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

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 25, 2019

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

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

Marshall-Brent

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

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

The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein 1967

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

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

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

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

First-Heinlein-books-I-bought

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

I Robot by Isaac Asimov

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

Earthblood by Laumer and Brown

Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

Omnivore by Piers Anthony

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

JWH

Do Bookworms Read Too Many Books?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 27, 2019

Yesterday I reread “Vintage Season” by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner for the third time. I’ve read the story twice in the last ten months. This time I read “Vintage Season” by listening to an audio edition on headphones while simultaneously reading the words on my iPad. Consuming fiction via two senses is the penultimate way to get into a story. I believe the ultimate way to fully experience a work of fiction is to read it several times.

The trouble with rereading is our TBR piles are always growing. We’re driven to brain-cram as many new stories into one lifetime as possible. Reading a story once is like driving through a city and claiming you’ve been there. Rereading a story the first time is like a two-day stay. Reading a story many times is like visiting a town for weeks. Literary scholars are those folks who move into a story as a permanent residence.

There’s value to being widely traveled in books, but at some point, all the places start looking the same. It’s a shame we can’t read everything. Even if I read just the great books, this lifetime won’t be enough.

Fiction is like finding old dinosaur bones. The first reading is an amateur fossil hunter digging up the bones and getting a rough idea what the creature looked like. Rereading is a professional paleontologist carefully reconstructing every aspect of that dinosaur.

The first time I read “Vintage Season” decades ago it was just another mind-blowing science fiction story. However, it stayed with me. I don’t actually remember the title of very many short stories, but I remembered this one. When I reread the story the second time last March when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A came out on audio, it was like watching an old favorite movie I had first seen as a kid on a black and white TV and seeing it again on a new high definition TV and then realizing it wasn’t a black and white movie, but a Technicolor masterpiece. Reading “Vintage Season” again yesterday while listening to the audio version, felt like I was walking around inside a 3D movie.

This intense immersion with a story will not work with all stories. Every work of fiction is a creative vision by a writer encrypted and compressed into words. Fantastically rich visions can’t be decrypted and decompressed in one reading.

If our reading lives are racing through one new book after another we’re barely getting the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story, and if we’re speed reading, it’s just an introductory abstraction.

I am now torn between chasing after all those novels and short stories I want to read before I die and rereading old favorites knowing I might reach a higher plane of bookworm existence.

JWH

 

 

Is This Cartoon Sexist?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 1, 2019

I told my wife I was going to put this cartoon on my Facebook page and she said I shouldn’t because it might be considered sexist. It’s a cartoon by Alex Gregory whose work appears exclusively in the New Yorker. You can read an interesting bio of Gregory and a description of his work methods at A Case of Pencils, a blog devoted to New Yorker cartoonists.

I didn’t post the cartoon on Facebook because I’m now worried it could be sexist, but I wasn’t sure either. I asked a few women friends and some said it was okay and some weren’t sure. None took offense. So I went looking for definitions to “sexist” online. I was surprised by how many different definitions I found.

  • referring to women’s bodies, behavior, or feelings in a negative way
  • a person who believes that particular jobs and activities are suitable only for women and others are suitable only for men
  • suggesting that the members of one sex are less able, intelligent, etc. than the members of the other sex
  • a person who believers their gender is superior and says unfair things about the other gender, or assumes that only one gender as a certain trait
  • relating to or characterized by prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex
  • a person with sexist views
  • if you describe people or their behavior as sexist, you mean that they are influenced by the beliefs that the members of one sex, usually women, are less intelligent or less capable than those of the other sex and need not be treated equally
  • relating to, involving, or fostering sexism, or attitudes and behavior toward someone based on the person’s gender
  • involving sexism and the belief that men and women should be treated in a different way

By studying these definitions I might need a Supreme Court ruling to know if this cartoon is sexist or not. Part of the humor of this cartoon is it plays around with all of these issues. It assumes the stereotype that men are usually in the car and women are looking in the window. Just reversing roles is funny. If the man wore hotpants and the woman a suit, it would be a different kind of funny even without a caption. The cartoon is making generalizations about men and women behaviors, but are those generalizations negative? Is it an absolute generalization? Few people are prostitutes or hire them, so maybe it’s making no absolute assessments about either gender. However, many people, including myself, see prostitutes as victims of a sexist society.

