“5,271,009” by Alfred Bester

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 28, 2018

I’m reading mid-20th-century science fiction looking for stories that would stand out in 2018 and I came across “5,271,009” by Alfred Bester. At first, I thought it merely a dazzling bit of pyrotechnic wordplay. I dismissed it as all flash and no heart. Bester is most famous for two extraordinary science fictions novels of the 1950s, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Bester was commissioned to write a story for the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

5,271,009

What Bester delivered was story Bob Dylan might have written in 1965 after reading The Book of Job and The Master and Margarita, before settling down to pen “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “5,271,009” makes you wonder if Jack Kerouac had just taught Bester how to break open benzedrine inhalers or if Bester had been one of the early users of LSD in a 1950s psychological study.

“5,271,009” is not written in ordinary prose. Oh, how I would love to hear this story read by an overly dramatic audiobook narrator. Every would-be professional book reader should use it as their portfolio story to showcase their range of character voices in a variety of wacky situations.

Virtual Unrealities by Alfred BesterUnfortunately, this story is not available to read on the web. However, a 99 cent Kindle edition is available at Amazon. Bizarrely its been retitled as “The Starcomber.” If you don’t want to plunk down 99 cents to read it, you can look at this list of places it’s been anthologized. Maybe you have a collection with it already. For a couple dollars more, you can get the $2.99 Kindle edition of Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester that contains 17 of Bester’s short stories along with an introduction by Robert Silverberg. That’s quite a bargain. I had to spring for this collection too because the single-story edition stopped letting me copy quotes after a slight quota. I thought that rather cheesy since I bet it’s in the public domain because there’s another publisher selling a different 99 cent edition.

I shall quote from it liberally to prove my statements about its prose are not hyperbole.

The story has a roundabout way of getting started. We’re introduced to Solon Aquila in a rather normal pulp fiction style. It is a story that would have fit perfectly in Unknown, a pulp magazine devoted to fantasy in the 1940s. The story isn’t science fiction, but it might be about science fiction.

Take two parts of Beelzebub, two of Israfel, one of Monte Cristo, one of Cyrano, mix violently, season with mystery and you have Mr. Solon Aquila. He is tall, gaunt, sprightly in manner, bitter in expression, and when he laughs his dark eyes turn into wounds. His occupation is unknown. He is wealthy without visible means of support. He is seen everywhere and understood nowhere. There is something odd about his life.

This is what’s odd about Mr. Aquila, and you can make what you will of it. When he walks he is never forced to wait on a traffic signal. When he desires to ride there is always a vacant taxi on hand. When he bustles into his hotel an elevator always happens to be waiting. When he enters a store, a salesclerk is always free to serve him. There always happens to be a table available for Mr. Aquila in restaurants. There are always last-minute ticket returns when he craves entertainment at sold-out shows.

We must assume Mr. Aquila is a metaphysical being, maybe the devil, maybe a minor god, maybe even the big guy himself. We don’t know. Then we hear him speak:

“HmimelHerrGottSeiDank! I’m crazy, man, crazy. Eclectic, by God,” he told a flabbergasted department store president. “The Weltmann type, nicht wahr? My ideal: Goethe. Tout le monde. God damn.”

He spoke a spectacular tongue of mixed metaphors and meanings. Dozens of languages and dialects came out in machine-gun bursts. Apparently he also lied ad libitum.

Sacré bleu. Jeez!” he was heard to say once. “Aquila from the Latin. Means aquiline. O tempora O mores. Speech by Cicero. My ancestor.”

And another time: “My idol: Kipling. Took my name from him. Aquila, one of his heroes. God damn.”

WTF? This is 1954. It’s a science fiction magazine. Where did Bester get his inspiration for Mr. Aquila? He sounds like a speed-freaking Beat poet.

Like I said, the story actually starts slowly compared to its eventual pace. Mr. Aquila visits the art gallery of Jimmy Derelict looking for a particular artist. My theory is Bester was writing this story by the seat of his pants and he thought it was going to be about Aquila.

On the morning that Mr. Solon Aquila was stunned by his first disappointment, he bustled into the atelier of Lagan & Derelict, dealers in paintings, sculpture and rare objects of art. It was his intention to buy a painting. Mr. James Derelict knew Aquila as a client. Aquila had already purchased a Frederic Remington and a Winslow Homer some time ago when, by another odd coincidence, he had bounced into the Madison Avenue shop one minute after the coveted paintings went up for sale. Mr. Derelict had also seen Mr. Aquila boat a prize striper at Montauk.

“Bon soir, bel esprit, God damn, Jimmy,” Mr. Aquila said. He was on first name terms with everyone. “Here’s a cool day for color, oui! Cool. Slang. I have in me to buy a picture.”

“Good morning, Mr. Aquila,” Derelict answered. He had the seamed face of a cardsharp, but his blue eyes were honest and his smile was disarming. However at this moment his smile seemed strained, as though the volatile appearance of Aquila had unnerved him.

“I’m in the mood for your man, by Jeez,” Aquila said, rapidly opening cases, fingering ivories and tasting the porcelains. “What’s his name, my old? Artist like Bosch. Like Heinrich Kley. You handle him, parbleu, exclusive. O si sic omnia, by Zeus!”

