960s ad execs are more exciting than a new science fiction program. Damn, Robert A. Heinlein never predicted this future.

    Imagine reading in a 1939 issue of Astounding Stories about the year 2007 where Americans aren’t living on Mars, but waste their lives watching reality television and fighting an endless war, not with brainy alien invaders, but with humans whose only desire for the future is to go back to the past, to the seventh century.

    Have science fiction writers stop writing astonishing stories, or has getting old allowed the mundane world to grind down my adolescent excitement? I think it’s a little of both. I suppose if I was twelve in 2007, and reading Asimov’s and Analog science fiction magazines for the first time, I’d be just as wild-eyed about the future as I was in 1967 reading Galaxy and Worlds of Tomorrow. But I’m not twelve, so how do I get my old Sci-Fi high again?

    Could it be after waiting forty years for mankind to travel to Mars, I’ve just given up hope? That makes me think of the old preacher at the beginning of classic film, The Big Chill, and his eulogy about lost hope – then the organist starts playing with perfect irony the Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Making Mars earthly by terraforming seems a lot less important now that we’re turning Earth into Venus.

    As I have come to learn, the future is everything I never imagined. Science fiction was just fantasy. Nevertheless, I’m still looking to find that old thrill to spike some high quality sense-of-wonder to my vein. If you are past fifty, and thought Heinlein from the 1950s was the crown of science fictional creation, and have discovered any new books that bring back that level of thrills, write me and let me know what they are. Please, please, I need a fix.


What Would It Be Like To Be A Kid Today?

    What would it be like to be a kid today? Is the world scarier now than when I was growing up? Are the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers any smarter than that famous generation that made such a fuss and expected the whole world to watch? The 1960s radicals wanted a revolution, the sociologists predicted a social transformation, the spiritual gurus promised a New Age, and scientists extrapolated an array of futures from doom to bloom. Youth from the past two generations have been quiet – when will there be another noisy generation that demands the whole world change for them? The Iraq War feels like 1967 Vietnam – will the 2008 election be 1968 Chicago? Global warming should make the kids of today hate us – when will they get angry? When does the new revolution start? My fellow baby boomers, we are the establishment this time around – should we trust anyone under thirty?

    I began first grade in 1957 just before Sputnik and finished high school just before Neil Armstrong took his stroll on the Moon in 1969. My generation grew up with our parents playing with atomic bombs and going apeshit paranoid over the Russkies. We grew up in three bedrooms/one bath/single carport Leave It to Beaver homes. Our parents told us to go to school, study hard and we’d live in four bedrooms/two bath/two-car garage homes of their fantasies! We replied to their dreams by turning on, tuning in and dropping out. We expected the future to be a combination of a Thomas Jefferson/Henry David Thoreau Utopia and Star Trek – but one that didn’t take a lot of work to build.

    After our tantrums we picked ourselves up, went out and became our parents, bought even bigger homes and cars than our parents imagined. It takes a big SUV to carry a fat-ass baby boomer but we bought them rationalizing that big trucks protects little kids. We didn’t just want our kids to finish high school, we wanted them to go to Harvard and become rich. And we went apeshit over any hint of hoods selling drugs anywhere near our children. No turning in for them. And we were damn sure they wouldn’t drop out.    

    My mother and father grew up in the roaring 1920s, my mother in roarless rural Mississippi, my father in sleepy tropical Miami. They went to high school in the 1930s and then got jobs expecting prosperity to be just around the corner. Instead they got Germany, Italy and Japan wanting to rule the world. My parent’s generation had schools that taught the basics with everyone dreaming Horatio Alger, Jr stories, hoping to learn enough to get a good job with a company that would last a lifetime. High tech entertainment was a radio and dreams came in black and white visions imported from Hollywood. They didn’t want much, just economic security and freedom from Fascism. I think my father was caught up in the romance of airplanes because the joined the Army-Air Corps. I don’t know if he read science fiction but he grew up during the golden age of science fiction pulps. The drug of choice and rebellion for my parent’s generation was alcohol. My mother’s first husband had been a bootlegger.

    My parent’s parents grew up before the automobile and the airplane. My father’s mother became a teacher in a one-room school house. My mother’s mother braved convention when her father shipped her off to Little Rock at the turn of the century to attend secretarial school. She went to work in the big metropolis of Memphis in 1901. I never knew my grandfathers or their dreams. My mother’s father was farmer, and my dad’s dad grew up in rural Nebraska before moving to Miami in the 1920s. I’m sure the transformation from farm life to city life that most of the country was going through was full of excitement and promise. I’m not sure if either of them had twelve years of schooling. I figure they were dazzled by the transformation of the horse into the car, and the bird into the plane but I sure wished I knew what their dreams of the future were like. I assume the drug of choice for this generation was booze, before Prohibition. I know my grandfather, like my father, died a drunk.