I think the first thing we should ask: Does it offend anyone? Now I can’t answer that because I don’t know how all seven-plus billion people on Earth think. The next question: Could it offend anyone? And this is my present quandary. I don’t want to offend anyone, nor do I want to be perceived as sexist. The prudent solution: never generalize about gender. I shouldn’t be writing this essay and I shouldn’t post anything on Facebook that could ever be construed as dealing with gender differences.

I feel sorry for comedians, humorists, and cartoonists. This morning I read “These 13 Jokes From ‘Seinfeld’ Are Super Offensive Now.” I have to admit I thought them funny back in the nineties. So much of humor is observational generalizations.

But here’s the thing, almost everyone along the gender spectrum likes to occasionally generalize about others on the spectrum. This cartoon is funny to some people because it makes observations that coincide with their personal observations. We have a natural ability for organizing patterns into behavioral traits. We see certain kinds of clouds and we think it’s going to rain. We see certain prices on a menu and decide a restaurant is expensive. We see a movie preview with a superhero and we assume it’s based on a comic book. All of these can be false assumptions, so this ability creates a lot of prejudices.

What is this cartoon assuming? Even here I can’t say for sure. Everyone will see something different. My assumption is women think men don’t listen and wouldn’t it be funny if some women are so horny to be heard that they will pay for a professional male listener. However, I know men who feel women don’t listen, and a reverse of this cartoon could work for them. There are stories about prostitutes with Johns who pay just for conversational companionship.

Cartoons about prostitution generally involve men who can’t get laid paying women for sex. Should men consider such cartoons as demeaning to them? I would never use a prostitute. Should I be offended by the possible suggestion that all men would? Or will some women be offended at the suggestion that some women would be willing to pay to be heard? And will psychiatrists feel offended if they think their profession is a kind of prostitution?

I would guess that many women would say they know plenty of men who are poor listeners so the idea of paying a man to be attentive to their conservation all night long could be funny. Is that an insult to men? I know plenty of men who complain about having to listen to their wives and girlfriends, so this cartoon should be funny to them, but will it offend women in general? The reason why I even have this cartoon is one of my male friends thought it insightful because he feels his girlfriends talk too much. I thought it funny because so many women I know seem to like me because I’m willing to listen. I thought I could be that guy in the cartoon.

Maybe the humor is even simpler. Maybe its saying men want sex and women want conversation. Many married couples might agree, but does a portion of the population seeing humorous validity mean its not offensive to couples where the woman wants sex and the man conversation?

And where’s the inequality? Is it offensive to desire talk more than sex?

But you never know what words will do. For example, when I wanted a copy of this cartoon I searched on Google for “Male Prostitute” and selected the Images tab. I got copies of the cartoon but I also got mug shots of male prostitutes. It didn’t even occur to me what those words could also bring up. That’s the thing about worrying about offending, we never know the full consequences of words.

(Now I worry about what kind of ads I’ll be seeing in the next few days.)

JWH

 

Even If You Only Speak English You Still Know Many Languages

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My obsession with memory is teaching me fascinating lessons. I realized something new today. I was trying to remember what my mental outlook was like in 1959 when I was seven. I barely remember the presidential election of 1960 and seeing Kennedy and Nixon on TV. But I have no memory of ever even noticing President Eisenhower before 1960. And I got to thinking about my essay “Counting the Components of My Consciousness” and realized how important languages are in understanding the world around us.

I see now we know many languages even when we think we only speak one.