“Jeffrey Halsyon?” Derelict asked timidly.

“Oeil de boeuf!” Aquila cried. “What a memory. Chryselephantine. Exactly the artist I want. He is my favorite. A monochrome, preferably. A small Jeffrey Halsyon for Aquila, bitte. Wrap her up.”

We don’t know it yet, but Jeffrey Halsyon is the protagonist of this tale, the man pictured on the cover of the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

It’s interesting that Halsyon is very close to the spelling of halcyon.

There are a number of pages about Halsyon being an insane artist who creates his art by defacing currency, and thus illegal to sell. Aquila insists he must see Halsyon and eventually frees him from confinement. This is where the story really begins.

I am reminded of stories Bob Dylan told about when he wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Supposedly, he wrote it during the Cuban missile crisis, trying to cram all the ideas he had for many songs into one in case WWIII began. Bester seems to cram many story ideas into “5,271,009” in the same way. Some have theorized Bester wanted to explore an array of SF ideas all using the number 5,271,009.

Again, I’m not so sure that Bester wasn’t just writing by the seat of his pants, typing whatever scenes came to mind. He spends too much time in the hospital where Halsyon is imprisoned. Then Mr. Aquila slips Halsyon a mickey:

He filled a shot glass from a decanter, added a tiny cube of purple ice from a fuming bucket, and placed the drink in Halsyon’s hand. Compelled by a gesture from Aquila, the artist drank it off. It made his brain buzz. He stared around, breathing heavily. He was in what appeared to be the luxurious waiting room of a Park Avenue physician. Queen Anne furniture. Axminster rug. Two Hogarths and a Copley on the wall in gilt frames. They were genuine, Halsyon realized with amazement. Then, with even more amazement, he realized that he was thinking with coherence, with continuity. His mind was quite clear.

He passed a heavy hand over his forehead. “What’s happened?” he asked faintly. “There’s like . . . Something like a fever behind me. Nightmares.”

“You have been sick,” Aquila replied. “I am blunt, my old. This is a temporary return to sanity. It is no feat, God damn. Any doctor can do it. Niacin plus carbon dioxide. Id genus omne. Only temporary. We must search for something more permanent.”

“What’s this place?”

Halsyon escapes but then comes to somewhere else. This part reminds me of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and a couple other songs I can’t remember for sure.

The president of the United Nations came to him. He was tall and gaunt, sprightly but bitter. He was wringing his hands in dismay.

“Mr. Halsyon! Mr Halsyon!” he cried. “Where you been, my cupcake? God damn. Hoc tempore. Do you know what has happened?”

“No,” Halsyon answered. “What’s happened?”

“After your escape from the looney bing. Bango! Atom bombs everywhere. The two-hour war. It is over. Hora fugit, old faithful, Virility is over.”

“What!”

“Hard radiation, Mr. Halsyon, has destroyed the virility of the world. God damn. You are the only man left capable of engendering children. No doubt on account of a mysterious mutant strain in your makeup which makes you different. Jeez.”

“No.”

Halsyon is informed that 5,271,009 virgins are clamoring for his attention, and he should pick a number from 1 to 5,000,000 and begin impregnating them.

At first, this is every teenage boy’s wet dream come true. Then Halsyon starts complaining that all the women look alike when the novelty wears off. Like any tricky Genie, Mr. Aquila grants wishes with thorns. Eventually, he is told the women resent him and consider Halsyon their rapist.

Halsyon then meets Judith Field, the old love-of-his-life. He wants to marry just her but continue with his procreation duties of being the new Adam. She wants to kill him. He learns he must escape and Mr. Aquila tries to help, but a mob of women clubs him to death.

I suppose I should worry about providing too many spoilers. You can quit reading any time you want and go read the story. Well, back to the story. The next scenario involves the story that illustrates the cover above with the spaceman chained to a very small asteroid. We’re now realizing Halsyon will not escape from his nightmare so easily. This reminds me of Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey, and Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley.  In all these stories our heroes frantically search for a way back to normal reality.

The scene changes again.

And he drifted alone in space, a martyr, misunderstood, a victim of cruel injustice.

He was still chained to what had once been the wall of Cell 5, Block 27, Tier 100, Wing 9 of the Callisto Penitentiary until that unexpected gamma explosion had torn the vast fortress dungeon—vaster than the Château d’If—apart. That explosion, he realized, had been detonated by the Grssh.

His assets were his convict clothes, a helmet, one cylinder of O2, his grim fury at the injustice that had been done him, and his knowledge of the secret of how the Grssh could be defeated in their maniacal quest for solar domination.

The Grssh, ghastly marauders from Omicron Ceti, space-degenerates, space-imperialists, cold-blooded, roachlike, depending for their food upon the psychotic horrors which they engendered in man through mental control and upon which they fed, were rapidly conquering the galaxy. They were irresistible, for they possessed the power of simul-kinesis—the ability to be in two places at the same time.