    So what are kids today like? What kind of official and unofficial education are they getting? If you listen to the news the school system is in crisis. When I was a teenager I expected the future to be as exciting as science fiction. What can the kids of today expect when all they hear is gloomy forecasts of global warming? I loved growing up in the 1960s because the times were so exciting, although full of turmoil. Present times are shaping up to be just as extreme and challenging.

    I’ve worked at a university for thirty years now, and I haven’t seen anything like the 1960s again. Social and political apathy has reigned over student populations since the Vietnam War. Did ending the draft, enacting civil rights laws, illuminating the injustices done to minorities, women and gays, and strengthening EPA buy off recent generations? In many ways the Iraq war is almost identical to the Vietnam War – so why aren’t today’s kids outraged? Global warming is the ethical crisis of our times but young people haven’t tried to make it their issue. Why? Do they not understand that it’s the great challenges that define a generation?

    Maybe they are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore, but they are shouting out virtual windows and we can’t hear them. When I watch MTV, the youth appear to be trying to define themselves by decadence and money. If I could show MTV to the Puritans or folks from the Great Depression and tell them this is the future of America I think it would have blown their minds and they would have given the country back to the Indians. I know my generation who smoked pot, bragged of free love, grew their crew-cut hair long and refused to go to war, scared the hell out of our parent’s generation.

    My dad called me queer because I had long hair – called me a commie pinko because I was against the war – and called me a hoodlum because I smoked pot. He called me all those names in rage and anger, but I think mostly because my actions scared him. The violence of the current generation scares me, with the school shootings, boy gangs, girl gangs, and attacks on teachers. First person shooter games just make me wonder about today’s kids like my father wondered about me. Beyond their violent lives their indifference to the future freightens me more.

    But that is the TV view of things. Up close the kids of today don’t seem much different from when I was a kid. They tend to have less hair, take fewer drugs but like booze more, seem greedier, and love tattoos and body art. The girls wear skimpier clothes with uncomfortable underwear that shows because they have cleavage in both front and rear. On the whole I’d say they are equally self-absorbed as my generation and equally focused on sexual bonding. I am always disappointed when I talk to them because they have no interest in big issues, no interest in exciting topics like space travel or scientific discoveries, and have zip to say about the future. It truly is a Be Here Now generation.

    The Slashdot crowd are different – they do think about the future and scientific discovery, but then I was a computer geek long before they were, so I identify with them. Maybe modern kids feel they should be seen and not heard. I do see a lot to envy about kids today, especially the Internet and computers, but most kids just use the technology and aren’t cutting edge techno-evangelicals.

    Back in the 1970s when my friends were deciding whether or not to have children some of them said no because they felt the world was too awful and getting worse. Has it actually gotten worse? There were bumps along the way, but this world and time doesn’t suck despite its many pitfalls – in fact I see a lot about growing up now to be jealous. I also assume that kids growing up today find the future scary, but are they pessimistic about having kids themselves? I’ve never heard one say so.

    Of course, in kidworld you don’t see all the horrors of the world; you see the world close-up, immediate, and the things that make you laugh or cry are right next too you – family, friends, pets, schools, games, books, movies, televisions, computers. My parents had lots of great memories about growing up in the depression. I grew up with an alchoholic father that dragged us around the county forcing me and my sister to attend more than a dozen schools and yet I was still happy for the most part. Last night on the news I saw a piece about the lull in fighting in Bagdad and families were out playing in the parks.

    If you study history close enough you’ll find that every generation had their end-of-the-world doomsayers and every generation will have people who will want to get off the genetic train to the future. However, I want to ask: What’s unique about this generation? Sure, Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun, but I don’t think that’s true. Growing up today means being plugged into a world-wide digital nervous system – and that is new! And after hundreds of generations of Chicken Littles screaming the sky is falling there’s always a chance that one generation of soothsayers are going to get it right, and maybe the sky will fall, or a small piece of it. Personally, I think we’re going to adapt and survive global warming but it will take considerably longer and be more disruptive than the world wars of the twentienth century.

    This is going to sound weird but as a kid I rated television as the most important part of my life. I know family is supposed to come first, but when I grew up adults still believed in the old “kids should be seen and not heard” philosophy. And unlike today where kids and parents often interact as friends my parents were very distant. Oh, they loved and provided for me and my sister, and made us behave and learn right from wrong, but they didn’t play with us. Modern kids seem to spend more time with their parents, often as buddies and it’s no wonder that so many want to keep living with their parents late into their twenties.

    The main difference between my childhood and growing up today is the amount of adult supervision kids get. My little sister and I became latch-key kids when I was nine and I loved that. But even before that, as young as first grade I got to walk to school by myself. When we moved to New Jersey when I was in third grade Becky and I got to play in the woods alone or with other kids, and we ventured far and wide. Today’s kids don’t get that kind of freedom. I don’t think our world was safer, but parents back then felt that kids should go outside and play and they didn’t need constant adult supervision. In this regards, as a kid, I’d vote for my past times. If I was a parent I’d vote for modern times as being better.