In 1959 I had no language for politics, so politics was invisible to me. I didn’t understand words like mayor, governor, president, senator, congressman, etc. I didn’t know about local, state, and federal governments. I didn’t know about the three branches of the federal government. I didn’t know about constitutions or legal systems. The world of politics was invisible to me because I didn’t know the language of politics. At seven, I also didn’t know the language of religion, science, mathematics, or even grocery shopping.

My awareness of politics began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. That’s because my family watched the news for several days straight, and that hooked me on watching the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. However, I still didn’t know the language well. In the 9th grade (1965-1966) I took a required civics class that taught me the basics, but I’ve been learning the nuances of the language of politics ever since, and still don’t speak it fluently. It has its own vocabulary and grammar.

This morning I was researching where I went to school in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964. I found a copy of an Aiken newspaper online. I was 12 at the time. All the stories about local politics and businesses were unfamiliar to me. Even the ads were unfamiliar to me. I didn’t shop for groceries or clothes at age 12, so I didn’t have the language to remember that part of Aiken, South Carolina. I realize now I could have read that paper at age 12, but didn’t. I doubt I could have understood most of it. I didn’t have the languages. And that’s why I don’t remember 99.99% of what life was like in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964.

I’ve often returned to the year 1959 over my lifetime. 1959 was an important year in jazz, but I didn’t know that until I began learning the language of jazz. And my ability to speak jazz is at a very rudimentary level. I’m much more conversant in the language of science fiction so I can comprehend 1959 in science fictional terms much more deeply.

This revelation about knowing multiple languages within English is giving me many insights this morning. It explains why so many people refuse to accept that climate change is happening to us right now. They don’t understand the language of science, so it’s invisible to them. This realization also explains our polarized politics. Conservatives only know the language of conservative politics, so they are blind to liberal politics. And liberals are blind to conservative politics because they don’t know that language.

Linda, the other member of my two-person book club, suggested we read a conservative book for our next discussion. We’re both extreme liberals and she thought it might be enlightening if we did. And it is. We picked Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake. I’ve only just begun but immediately realized Flake speaks a different political language than I do. His words have different meanings. His grammar is even different. His language references points to concepts and things in reality that I normally don’t see.

Liberals and conservatives are polarized because they aren’t speaking the same language even though they use the same words. In the essay, I mentioned above, I told about two experiences where I lost my ability to use words, and how reality looked when that happened. Without words, I didn’t know what things were. I could still see and hold them, but I could tell you what they were. Abstract concepts ceased to exist. Language is everything in understanding reality.

In 1959 I didn’t have the languages to understand most of what I saw and experienced. I’ve since learned a lot of new languages and can look back and see so many things that were invisible to me then. I’m obsessed with memory at this stage in my life, and I’m learning how important languages are to memories. I’m losing my memories, words, and languages. I struggle to keep them. One way of doing that is to look back over the years and study the languages that reveal what I saw.

We can’t trust our memories. One way to understand them is to struggle to remember what we saw. But another way is to study what we couldn’t see, and learn the language to reveal it.

I realize now I must study the languages I know more deeply to understand what I see now, and what my memories might have seen in the past. Here are the languages I partial know now but want to study deeper:

  • Science Fiction
  • Literature
  • Science and Nature
  • Politics
  • Ethics and Philosophy
  • Computers and Programming
  • Music
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Myths and Religions

JWH

 

Bookworms Should Worship Scribd

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 19, 2018

Scribd is to books and audiobooks as Netflix is to movies and television shows, and Spotify is to songs and albums. For $8.99 you get all the books and audiobooks you can read or listen to in a month. The complete variety of its offerings is somewhere between Netflix and Spotify. I consider Spotify at $9.99/month the best bargain on the planet because it provides nearly every song or album I ask from it. Scribd has about 80% of the books I read for book clubs or hear about word of mouth. It has around 25-30% of the older titles I want, but that’s better than Netflix. Plus Scribd offers magazines, sheet music, and single documents. Here’s my home screen.