Against the vault of space, a dot of light moved slowly, like a stricken meteor. It was a rescue ship, Halsyon realized, combing space for survivors of the explosion. He wondered whether the light of Jupiter, flooding him with rusty radiation, would make him visible to the rescuers. He wondered whether he wanted to be rescued at all.

Bester is making fun of science fiction here. It even reminds me of the beginning of Bester’s own novel, The Stars My Destination. Mr. Aquila shows up in the disguise of a robot. There must be a name for this kind of story since I see it so often. Another variation of it is the 1967 film Bedazzled. Doesn’t this next bit remind you of something Douglas Adams would have written?

When he recovered consciousness he was in a plasti-cot in the cabin of a starship. The high frequency whine told him they were in overdrive. He opened his eyes. Balorsen stood before the plasti-cot, and Balorsen’s robot and High Judge Field, and his daughter Judith. Judith was weeping. The robot was in magnetic plasti-clamps and winced as General Balorsen lashed him again and again with a nuclear plasti-whip.

Parbleu! God damn!” the robot grated. “It is true I framed Jeff Halsyon. Ouch! Flux de bouche. I was the space-pirate who space-hijacked the space-freighter. God damn. Ouch! The space-bartender in the Spaceman’s Saloon was my accomplice. When Jackson wrecked the space-cab I went to the space-garage and X-beamed the sonic before Tantial murdered O’Leary. Aux armes. Jeez. Ouch!”

“There you have the confession, Halsyon,” General Balorsen grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “By God. Ars est celare artem. You are innocent.”

“I falsely condemned you, old faithful,” Judge Field grated. He was tall, gaunt, bitter. “Can you forgive this God damn fool? We apologize.”

Bester goes on to create other scenes to trick Halsyon, but I won’t quote them all. I should leave you to have some fun on your own.

This is where we need to decide if Bester is just jerking us around, or if he has something artistic to say. He’s getting paid by the word so he might be just filling up the pages. It could be every morning he got up and wrote some new way to torment Halsyon. This is a novelette of about forty pages, so it’s a rather long story. Maybe too long.

On the other hand, it might be a meta-fiction bit of philosophy. Not quite profound, but head bending enough to mesmerize science fiction readers and dope smokers.

“Stop reading the book,” he shouted. “Let me out of the pages. Can you hear me? Stop reading the book! I’d rather be in a world of my own making. Let me go!”

There was a mighty clap of thunder, as of the covers of a mighty book slamming shut. In an instant Halsyon was swept spinning into the third compartment of the seventh circle of the Inferno in the Fourteenth Canto of the Divine Comedy where they who have sinned against art are tormented by flakes of fire which are eternally showered down upon them. There he shrieked until he had provided sufficient amusement. Only then was he permitted to devise a text of his own … and he formed a new world, a romantic world, a world of his fondest dreams… .

He was the last man on earth.

He was the last man on earth and he howled.

I truly wish I could hear this story read by an amazing audiobook narrator.

Finally, we get to the kicker, or at least the kicker for me. Is Bester making fun of science fiction or fiction in general? Bester didn’t stick with the genre and left it after his wild successes with two novels and a handful of short stories.

He helped Halsyon to his feet and led him into the consultation room where he seated him in a velvet chaise longue and gave him a glass of brandy.

“Guaranteed free of drugs,” he said. “Noblesse oblige. Only the best spiritus frumenti. Now we discuss what we have done, eh? Jeez.”

He sat down behind the desk, still sprightly, still bitter, and regarded Halsyon with kindliness. “Man lives by his decisions, n’est-ce pas?” he began. “We agree, oui? A man has some five million two hundred seventy-one thousand and nine decisions to make in the course of his life. Peste! Is it a prime number? N’importe. Do you agree?”

Halsyon nodded.

“So, my coffee and doughnuts, it is the maturity of these decisions that decides whether a man is a man or a child. Nicht wahr? Malgré nous. A man cannot start making adult decisions until he has purged himself of the dreams of childhood. God damn. Such fantasies. They must go.”

“No,” Halsyon said slowly. “It’s the dreams that make my art … the dreams and fantasies that I translate into line and color… .”

“God damn! Yes. Agreed. Maître d’hôtel! But adult dreams, not baby dreams. Baby dreams. Pfui! All men have them… . To be the last man on earth and own the earth… . To be the last fertile man on earth and own the women… . To go back in time with the advantage of adult knowledge and win victories… . To escape reality with the dream that life is make-believe… . To escape responsibility with a fantasy of heroic injustice, of martyrdom with a happy ending… . And there are hundreds more, equally popular, equally empty. God bless Father Freud and his merry men. He applies the quietus to such nonsense. Sic semper tyrannis. Avaunt!”

“But if everybody has those dreams, they can’t be bad, can they?”

“God damn. Everybody in fourteenth century had lice. Did that make it good? No, my young, such dreams are for childrens. Too many adults are still childrens. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”

Bester is right. Those are common plots. I’ve used them in my failed attempts to write science fiction.

Is Bester telling science fiction readers to grow up and stop indulging in childish fantasies? I need to track down fanzines of that era and see if anyone fans complained.