    Regarding television, I’d vote for modern times because of the hundreds of channels, the high definition big screens, and because of the numerous chances of seeing shows with naked women. When I was little we had three television stations to watch. The screens were so small, and the black and white images were so bad, that even when they showed girls in bikinis it wasn’t that arousing. I pitied my poor father who grew up with radio and the girls just had sexy voices.

    I’d also vote for growing up in modern times when I think about the television shows the kids get to watch today. Modern kids may love Nick at Nite and TVLand featuring shows from my past but 1967 Batman blows chunks compared to 2006 Heroes and Planet Earth in HD is lightyears beyond Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The most exciting shows of the 1960s for me were the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flights. Yet seeing the Earth from space on Discovery HD puts modern kids in a whole new visual dimension of wonder and awe. Modern television is just far more sophisticated as entertainment and many magnitudes better in education.

    I work in a College of Education, so I have a tiny idea about modern classroom life. I’ve sometimes visited our campus school to help them with their computers. My office is near a textbook depository and I flip through them sometimes. I also know a number of teachers. The news is both good and bad. The quality of education various widely from school to school, and from state to state. Growing up I saw a lot of schools in a lot of states. My guess is the quality of education is better today, but there are more problems with discipline and violence, so it may have been more fun to attend school back in my times. I’ve met a lot of people from my generation who says the worse times of their lives were when they were going to school. I think those people would hate now.

    When it comes to toys modern times beats the past hands down. Tinker Toys are nothing compared to Mindstorm Robots. Comparing a Gameboy to a plastic box with a BB is just silly. If you could take a Toys R’ Us catalog back to 1963 all the kids would have wanted to move to the future.

    You know what would really make me vote for growing up in the past? Music. AM radio from 1961-1969 just flat-out out-performs all music before and since. I know that’s probably a prejudice of my times. The kids of today do not having anything close to a Bob Dylan, much less bands like the Beatles or the Bryds. Modern pop music has zero social impact, except for some hip-hoppers and Goth song writers, they don’t even try. Modern music seems to be exclusively hedonistic – but that may my take at seeing the videos that go with it.

    I envy the kids today, living with hundreds of television channels, the Internet, iPods, Gameboys, Xboxes and cellphones. Their lives are more technologically exciting than the science fiction I used to read. John Brunner pegged the bad parts of our time in his 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar but he missed all the fun and exciting stuff. Science fiction never imagined the video games or the World Wide Web and it especially never predicted the naked girls on HBO and the Internet – when I was in eighth grade finding an issue of National Geographic in the school library during study hall with a photo of a topless old women made me famous with all the other boys for the rest of the day. I bet my dad was envious of my generation because we had Playboy magazines – an item I couldn’t afford until after I started working as a bagboy unless we stole them – yeah, in those younger horny years all we had to make do with were the bra and panty ads in the Sears catalogs. Boys today have no idea how lucky they are. Today, any boy with access to Google can see whole vistas of feminine forms.

    I’ve been thinking and talking about this topic with my friends for a couple weeks now. I think the consensus is we had it better in our day and we wouldn’t want to trade lives with the current generation. Our biggest concerns are with the schools and education. I know my parents were impressed with the limited technology of our baby-boomer schools but feared the violence of our times. I think they felt they got a better basic education in their day, and they felt they were more moral. Besides global warming, education is probably the second direst crisis of modern times. And both are issues that the Bush administration likes to ignore.

    There was a very common phrase from the 1960s that’s mostly forgotten today – “the generation gap.” I think the most positive thing I see about the current generation is they communicate more with their parents and parents try to communicate more with them. My father died when I was nineteen and he was forty-nine. I never tried to communicate with him and he never tried to communicate with me. I was too young to understand and he was too much of a drunk and too afraid of what I might say. I know he tried a few times in odd ways. When his long-haired boy started going out on dates with girls he expressed himself by giving me his drinking money and car. Before he died he tried to apologize for his lack of communication skills.

    I think the biggest difference between growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and today would be difference in the relationship I would have with my father. I’m pretty sure we would have talked more if we both grew up in modern times. Who knows maybe he would have taken better care of himself – quit smoking, drank less, and exercised – things they didn’t nag about in his day. I don’t think the generation gap would have been as wide today – and I’d like to think the chasm between us would have been narrow enough so we could have heard each other.

The Many Definitions of Science Fiction

    Science fiction has always been hard to define. To the general public it has been typecast as space opera and anything to do with the future but that is not my definition of science fiction. I consider Star Wars one-hundred percent fantasy with not a single drop of science fiction in it. Just because a story is set in the future, with space ships, bug-eyed monsters and robots, doesn’t make it science fiction, at least in my skewed view of the world. Maybe we can call it sci-fi, but I’m not even happy about that. Of sure, science fiction is the accepted label commonly used to categorize books, movies, comics, games and television shows as a genre, but that’s like saying all art forms with human nudity is porn. And I’ll admit that most science fiction is a kind of porn compared to the works I want to label science fiction.