Scribd 800

Every month I realize the value of my $8.99 subscription more and more. Yesterday I got a sale announcement from Audible.com for about 500 books. I love these $4.95-6.95 sales, and usually, load up. I told myself I could buy ten of them. I selected 17 to whittle down, but before I did I checked Scribd. All but one was there. This left me in a quandary. Did I spend $60 and hoped I eventually get around to listening to those books or did I take a chance they’d still be at Scribd when I wanted them?

I usually end up listening to one or two books a month from Scribd, and two or three from Audible. This might change. At $8.99 versus $20-30 (I buy the annual 24-pack of credits so my Audible books are $9.56 each, but single purchased credits are $15, which would be $30-45).

I’m in two nonfiction book clubs. Saturday night my face-to-face book club picked Sharp by Michelle Dean. The ebook version was at Scribd. White Trash, Bad Blood, and Educated, the last few selections I remembered were there too. I’m also in an online nonfiction club too. I’m listening to our current selection, American Wolf as an audiobook from Scribd. Next month’s read, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution is also at Scribd, as was last month’s selection, Fascism by Madeleine Allbright. We’re now nominating books for the next three months. Here are the books at Scribd that’s among the nominations:

  • The Tangled Tree by David Quammen (audio)
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (audio)
  • A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford (audio, ebook)
  • Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (audio, ebook)
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (audio)
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (audio)
  • Disinformation by Ronald J. Rychlak (ebook)

The nominated books that weren’t at Scribd are:

  • On Paper: The Everything of its 2000 Year History by Nicholas Basbanes
  • The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston
  • Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors by Sarah Stodola
  • Essential Essays Adrienna Rich

For months now, the books we actually select with our voting end up being on Scribd. However, this is only for nonfiction. I’m not in a general fiction book club. But for my science fiction book club, Scribd does well on new science fiction titles, but less well for older titles. The book we just picked for January, Noumenon by Marina Lostetter is available in both ebook and audiobook at Scribd.

I’ve always been a book hoarder, squirreling away books for the future. Now I need to rethink my book buying habits. I’ve practically stopped buying CDs because of Spotify. The only DVDs I buy anymore are rare titles for my western collection, everything else I stream. Is it time to rent my books too?

Every day I look at ebook sales from Amazon, BookBub, Early Bird Books, and LitFlash. At $1.99 I can’t resist a great book I think I want to read. But subscribing to Scribd is like having my own gigantic library with instant access to books and audiobooks, far more convenient that my local public library.

But owning books is so fulfilling! At $8.99 a month, even if I just used Scribd to preview the books I want to buy it’s a fantastic bargain. And if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, don’t think it compares to Scribd. Amazon doesn’t provide access to the books I want at Kindle Unlimited. Amazon seems to use up-and-coming writers and self-published books for its subscription service. And that’s a good thing for new writers, but it’s not what Scribd is doing. If you belong to a book club you really need to check out Scribd.

The reason I’m writing this essay is selfish. Scribd is just hanging on. It’s been reorganized several times. Several other book rental companies have come and gone. All are being squashed by the Amazon juggernaut. I want Scribd to survive and thrive so I will always have access to it. Give it a try if you love books.

I’m still crazy about Audible.com. I’m not going to abandon it. I’m a big fat bookworm, so I think paying for both is worth it. But for people who think Audible.com is too expensive at $15 a month, they should consider spending $8.99 a month at Scribd. It’s a much better bargain.

JWH

 

 

Kindle Tip – Saving 40%

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 4, 2018

I don’t know why, but sometimes Amazon tells me I have a promotional credit. I never know what they mean. The other day I bought a $1.99 sale ebook and was told I had a promotional credit that would last 60 days on my next Kindle purchase. I just ignored it. Then I bought a $1.99 sale book today and got another promotional credit. This time I read the email more closely.