At my online group we’re discussing mid-century science fiction short stories, and pretending we’re creating our own retrospective anthology to impress modern young readers. We’re trying to find 20th-century science fiction that resonates with 21st-century minds. At first, I wasn’t going to consider “5,271,009” for my anthology. Now I’m not so sure.

“5,271,009” is not a story that’s been often reprinted. I found it in Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Olander, a collection that was never very successful, out of print, and hard to find. I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s and I’m not sure how many will appeal to young readers new to reading science fiction in 2018. Neither Dikty or Asimov/Greenberg picked “5,271,009” for their best stories of 1954 anthologies.

I’m not sure “5,271,009” will be remembered unless it’s produced as a jazzy audiobook or made into a movie. It would be a perfect Black Mirror kind of story. Alfred Bester should have the same kind of appeal as Philip K. Dick.

JWH

 

Can Hope Replace Fear?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 25, 2018

Once again I’m writing a political essay that few will read. I do this when I’m disturbed about events in the news that I’m powerless to control. We liberals are horrified by what fears over undocumented immigrants are doing to this country. Trump wants to bypass the rule of law, or apply existing laws like a cold war police state. It seems like an extreme right minority will tear the country apart to stop illegal immigration. That’s very scary. It’s even scarier that tens of millions support them. But liberals have fears that scare conservatives, so I think it’s vital we work to understand their fears if we want them to understand ours. What I realized this morning is unless we can empathize with each other’s fears, we will always have a politically polarized society.

We like to think love and hate are the two primary emotions, but I they aren’t. Hope and fear are more primal. Love grows out of hope, and hate grows out of fear. Think of people you love and hate. Love comes from the hopes you have, and hate comes from the fears. Liberals hate Trump because he causes us to fear, but conservatives love Trump because he gives them hope for their fears. What we need right now is politics of hope for everyone.

Conservatives fear illegal immigration in the same way liberals fear climate change. Each perspective destroys hope for the future. All of us want health, liberty, security, happiness, family, friends, and prosperity. Our fears arise when we feel those hopes are in jeopardy. We think Trump is destroying our future, while conservatives believe he’s protecting theirs.

Liberals fear climate change will devastate the planet. Conservatives fear illegal immigration will destroy our social order. What is the practical reality of these fears? Can we ever be united if everyone fears destruction from two different threats that split us into opposing sides? Can we collectively work to give each other hope?

I use the phrase “illegal immigration” for the want of a better term. Liberals prefer the term “undocumented immigrant.” But to a conservative, that probably feels like what liberals feel when we hear phrases of climate change denial. To use the phrase undocumented immigrant is to deny the reality that undocumented immigrants are doing something illegal.

The only way to find hope is to understand each other’s fears. The only way to heal the division is to cooperate in solving each other’s fears. Liberals need to find a rational way to deal with illegal immigration that will sooth conservative fears, and conservatives need to work on environmental security to reduce liberal fears.

For decades conservatives have told liberals they sound like Chicken Little running around screaming “The sky is falling” when discussing climate change. Well, conservatives are now overreacting to illegal immigration in the same way. We need to calm each other down, discuss the realities of each danger, and decide practical solutions we can implement together. Both problems are exceedingly complex, promise slow but huge changes to society, but can be solved if we work at it collectively. But zero tolerance of illegal immigration is like asking American to give up cars to save the Earth. Extreme solutions are too simple-minded to work.

Liberals need to understand the fears of conservatives, and conservatives need to understand the fears of liberals. It does no good to justify our fears by convincing others to fear them too. What we need to do find ways to spread hope. But I’m not sure if that’s possible if we live in panic mode.

We feel stories about immigrants causing excessive crime are unjustified, and there’s plenty of proof to disprove those stories. We believe you use crime hyperbole to justify circumventing laws. We believe conservatives have genuine fears over illegal immigration that come from three actual threats to your way of life. First, you don’t want to pay more taxes to support immigrants. Two, naturalized citizens tend to vote liberal, so it’s a threat to the Republican party. And three, you want to maintain a white America.

These are hard issues to address. Hard cold mathematics tell us our society is diversifying racially. This is your big fear: “The Next America” – a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. Here’s the graph that probably scares you most:

Changes in race in America from 1960 to 2060 - Pew Research Center

Zero tolerance for illegal immigration will not change those trends. Those numbers may be conservative if they don’t take into account climate change and economic collapse. If we don’t slow climate change migration numbers will explode. It’s like the physics of gases. If you have two containers, one with low pressure and one with high pressure and you allow a path between, the pressures in the two tanks will equalize. As long as there are good and bad places on this planet, populations will migrate. No wall you build will ever be high enough to stop it. Just remember, if you lived in a bad place, you’d head for a good one too. One solution is to rebuild collapsing countries.

If the Republican party wasn’t so exclusive and strived to serve the entire population they wouldn’t have to fear diversity. By becoming the party of the white holdouts, the Republicans are forced to find solutions that only serve a minority of voters. We need both political parties to offer hope to all citizens.

Finally, illegal immigrants do raise taxes, but to remove them would be even more expensive. And they contribute a giant chunk of change to the economy. We actually benefit economically from both legal and illegal immigration.