    To me science fiction is art that conveys a revolutionary speculative idea that should fit into reality according to the laws of science. Any story about traveling faster-than-light after the speed of light was established and before Einstein’s famous work can be science fiction and any story about traveling faster-than-light after Einstein is fantasy. Before anyone complains, I do know there is scientific speculation that could justify hypothetical means of FTL travel, but it involves things like converting the mass of Jupiter into energy, so I’m still going to call FTL fantasy.

    Sometimes it’s a tight call – for instance, “Bears Discover Fire.” Not likely, but a fascinating speculation. H. G. Wells got to most of the best science fictional ideas at a time in history where they might still be considered scientific. Time travel was a brillaint piece of speculation. Timescape by Gregory Benford is the last time travel story I’d call legit science fiction. Time travel is definitely in the realm of fantasy now. When Wells wrote War of the Worlds the phrase science fiction didn’t exist, but he pretty much defined the term as I like to see it. Aliens and life on other planets and around other stars was not new in his time, and I’m not even sure if Wells’ book was the first to suggest invading aliens, but WoftW has gained worldwide acceptance as a science fiction classic. H. G. Wells made the concept of science fiction famous, even when it wasn’t labelled.

    In the 1920s E. E. “Doc” Smith established the concept of interstellar travel but in a totally unscientific way, but it fired up the minds of the public about the idea of traveling to the stars. Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Universe” about a starship that took generations to reach its destination was rim of reality science fiction – the fact that Heinlein had his characters set in a time where they have forgotten their mission is mega sense-of-wonder story telling and science fiction squared. However, there aren’t that many original science fiction ideas and thus not that many true science fiction novels. Heinlein went on to write science fantasy when it came to space travel.

    I think Heinlein knew this because after Starship Troopers he figured that writing science fiction about space travel was a dead end, so he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land and took science fiction into a new dimension. I’ve read Stranger many times and both love and hate it. The kernal of a story about a human raised by aliens and then returned to Earth to be reeducated as human is very fine. The story of creating a new religion in modern times is also good speculative exploration. In fact, SIASL is full of good ideas, but it’s also full of bad science fiction. It devolves into a fantasy about wishful I Dream of Jeannie type powers that appeal to adolescent minds, and ultimately was an old man’s fantasy about wife-swapping and swinging.

    By my definition of science fiction there aren’t that many science fiction books and movies. Gattaca was a magnificent story speculating about the impact of genetic manipulation. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a disturbing story speculating about the worst mechanical qualities of being human – which is the opposite of the film based on the book, because Blade Runner was about the possibility of human qualities showing up in machines that looked like humans.

    The book I’m reading now, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is about the colonization of Mars, a very old and tired storyline, but one that Robinson makes into cutting edge science fiction. Although it was published in 1992, I think it represents the bar for speculating about what humans can do with Mars. It’s a big book, with lots of characters and ideas, and to surpass it would probably take even a bigger book, bigger even than the entire Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy, which means that’s a lot to attempt. Other than that, books about Mars are going to be adventure fantasy stories with a few science fictional ideas thrown in here and there.

    The first guy to use a space elevator in fiction can claim he’s writing science fiction, after that it’s no longer speculative science fiction but a baroque embellishment. Robinson has a space elevator, but it’s not why his Mars book is science fiction. Red Mars is science fiction because it’s a complex ecological speculation about humans coming to Mars. It’s human ecology/psychology meets Mars ecology done with finesse and characterization.

    Being a science fiction writer is hard. Coming up with new ideas that are real speculation is light-years beyond hard. Most so called science fiction writers are content to live with writing action stories set in old speculation. For god’s sake, just how many military science fiction stories are needed? Starship Troopers was original and had some very good science fiction in it, as well as a lot of fantasy action. The Forever War was a standout novel of science fiction. By the time the great film Aliens rolled around, the genre was clearly adventure fiction – although high quality. Battlestar Gallactica is fantasy soap opera. And I’m not being critical. Good story telling is good story telling – but the phrase science fiction in my book should be reserved for those stories and films that wow us with a new and novel idea. The very act of calling a work of art science fiction should be praise in itself.


Science, Scientists and Science Fiction

    I grew up reading science fiction and assumed adulthood would bring a career in science. It didn’t happen that way. In the last week I’ve bumbled across several current websites where people my age did grow up to become scientists and are discussing their formative reading. Jason Pontin, the editor in chief of Technology Review wrote recently On Science Fiction: How it influences the imagination of technologiest, “To this day, my tastes and choices as an editor and journalist are bluntly science fictional: I look for technologies that are in themselves ingenious and that have the potential to change our established ways of doing things. Best of all, I like technologies that expand our sense of what it might mean to be human.” That’s quiet an interesting bias, and I don’t think he’s alone.

    Over in the March, 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum they have a story, The Books That Make A Difference, that quotes Vinton Cert, Donald Christiansen, David Mindell, James Isaak, Samuel C. Florman, Vernor Vinge, Danny Hillis, Barrett Hazeltine, Nick Tredenick, Steven W. Squyres, Jaron Lanier, Henry Petroski, Jon Rubinstein and Owen K. Garriott discusing the books that influenced them. Most of the books are science fiction, or books that science fiction fans often love. Danny Hillis chose my favorite SF book, Have Space Suit-Will Travel and explained that the hero of the book saves the world, gets the girl and gets admitted to MIT. He claims he decided to go to MIT because of this.  I read this book many times.  I wanted to go to MIT too, but I never had the right academic stuff.