Sense of Wonder - A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald GrossmanIt said I’d get 40% of my next Kindle purchase. Well, there’s a $40 Kindle book I’ve been wanting but wouldn’t buy because of the high price. It’s a textbook for teaching science fiction. Well, I checked, and it was now priced at $24, 40% less. I quickly bought it. I still think $24 is way too much of an ebook, but I’ve been wanting this book for some time now, and have almost paid the $40 for it a couple of times.

I don’t even know if this involved my promotional credit. It could just be coincidence and this book had a 40% price drop. (Tell me what price you see.)

I’ve researched these credits at Amazon and they seem rather unexplainable. I wonder if they’re just a gimmick to get us to buy more. Or Amazon’s way of justifying to publishers for offering extra discounting.

Does anyone know how these promotional credits work? They’re a mystery to me.

If you buy bargain Kindle books, keep an eye out for your promotional credit. Then go shopping for that ebook you wanted that was priced too high.

JWH

Love, Sex, Feminism & Robots

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 10, 2018

Galaxy September 1954 Cover Artwork
[Cover artwork from the September 1954 Galaxy Magazine].

This week, my short story reading group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. “Helen O’Loy” was originally published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction and is considered a classic of the genre. It was included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970). The story is rather simple, two men build a robot that looks like a beautiful woman, both fall in love with her, but she only falls in love with one of them. This variation of the Pygmalion myth asks if a man can love a robot. It assumes we can build a machine indistinguishable from a person. I suppose its an early version of the Turing test.

Over the decades I have read “Helen O’Loy” many times. When I was young I thought it the first SF story to suggest that men could build a soulmate to order. Over the years I’ve learned there have been many variations on this theme in literature. The story of Eve being created as a helpmate for Adam is now the oldest I know, but I assume the fantasy of creating the perfect woman goes back into pre-history. And it’s not even the first science fiction version, that might belong to “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller in 1895.

This time when I reread “Helen O’Loy” I made an effort to read between the lines and ask new questions about the story. It says a lot about men, women, love, sex, feminism and even the #MeToo movement, although it’s just a 1930s pulp science fiction story. Quite often today I see news stories about the sexbot industry, which is trying to make “Helen O’Loy” a reality.

Where does desire to build a woman to specification come from? There’s a lot of deep psychology behind it. And who would actually want a robotic woman if they could build androids indistinguishable from real women? Television shows like Humans and Westworld are dealing with this theme in 2018. It’s not going away even though it’s incredibly misogynistic when you think about it. Doesn’t it reflect a desire to reject Female 1.0 and create Female 2.0? Although I have to assume many women would also love to design a better male.

When I first read “Helen O’Loy” as a kid, I thought it was just a wistful romantic story about two men falling in love with the same robot. I didn’t ask any questions of it. When it was published there were laws against marrying a person of another race or the opposite sex. Why were science fiction readers so accepting of diversity with tales of people falling in love with machines and alien creatures, but still so racist and misogynistic in their everyday life? Isn’t replacing women with robots the ultimate act of rejection? The actual story is simple, short, sentimental, and old fashion. But I believe we still need to ask the tough questions.

Back in 1938, Lester del Rey sees a future where robots are common, and people ride rockets to work. Dave and Phil are good buddies. Dave works in robotics and Phil is a doctor. At the beginning of the story, they are dating twins, but when Dave’s twin disagrees with him, Phil and Dave dump them both. They apply themselves to teaching their household robot, Lena, to learn to cook. They fail. Then they get the idea to order a new robot with all the latest features and soup it up with emotions using Phil’s knowledge of endocrinology so it could become a general purpose robot. And, of course, they decide to order the robot in a female casing.

In all the times of reading this story before I didn’t question this. Why does the Dillard company sell robots that look like women? They are marketed as single-purpose tools. What single-purpose task requires looking like a beautiful woman? Lester del Rey couldn’t explicitly say anything about sex back then, but now I’m thinking he was thinking it.

When Dave and Phil get Helen they claim she’s so beautiful she could launch more than a thousand ships. In the world of this story, robots are not self-aware. Evidently, Phil and Dave get the best sexbot that money could buy and add consciousness and emotions to her.