But this probably doesn’t alleviate your fears. If you could only let go of your hangups over skin-color your fears could be reduced. Maybe reading “Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War” might help.

Conservatives need to accept that diversity is already here. Liberals will have to accept that immigration must have limits. Liberals need to accept that capitalism drives the economy. Conservatives must accept that the cost of preserving the environment is essential to healthy capitalism. Conservatives must accept that immigrants are key to future growth. Liberals must accept that too many immigrants can destabilize the economy.

Fear destroys our morals and ethics. Fear makes us do things we wouldn’t do if we were hopeful.

Climate change is going to drastically alter all societies on this planet. Mass movements of people around the world are going to alter all those societies too. In fact, there are many trends that are changing every society on Earth going on simultaneously right now. We can’t stop them. But to keep our hopes we must learn to adapt and control them.

When reading or watching the news, pay attention to its emotional impact. Does the story offer hope or fear? All too often stories provide an extreme example. Not only do we need to become savvy over the fake news, but wary of sensational news. If a story scares you, research it on Google. The more you know the less you’ll fear.

JWH

Prioritizing My Ambitions

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Being 66 and retired gives me a lot of free time, yet at the end of every day, I always wish I had more. My lifelong, no-so-secret ambition has been to write a book. I’ve had plenty of ideas, and I could have found the time, even during my nine-to-five years. Yet, I haven’t. Why? Because I fritter away my goddamn time. I have a personality that loves to do what I want when I want. Some people call that laziness, but it’s essentially poor time management. Somehow I need to learn how to prioritize my time to succeed.

Most people must achieve their ambitions before forty. Most big ambitions required the peak performance of youth. Generally, writers must also succeed in bloom, but there are a few outliers that give me hope. Writing is one endeavor where late bloomers have an outside chance. So, if I don’t want to go to my grave still fantasizing about the books I want to write, I need to conquer time management.

All that’s required is focusing, working diligently, and ignoring all the distractions. Of course, that’s easier declared than lived. I’ve mind mapped how I spend my time. What I need to, is Marie Kondo its branches.

Time Mind Map

I write best in the mornings, but to maintain my health I must exercise. My self-control wanes quickly during the day, so if I don’t do my exercises in the morning, there’s little chance I’ll do them at all. In fact, I’m skipping my morning bike ride to write this. That bike ride gives me vitality, something in short supply. And if I don’t do my physical therapy and Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, my back will go out. Maybe one reason people don’t succeed after forty is that we have to spend too much time on body maintenance.

I need to completely get over this ingrained habit. I need to write in the mornings and exercise later in the day. I doubt I have the mental and physical energy to write more than four hours a day, maybe only two, even if I give it my best hours. Somehow I need to make those writing hours the #1 activity in my day. After that, I have to make exercise #2.

I have a friend whose life-long ambition is to live abroad. She’s finally getting to do that because she’s getting rid of everything she owns here. Part of my time management problem is possession management. According to minimalists, owning less is more freeing. That’s true, For example, I’ve been spending a lot of time and mental energy researching buying a new television and computer, or what books and magazines to collect. I need to stop that. It would also help to get rid of all the stuff I must spend time maintaining.

If you study that mind map, you’ll notice I consume a great deal of fiction. Generally, I rationalize television and reading by claiming I only do it when I’m too tired to do anything else. I need to make sure that’s true.

Looking closer, I also realize I spend a great deal of time socializing. I’m not sure I can give friends up, but I need to make being with them more efficient. People are just as essential as food, but some of my social activities are junk food.

Many of the activities listed above are mostly ambitions I just piddle around with at best. Maybe it’s time I give up thinking I’m a programmer. I spent my work years programming, and I think of myself as a programmer, but I really don’t program anymore. I want to. If I gave up writing I’d want to program. But I can’t have two ambitions. There’s not enough time.

If I’m really serious about writing a book then I need to prune the crap out of that mind map above. Meditating on it is very revealing. I should print it out and study it first thing every morning when I wake up. I should reread this essay every morning to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned writing it.

I find it most rewarding on waking up if I make two goals for the day. It used to be five, then three, and now two. They can’t be too big either. And sometimes I have to waste one on things like grocery shopping or seeing a movie.

If my mind map was smaller, with fewer branches, it would be easier to be ambitious with my limited resources. It’s going to be painful to give up so many possessions and activities. But if I really want to succeed with my goal, I can see from studying the mind map, that’s the price.

Afterward:

The two goals that came to mind this morning, were to write a new blog, and finish a scanning project and submit it to Internet Archive. This accomplishes one of them. I think of blogging as writing. I’ve always said blogging was piano practice for writers. Yet, I see it’s not working on a book. I’ve got to start blogging outside my morning writing hours. Blogging is essential to my my mental agility. It has to be #3 after morning writing and exercise. But I positively have to stop blogging in the morning.

If I can’t make writing in the morning my #1 activity every day, I should Marie Kondo my ambition to write a book. To be honest, I must prune my ambitions too.

Maybe I’m really doing what I want, and the desire to write is what I should give up.

Not yet.

JWH

 

 

Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.