    There is no way to know, but would these men have become scientists without science fiction? Is science itself not inspiring enough? Maybe science fiction is fairy tales that appeal to logical and mathematical minded children who would have always grown up to be scientists. Or do we just live in a dazzling science fictional age – where the influence of science fiction is so widespread as to be mundane.

    If I could have read about my present life of programming computers during the day and writing blogs at night maybe it would have been an exciting story to my thirteen year old self. If I could show my kid self a photo of my desk right now with its hi-rez wide-screen LCD monitor, color printer/copier/scanner all-in-one machine the size of a small breadbox, the CD player and iPod, I think he would have been wowed! I grew up with manual typewriters, LPs and slide-rules. I know my 56″ HDTV would have been something he expected as standard in all households, but would I have imagined that one day I’d be discussing on a world-wide network the value of the books I was reading back then. It’s funny, but when I was a kid reading science fiction I never pictured growing up and being old reading science fiction. I thought I would be living it.

    Wherever I go on the net I always find people who grew up reading science fiction. What’s weird is when I was reading science fiction in the years before Star Trek I found damn few other people that read it.  How’d there get to be so many SF fans now?  Star Trek, and then Star Wars programmed millions of kids into science fiction fans. I used to go to SF conventions and we’d lament the influence of SF media fans.  How come the same boom didn’t create a boom in scientists?

    Over at ScienceBlogs I found “The Biggest Geek and the SF List” where computer scientist Marck C. Chu-Carroll throws in his comments to a group of blogging scientists discussing the top 50 science fiction books of the last fifty years. The funny thing is most of their books are on my Classics of Science Fictionlist, so there is sort of a consensus about classic science fiction. As one writer pointed out, there are few recent books showing up on everyone’s list. I’m wondering if the SF of the 1940-1990 era didn’t affect a whole generation of scientists.  MarkCC has some good comments about how these books have stood the test of time.

    It would be an ultra-cool science study to analyze all the people who read the SF classics and determine if those books did influence the readers in any significant way. I don’t know how they could do such a study but if Amazon.com can get so canny at suggesting what I like from my buying habits, I think an analysis of common traits of the people who fondly remember the same books should come up with some interesting tidbits.

    Then they should find a control group, say kids growing up in India or Tibet, and see how not reading classic Sci-Fi might have affected the group. India has lots of scientists – were they influence by science fiction? Another interesting experiment would be to isolate schools from the rest of our massive pop culture and only teach them about certain types of books. It would be the ultimate test of the old GIGO principle (Garbage In – Garbage Out). I certainly remember a lot of my teachers asking why I read such trashy books.

    Does anyone ever really know why they make the decisions that they do? Countless factors come into play for such decisions so can we consciously know how we were programmed? Or it might be simple – you become a rocket scientist because you discovered Estes Rockets when you were a kid or read a book on Robert H. Goddard or read Rocket Ship Galileo.  Or you become a robotics engineer because Mindstorm Legos or you read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot

      Or maybe, you read Rocket Ship Galileo then looked up Robert H. Goddard and then discovered Estes Rockets.  Which is what I did.  To be honest though, I followed every launch of the Mercury program before reading Rocket Ship Galileo.  To dig deeper I must ask why I followed the NASA space program so closely in elementary school?  Deep in the primordial recesses of my mind are memories of the 1950s, before NASA, of watching old black and white Sci-Fi movies, The Twilight Zone and numerous cartoons and kid shows dealing with rocket travel.  I can not unearth the first time I encountered the concept of rocket travel.

      Another weird thought that just popped into my mind – maybe I didn’t become a scientist because my favorite Sci-Fi writer was Heinlein and grew up to become an opinionated dirty old man instead.


“The Star Pit” – The Limits of Limitations

        Time was 1967 at Miami-Killian Senior High.  Sitting at the freak table in the cafeteria during home room, while listening to complex improvised percussions of the black guys at their table pounding out Afro-identity-rhythms with their hands, elbows and feet, I read a small digest pulp magazine called Worlds of Tomorrow.  I tried to concentrate on the story I was reading, “The Star Pit,” while the kid next to me was lecturing our table about his amazing discovery of shooting drops of heroin.  He normally shot speed but he and his buddies had a dry period and decided to experiment.  Although I wasn’t as dumb as this kid, I wasn’t beyond using chemicals to gain altitude, but what I really wanted was to be an astronaut and fly aboard a Gemini space capsule atop a Titan II rocket.

        “The Star Pit,” a novella by Samuel R. Delany, is one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories that I’ve reread every few years since 1967.  It is thrilling, inventive and most of all philosophical – and it has a theme that I never tire of contemplating.  It’s about barriers.  I like the think of an aquarium full of fish as an analogy to this story.  Some fish living in a tank swim around and accept their limited world, but there are always other fish that constantly patrol the glass looking for a way past the barriers.  As human we don’t bump into glass walls, but we’re all confined by invisible barriers.