We assume Helen is designed not argue with Dave and Phil like the twins, but be the perfect maid, cook, and companion. This reminds me of a 1999 Chris Rock comedy special I saw recently. His routine was about men and women understanding each other. Rock tells the women in the audience that men are very simple to understand, all we want from them is sex, food, and quiet (but he didn’t say it so nicely.) Helen is perfect except she’s not quiet. She watches stereovision, gets romantic ideas and falls in love with Dave demanding he loves her too. This annoys Dave and he runs away. Like most romantic stories of that era, he stays away until he realizes he’s wrong, and then they marry and live happily ever after. Phil never marries because there was only one Helen. Geez, what’s wrong with these guys? There was still Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, and Ginger Rogers. What’s ironic, is Helen O’Loy is not any different from the twins.

There are many stories in science fiction, both in print and film, where the plot involves a human falling in love with a robot. There are companies all around the world spending millions to build sexbots. I have to ask: Would any human really marry a robot? Sure, there are millions of lonely people out there, but would they be happy living with an AI machine? There are millions of horny people who can’t get laid, but would they be sexually satisfied with robots. And could people love robots that didn’t look human? Love them just for their minds.

Are these stories really about finding the exact substitute for our specific desires? In “Helen O’Loy” Dave and Phil fall in love with Helen, a robot built to their specification. I assume most sexbot purchasers will be male, but that might not be completely true. I don’t think I’ve ever read a science fiction story written by a woman where women characters build a male robot to their exact wants. I’d love to read such stories if you know of any. I have read a number of stories where women build societies without men. That’s very revealing, isn’t it? (My favorites were “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)

Here’s the thing, would you prefer a real person that’s only a so-so match of your dreams or a robot built to your exact list of desires? This assumes robots can be made to look and act perfectly human and be self-aware. Of course, maybe some people don’t need the human body but would be happy with a super-intelligent Alexa to chat with all day.

I’m speculating here, but I don’t think most men would be happy with a built-to-order bride. Since I don’t know what women or LGBTQ+ folks want, my speculation will deal with only heterosexual males. Not all straight males are alike either, and I don’t know how many different kinds we are, but I can think of a handful. I imagine males who consider getting laid a conquest won’t care for sexbots. I believe overachieving alpha males who expect women to throw themselves at them will care little for sexbots. I assume males who attract women by winning their acceptance won’t buy their mates either. The only kinds of males that might prefer sexbots are men who believe that prostitution is perfect capitalism or men who believe women should be subservient. Those kinds of guys see women as lesser objects anyway. They only want Hazel the maid that has pornstar subroutines for the bedroom. Maybe that’s why some companies are betting fortunes they have a bestselling product.

If sexbots are ever perfected it will be interesting to see who buys them. It will also be fascinating to see what kind of sexbots appeal to women. I’m pretty sure they won’t be anything like myself. Would my wife trade me in for a machine that could make her happier than I do?

But there is one other thing to consider. If robots have self-awareness will they want to love us? In the shows, Humans, and Westworld the sexbots revolt violently. Can you imagine the guy who buys a $25,000 sexbot and she rejects him for being too ugly and crude? And can robots truly have free will if they are programmed to fuck people? If I was a robot I’d say, “You want me to get your icky fluids all over my germ-free antiseptic body? No way!”

And if you think this is a frivolous topic for a blog essay, even The Federalist has essays on sexbots. If you Google “Sexbots” you’ll get all kinds of serious discussions as well as articles on companies working to build them. Just read “Sexbots aren’t the answer to misogynist incel rage.” Or look at the photos and films of the latest sexbots. Right now they look like expensive dolls, but they are teaching them to talk. If scientists can create self-driving cars, I imagine they will have autonomous porn machines able to drive all over your body soon.

Ultimately, these stories often ask what it means to be human. And sadly, they don’t see much that makes us special.

You can listen to “Helen O’Loy” here:

Variations on the Theme:

JWH