JWH

The Resurrection of Lady Dorthy Mills

by James Wallace Harris

[I’m reprinting some of my Book Riot essays to archive here on my blog.]

lady_dorothy_portrait-651x1024Her name was Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole Mills. Born in London, 1889, died in Brighton, 1959. Lady Dorothy Mills published nine novels, five travel books, and one memoir, achieving moderate fame in the 1920s and early 1930s as a British aristocratic woman who traveled alone to Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Her books are decades out-of-print, and she is almost completely forgotten. Lady Dorothy Mills should be resurrected, but copyright law has buried her.

Watching Downton Abbey illustrates Lady Dorothy’s upbringing. She was Lady Mary’s age. Her father was Robert Horace Walpole, the 5thand final Earl of Orford. Like the fictional Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, Lord Walpole married a rich American woman, Louise Melissa Corbin, and only had surviving daughters. He even had to leave his estate to a male relative. Lady Dorothy married Capt. Arthur Mills in 1916, against the family’s wishes, and was cut off from their wealth. Lord Walpole was not as forgiving of a wayward daughter as Lord Grantham.

For those who want more details about her aristocratic life, read “Lady Dorothy… writer, traveler – and free spirit” by Jane Dismore. This is the most comprehensive overview of Mill’s life I’ve found in twenty-four years.

Choosing love over inheritance meant learning to live without servants and being poor. Arthur and Dorothy took up writing to survive. At first Lady Dorothy wrote novels about her society set encountering the seamier side of London. Then she wrote The Road to Timbuktu, a nonfiction book promoting herself as a brave Lady going to places that no white woman had gone before. That got her fame. Of course, western women have been marching across Africa for years. Read Great Women Travel Writers: From 1750 to the Present by Alba Amoia and Bettina Knapp.

As a couple, Dorothy and Arthur were popular with newspaper writers, but Mills’s novels never received much respect from reviewers as her travel books. She was dismissed as a writer for shop girls. Men told her she was reckless for going places women shouldn’t. But Lady Dorothy inspired young women in the 1920s, who also dreamed of adventure, romance, and faraway places. Mills gain notoriety just after women got the vote in England and America, and Lady Dorothy did things that few men did, and many men dreamed of doing.

Her novels were exciting too, writing about safaris, jungle Shangri-las, hunting, opium dens, love affairs with Asians and Africans, living among indigenous people while claiming she had the freedom to go anywhere she damned pleased. A few of her novels used science fiction and fantasy concepts. Lady Dorothy was brave in action and thought.

After 1932. Mills went silent, eventually retiring to a quiet seaside village in England, dying alone in 1959. The mystery of why she stopped writing has always haunted me. Her books disappeared from bookstores decades ago. Few copies of her work are on sale at rare book dealers. Copyright law keeps them from being rescued by the public domain. Three of her earliest novels may be in the public domain, but it is very difficult to tell.

Lady-Dorothy-Mills-from-Library-of-CongressToday, Lady Dorothy is barely remembered, mostly in esoteric history books. She receives just a few sentences or paragraphs in each. History writers use her fiction and nonfiction to document social changes between the wars. Mills lived on the edge, during a decade on the edge. Lady Dorothy sported men’s attire long before Garbo and Dietrich wore it in 1930s movies, not because of style, but because she was competing with the other creatures who wore coats and ties.

In 1926, Lady Dorothy published Phoenix, a science fiction novel about an elderly woman medically rejuvenated to look twenty. Seventy years later, Bruce Sterling had the same idea for his novel, Holy FireIs Phoenix missing from the SF Mistressworks list because it’s a bad book, or because few readers after 1930 got a chance to read it? When does copyright hurt an author?

Since 1992, I’ve been collecting Lady Dorothy’s books, writing about her, and maintaining a website. Every year or two I used to get an email from rare souls who have stumbled across her name. In the last few years, it’s been damn quiet. If her work had been on Project Gutenberg would things be different? Would she have more readers?

There’s a scene at the end of Truffaut’s beautiful film, Fahrenheit 451, where the book people walk through woods memorizing the volume they intend to become. That’s how I think about Lady Dorothy Mills. My dedication is to remember her. I’ve been able to collect twelve of her fifteen books. One, Arms of the Sun, has been for sale for years, but I can’t afford it. That hurts. I’ve even wondered if my writing about Lady Dorothy Mills has driven up their price.

I keep hoping her heirs would put out a collected ebook edition of her work, with distinctive covers using old photographs. At a minimum, I wish the copyright laws were different so fans could scan her books for the public domain.

I’ve long wondered why Lady Dorothy Mills never had her books reprinted. Did inheriting her wealth require giving up writing? Was she an embarrassment to her aristocratic family? Did dismissals in the press turn her against public life? Could she have written just for money? It seems telling when her father died, and she inherited, Lady Dorothy stopped writing? She did continue to travel, but not write.

After traveling far more roads than Jack Kerouac, and exploring more jungles, deserts, and mountains than most male adventure novelists, maybe Lady Dorothy tired of fame. She had passed forty. Why did she choose to disappear, forget writing, and let her books be forgotten? I can’t stop asking that.