When I first read “The Star Pit,” I did not know anything about the author.  I later learned Delany was black, gay and very young, about 23, when he wrote “The Star Pit.”  While I was in homeroom, Delany, nine years older than I, was already a big success in the science fiction world.  By then he had already published five novels, including a trilogy.  He grew up in Harlem, attended the Bronx High School of Science, married the poet Marilyn Hacker and started publishing novels by age 19.  These are all clues to understanding this beautiful story.   I could only imagine the ambitions that fueled Delany to write this story.  It is also important to understand what was happening in the world of 1965-1967, the most important being the space race and the Vietnam War, but New York in the sixties was something special too.

        If you can imagine a black, gay kid from Harlem wanting to be an astronaut with The Right Stuff, or even one of the guys who writes science fiction in 1965, you can begin to understand some of the barriers I am talking about.  It goes deeper than that.  All of Delany’s early work has reoccurring themes about being young and artistic – and especially about being original and always meeting other artists who where younger, more original and more artistic.  My guess was Delany was a prodigy who achieved much too much success too early and hit lots of walls.  I also expected he had lots of emotional trouble growing up.

        We all want success when we’re young and few achieve their dreams.  Most people settle down to accept life, swimming in the middle and never make a run at the glass anymore.  Others continue to bash their heads, or like me, who constantly linger near the barrier thinking, “Jeez, how am I going to escape?”  It’s now forty years later and I know I’m not going to be an astronaut.  Like Dirty Harry said, a man must know his limitations, but if you test them enough you begin to wonder if the barrier will give just a little bit.

        Living with confined desires changes your ambitions to adapt to the barriers.  The conventional wisdom says if a person is going to be creative, they’re going to succeed when they are young.  You might win a Nobel Prize when you’re old, but it’s for work your brain did when it was young.  Most of our limits are related to brain function, genes and the health of our bodies.  We know death is the ultimate barrier to ambition and that the odds are if we haven’t achieved success by thirty it won’t be at all, but some people refuse to ever throw in the towel despite all facts to the contrary.

        I know I’ll never get to the Moon or Mars, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t write a sci-fi book about such adventures.  Or is that being unrealistic?  Even when you compromise you never know what the real limitations are.  Take for instance a very tiny experiment I conducted.  Scientists have discovered that the brain can still grow new neural pathways much later in life than previously thought and suggest that it’s never too late to learn new tricks.  I decided to teach myself chess as a test.  I didn’t get very far.

        Like the Ratlit in “The Star Pit” who resents the Golden, those humans that can travel to other galaxies, I resent the young who can take up chess so easily while I butt my head against the 8×8 board.  I wasn’t expecting to be a grandmaster, but had the lowly ambition of just beating the computer at the easiest level.  I can’t even do that.  Even now I like to pretend I could still succeed if I would only apply myself and study hard thirty minutes a day for a couple years.  However, failing is teaching me something.  I’m learning that there are a whole host of barriers that keep me back from succeeding, even at my unambitious ambition.  Just to succeed at this tiny chess problem I suffer:

·         Limits of concentration

·         Limits of memory

·         Limits of effort

·         Limits of perception

·         Limits of logic

·         Limits of pattern recognition

·         Limits of age

·         Limits of ambition

·         Limits of language

·         Limits of knowledge

·         Limits of talent

·         Limits of skills

·         Limits of health

·         Limits of vitality

·         Limits of analysis

·         Limits of organization

·         Limits of intellect

·         Limits of overcoming limits

·         Limits of time

        That’s a lot of limits – and there are probably a lot more that I haven’t noticed since I’m so limited at observing my limits.  I can’t just say I’m bad at chess because poor chess playing is only a symptom of my real disease.  I could whine that I’m getting old, but I’m sure there are plenty of people decades older than me that can take up chess and beat the computer.

        The real research question here is whether or not I can do anything about my limitations.  Can I exercise my power of concentration and beat that limitation?  If I studied chess books and improved my skills and knowledge about the game, might I push back some barriers?  Yet, there are other barriers that keep me from doing that: energy, time, health, effort, etc.  So why?  Why don’t I just go swim in the middle of the aquarium and just watch television like the other fish?  Why, I wonder myself.

        You can read “The Star Pit” in Delany’s collection, aye, and gomorrah and other stories.  Every evening writing this blog I pound against the barrier that keeps me from expressing in words the things that I see and think.  “The Star Pit” haunts me with its frail characters fighting their hurricane force ambitions.  I have no idea if the story will succeed with you like it has succeeded with me.  It begins:

            Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.           

            But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium, with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down.  They put it out on the sand.

An ancient radio presentation of “The Star Pit” can be found here on MP3.