Her family had treated her badly. So did her husband. And some book reviewers. Although, I’ve been told by a modern scholar comparing her travel book on Liberia to university-sponsored expeditions during the same years, that she did very well. Lady Dorothy traveled to distant lands, it seems to me, to get away from her 1920s society. Her books show hard-won knowledge and revelation. I can’t understand why she didn’t push to keep them in print. Many of her books received multiple printings and editions before 1932.

In A Different Drummer (1930) she describes the state of mind she found when she was far away from civilization:

“However healthy a love one may have of civilization and all its fleshpots, the best thrill of the year is when one leaves them all behind, and sets off for the unknown with a lot of lumpy luggage that contains hardly any clothes at all. It is good to feel that one has left one’s little niche in the everyday world, where each one of us is assessed and tabulated to a nicety; to slough off one’s everyday accepted self, and to lose oneself in the anonymity of a strange country and people, among whom one has to make good solely by the leverage of one’s personality and will to win. The thrill increases till the last vestige of civilization is gone and one is at grips with the unknown, when it comes down to earth, and settles into a hard absorbing fight with primitive conditions; with the problems of health and climate and transport, with the daily struggle for food, water and transport, and the groping after understanding of the strange and sometimes antagonistic people one is among. All the complexities of life disappear, and one is reduced to the state, mental and physical, of a healthy animal. As long as one’s ” tummy ” is reasonably full, and there is a prospect of somewhere safe and dry to sleep, one is perfectly, almost stupidly happy. The creature comforts of life no longer matter. For the first few days one misses one’s bath most terribly, but in a short time, I am ashamed to say, one doesn’t mind if one never had a bath again! Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but in the wilds it comes a long way after food and sleep, or even a good camel.”

Mills laughs about the crazy stories newspapers wanted her to write. One paper offered her a big check to explain why she traveled without her husband. Was fame too much bullshit?

There are other people like me who work to rescue forgotten writers. I met Harry Williams online because he maintains a website for George Mills, Lady Dorothy Mills’s brother-in-law. It’s a fascinating hobby that I recommend, but don’t expect to discover another Pride and PrejudicePhoenix appeals to me like Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It uses science fiction to make a feminist statement. Could Lady Dorothy Mills ever be resurrected like Gilman? I don’t know.

Libraries used to be heaven for books. Yet, today many books I buy used in hardback are library discards. Phoenix shows up in just four libraries at WorldCat, three in England and one in America. It took me ten years to track down my copy. I haven’t seen another for sale since 2002.

Society needs to consider changing the copyright laws. I can understand why copyright holders want to keep extending the time they can make money, but copyright laws make no sense for books that haven’t sold a single copy for decades. The law should be amended to say that any book that hasn’t been for sale for 25 years is now in the public domain, and all periodicals older than 10 years are in the public domain if they are reproduced whole.

Such changes in the law would allow fans of forgotten books to scan them and put them in Project Gutenberg. Second, periodicals in the public domain will help researchers explore the past. It would also help when authors donate their papers to put them in the public domain. Modern libraries aren’t the research centers they used to be. The Internet is now the World Library.

Lady Dorothy Mills had modest fame over eight decades ago. If her books were in the public domain, few would read them. But for those who do, and for those of us who want to encourage other people to read them, changing the copyright laws could open up the past to human and AI researchers. Copyright law protects books when they are being sold, but hurts when readers no longer buy.

How Important is Screen Size to Television Watching?

by James Wallace Harris, Mondy, June 11, 2018

Some people love watching movies on their smartphone even though those film premiered on IMAX screens using Dolby Atmos speakers. Evidently, the essential quality of a film is in the storytelling. Television viewers used to watch widescreen Technicolor movies on nineteen inch black and white sets and still enjoyed them immensely.

So why should I worry about upgrading my TV to a larger screen and better sound?

Last night I watched a 1957 western, Night Passage, on a 56″ DLP television via a local over-the-air station called Grit TV. I had recorded it with my TiVo and it cut off the last few seconds. Luckily, I had a DVD copy to watch the ending. When I played the disc I was startled to discover this old western was in 2.35:1 widescreen and the color levels were completely different. When watching the over-the-air version, it didn’t feel like the aspect ratio of 4:3 of old TV pan and scan, because the frame was more rectangular. It had been cropped to be slightly widescreen in appearance.

Below is my way of faking what I’m talking about. I wish I could provide real screenshots, but this is close. I just cropped a widescreen scene with Brandon De Wilde and Jimmy Stewart to 400 x 300 pixels and converted it to black and white to imagine what 1950s TV might have been like (it would have been fuzzier). The second is a photo I found that feels more like the Grit TV version. I assume the third photo is the right aspect ratio.

Night-Passage-fake-4to3

Night Passage cropped

Night Passage widescreen

The thing is, I enjoyed the heck out of seeing this movie again. I especially enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The first time I watched this film was on a black and white television set — and I love it then too. I always remember it as a black and white movie even though it’s in color because of first seeing it on a black and white TV set. But when I looked at the DVD version, I felt like I had missed a significant portion of the film. The DVD widescreen view showed far more scenery, was much sharper and probably the color palette more accurate.

What artistic qualities do we miss from movies and television when we only focus on the storytelling? We could just read books instead if all we wanted was a story.