Communicating Across Time

        I just finished reading Timescape by Gregory Benford and Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the two books strike me as a perfect set for a meditation on time travel.  I doubt Henry David Thoreau ever thought about time travel, but any writer that produces a classic book is communicating across time, sending messages centuries into the future.  Imagine if Thoreau had some kind of magical book and we could send messages back to him sitting in his little shack by Walden Pond.  What would you tell him about life in the future and reading his book?  Timescape by Gregory Benford is about sending messages backwards in time, allowing the future to talk to the past.  Unfortunately, Benford tries to stick closely to a theoretical idea in physics which has limited application.  His story is timid by science fictional standards, but wonderfully ambitious by defying the traditions of the genre.

        I often want to communicate with the past.  I’m currently reading The Scarlet Letter and figure it would be great fun to show the Puritans an hour of MTV.  On the surface that sounds cruel, but I keep thinking if we could talk across the ages we’d realize new philosophical dimensions.  Of course we know about the tyrannical nature of religious societies just by watching the nightly news, but it helps to remember that Americans once wore funny religious clothes and treated women like Islamic fundamentalists.  The real test would be to have a time traveler show up today and let us know about the future and how our beliefs and actions are embarrassing to them.  Are the liberated women on MTV a step forward in women’s expression as individuals or are they freed women to act out men’s fantasies?

        The eight hundred pound gorilla in this essay is global warming.  Will the people of the future all lie in the beds at night wishing they could talk to us?  Benford’s story written in the 1970s and published in 1980 isn’t about global warming but another ecological catastrophe caused by the people of the 1950s and 1960s but which kills the people of 1998.  Yes, his future is now our past but that doesn’t make the book dated.  Timescape is #41 on The Classics of Science Fiction list – but it deserves to be higher.  The idea of sending messages to the past is just as original as any of H. G. Wells’ great primal science fictional ideas.

If you read the reader reviews on Amazon you will find most readers giving Timescape five stars but many giving it one star.  It’s a polarizing science fiction novel because it’s not a gee-whiz action story, but a quiet story about science and scientists.  Critics loved it but many fans didn’t.  I assume most adolescent readers would prefer a story about time travelers going back to hunt dinosaurs rather than read about a clever plot based on a theoretical sub-atomic particle called the tachyon.  I can also infer that most page turning readers don’t want to be burden by bad tidings from the future.

In Timescape a few 1998 people desperately try to get a message to a few scientists in 1963 hoping to save their world.  If the people of 1963 had listened to Thoreau message from 1854 the people in 1998 might not have ever needed to send a message backwards in time.  Walden is a timeless essay about paying attention to details and questioning the status quo.  Thoreau might be considered America’s original hippie, but he was a brilliant thinker, as was his friend Nathan Hawthorne who peered with nineteenth century eyes into the seventeenth century with A Scarlett Letter.  There are still puritanical threads woven into our twenty-first century philosophy.  The lessons of history have always been one way – think how dynamically philosophic history would be if we could tune in the future with tachyon radios.

I’m not shunning the Puritans when I mention them, they may have valid messages to send us too, points that we’re missing, and yes we’re still receiving their messages, for example, the current fad of Purity Balls.  The key is to study Thoreau and learn to discern the ecology of our thoughts like he studied the ecology of Walden Pond.  Are the Puritans four centuries away, or merely a few thousand miles?  Scattered across this earth are people living in situations that mirror all the times of history.  Every society might represent a different expression of innate programming to comprehend right and wrong – it may even be hardwired in our genes as Moral Minds suggests.  Classic books may be classic because they show characters at the cutting edge of ethical dramas.

Global warming will be the ethical issue of our times.  To overcome this obstacle we will all have to live life with the spiritual observational skills of Henry David Thoreau.  Science fictional books like Timescape illustrates that every casual decision we make today affects the people of tomorrow.  The emotional dynamics of how we judge our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth is portrayed in The Scarlet Letter.  For years I have contemplated why some books become classics and others don’t.  I’m never sure how to define a classic, but I know if you are reading books that don’t make you think, that you can’t interconnect with the communications across time, then more than likely you are only reading for escapism and that book isn’t a classic.

Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different

    Twenty years ago I wrote an article about the classics of science fiction for the fanzine Lan’s Lantern – and later made the essay into a web site at The Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike inspired the project when he asked me about my favorite science fiction books. I started reading science fiction as a kid in 1961, and then gave up SF in 1974 after dropping out of college to find reality. I returned to reading science fiction in 1984 after I had gotten married, finished college and settled down. By the time I wrote the essay in 1987 I had probably read well over a thousand science fiction books.

    Now looking back with twenty years of hindsight I’m not sure how many science fiction books I would consider classic. The final Classics of Science Fiction list wasn’t selected by me, but was assembled from the most frequently recommended books from 28 best-of lists and other sources dating back to the 1950s. Of the 193 books on the list, I’m not sure how many I would personally recommend today. I’ve read most of the books on the list, and still reread many of them. I’m currently seeking out and listening to audio editions of books from the list. This week I’m listening to Timescape by Gregory Benford, #41 on the list, and a book on 16 of the 28 recommended references. I think it is a classic of sorts, but it’s doubtful you’ll find it at your favorite bookstore. I was surprised that Recorded Books had an unabridged audio edition. [By the way, RB is the very best place to find audio editions of the SF Classics.]

    A few months ago I listened to Foundation by Isaac Asimov and I was appalled by how bad it was. I had forgotten most of the story. I had read the original Foundation trilogy back in the 1960s and accepted it then as a classic because everyone said it was so. Listening to it now it was obvious that it was a fix-up novel from a handful of Astounding pulp fiction stories.  Even though I considered it bad writing it had ideas that made me wonder if it had been inspiration to George Lucas for Star Wars. As far as I was concerned it was too simplistic and had nothing to offer the modern reader. The Foundation Trilogy is #4 on the Science Fiction Classics List and was recommended by 24 of the 28 lists. It is well loved, but not by me anymore.

    I wonder if the other fans, critics, writers and editors who created the original 28 recommendation lists still love all the books they once recommended Has the last twenty years changed them too? Here are the books I’ve listened to in the last five years:

#4 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov

#8 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

#19 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

#22 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

#29 – Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury

#32 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

#37 – The Humanoids by Jack Williamson

#41 – Timescape by Gregory Benford

#48 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (abridged) by Philip K. Dick

#58 – Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

#61 – Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

#67 – Startide Rising by David Brin

#87 – Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

#93 – Blood Music (novella version) by Greg Bear

#94 – Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I have more SF Classics lined up to listen to, like Dune by Frank Herbert, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and a few others. They are on my Recorded Books Unlimited queue. Most of the books I have listened to were very entertaining, but I don’t know if I would call them classics. Library of America, a company known for publishing classic books, will publish a volume called Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick in June of 2007. The four novels are The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969) – all but Stigmata were on the Classics of Science Fiction list.

Are these the real classics of science fiction? I don’t know. PKD’s books hold up well in their audio editions and many of his stories have been made into movies, but his books were never mainstream science fiction. PKD was one strange dude, maybe a Poe or Meville of the sci-fi pulp writers, and although he wrote some books set in outer space, he was never considered an inspiration to the space opera crowd. I am a huge fan of PKD and I’m overjoyed that LOA has selected his books, but I don’t think PKD represents science fiction nor do I think his books represent American literature. Personally, I think Robert A. Heinlein fits that role better, but I’m not sure I’d pick any of his books as classics of American literature either.  Many of Heinlein’s novels are my all time favorite books that I read and reread, but I don’t know if they represent America or its times.  I think Have Space Suit-Will Travel represents the 1950s in the U.S. in a very special way but will future readers see that.  Would nineteenth century New England want to be represented by Moby Dick?

The trouble is I don’t see any science fiction book becoming the Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations to the readers of the twenty-second century as those two books have become classics to us. Whether Jane Austin or Charles Dickens wrote accurate portraits of their times, their books do represent the times in which they were set for all future readers. Huckleberry Finn and Little Women will represent nineteen century America, like The Great Gatsby will represent the twenthieth century. Strange in a Strange Land is a 1960s book, but it will never be a book about the 1960s. Science fiction books will have to be classics like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are classics but I’m not sure how many science fiction books will appeal to the young readers of the future.

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The World of the Wars have become classic books read by children for a century. Are there any books from the Classics of Science Fiction list that will follow in Mr. Wells’ steps? Ender’s Game might. Not on the list, but a book that might have a chance is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It was recently made into a full-cast audio book and it holds up very well and doesn’t feel dated.  But I think it only has an extremely rare chance.  Dune might succeed since it has already had two film incarnations, which is a good indication. Fahrenheit 451 might have a chance since it is a timeless allegory about reading, but I don’t hold out much hope for The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s other classic that is so loved outside of the SF world. Flowers for Algernon has potential. Overall though, I don’t have much hope for any book on the Classic of Science Fiction list lasting another century and remaining popular.  I think Wells and Verne will fall out of favor – if they already haven’t. 

As many observers have noted, modern children prefer movies, video games and movies over books, so there’s always a chance that books won’t be popular in the future. However, I think hard-core science fiction readers will continue to seek and find the books on The Classics of Science Fiction list. The average science fiction reader will be content with the latest fad in science fiction and fantasy books. I think the desire to read science fiction is mostly based on the urge to find new and novel excitements – so the classic books that come from the 1940s and 1950s pulp magazines will feel old and quaint to them. Eventually, even the New Wave times of the 1960s and 1970s will seem old wave. Books from the 1920s and 1930s seemed quaint to me in the 1960s. I have a feeling that the most sophisticated science fiction written today will feel like a dime novel does to us when read by our grandchildren.

I guess my conclusion is science fiction goes out of date too fast to become classic. I wish I could live to be two hundred and find out the answer though.  I think there are other reasons why these books won’t become classics but those ideas will have to be explored in a future blog entry.  The main reason I think this is I’ve read many many great books in the last twenty years that I consider better than the books on the Classics of Science Fiction List.