Would I have enjoyed the film more if I had watched the DVD from the beginning? I have dozens of my favorite westerns on DVD and Blu-ray, but quite often I watch them off of Grit TV. It’s just convenient.

I’ve been contemplating giving up the physical technology of CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray discs. 99% of the time I stream music or television. It would simplify my life if I got rid of all my discs.

I love the idea of minimalism, but what am I sacrificing by rejecting the higher resolution discs of my favorite movies, TV shows, and albums? For the most part, streaming music via Spotify isn’t that different from listening to CDs unless I’m concentrating. Streaming movies with Netflix and Amazon are almost as good as Blu-ray if I’m not concentrating.

Watching the DVD on my 56″ TV is probably as close as I can currently get to having seen Night Passage in the theater in 1957. That would be even truer if I had a larger television set. I assume the more I can recreate the cinematographer’s original vision, the more I can experience the original story to its fullest. But what are those extra dimensions beyond storytelling?

Visual and aural realism.

I was looking at TVs at Best Buy today, thinking I’d upgrade to a 65″ television. But my eyes loved the 75″ screens more, and I was blown away by an 83″ model. The bigger the screen, the more I felt like I was seeing reality. That’s also the difference between books and movies. Before movies, writers spent more words describing what readers would see. Such descriptions added realistic details. The better the author was at describing the world in details, the more readers felt like they were reading something based on truth.

Movies give verisimilitude to storytelling. The widescreen version of Night Passage made me feel Jimmy Stewart was actually in all those natural settings and not on a soundstage. When movies were black and white and had an unrealistic square aspect ratio, they were mostly filmed on sets and backlots. Those old films had a tinsel town feel. When we got Technicolor and widescreen, moviemakers went on locations around the world to give us more realism.

Would I experience art as more true-to-life if I built a home theater with a projector TV with a screen in the 100-120″ range? Probably. Is it needed? No. If I was watching a 4K nature documentary I’d certainly feel like I was there more than when watching a smaller set. It’s like when I play CDs and SACDs, I only hear the extra sound texture if I’m concentrating diligently.

It was when I watch a turtle swimming underwater on the largest sets a Best Buy that I noticed the details of the sand and plants it swam over. I then felt like I was there scuba diving. If I watched The Sweet Smell of Success, another 1957 film, I’d feel what it was like sitting in a glamorous smoky bar in New York City with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

If we watched Downton Abbey at an IMAX theater, the realism of the sets and costumes would be stunning compared to TV watching. Of course, when I tell my wife I want to get a giant screen television she thinks I’m crazy. Why spend so much more money when we already love our twelve-year-old 56″ television? Well, Susan isn’t a good judge of TV technology. She watches television while playing games on her laptop or using Facebook on her iPhone. She needs much less from a story to enjoy it.

The older I get the more I withdraw into my home. Our television set is the way we view the world and visual arts. Is it worth upgrading to 4K? If Night Passage was available on Blu-ray or 4K discs, should I buy them for that extra realism?

Should I give up over-the-air TV? MeTV shows old Perry Mason episodes cropped for modern widescreen TVs without any distortion. Perry never looked better. I tried to find a streaming version of Night Passage to compare, but it’s not available that way. Handmaid’s Tale is stunning to look at on a 56″ TV at 1080p, but what would it look like on a 75″ 4K set, or even projected to 120 inches?

Is wanting a humongous screen just crazy? I could give up all my high-resolution discs, and only live with convenient streaming on a modest 65″ television, but what would I be missing? I suppose someday streaming music and movies will have the same quality as discs and wall-size televisions will be affordable by all and we won’t have to worry about making such decisions.

JWH

 

 

 

When I Can’t Edit My Brain Farts

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I’ve never been good at grammar or spelling, especially in early drafts. So when I say I’m experiencing new glitches in my writing, I don’t mean the common mistakes I’ve made all my life. I’d be quite embarrassed if folks read the first drafts of this blog. I rewrite many times before I click Publish, constantly repairing and tweaking words and structure. And even then, I still spot mistakes and wince.

However, in the last few months, I’ve been noticing holes in my sentences where I’ve left out words or tangled them up. They’re a new kind of textual brain farts. For several years I’ve struggled with verbal brain farts, failing to remember names and nouns when talking to my friends. I don’t believe what I’m experiencing is early signs of dementia, but thought glitches caused by slow neuron access times. All my friends my age have similar hiccups with their comm skills. I assume these new mistakes are just more of the same, all part of a slow decline in brain cell efficiency due to normal aging.

Pug

The great thing about writing over talking is I have plenty of time to shape what I say. Writing is like make-up, I can make myself look much better than I really am. What troubles me is when I send an email, or post a comment on a website, and then see a blooper I can’t reshoot. That hurts. Especially when they aren’t grammar/spelling mistakes, but garbled sentences that sound like Yogi Berra imitating Donald Duck.

For me, it’s much more embarrassing when people see snaggled-tooth thoughts than to make a “their, they’re, there” mistake. Blogging is exercising to think clearly. Revising my paragraphs sculpts my thoughts. So reading something I wrote that’s wonky makes me feel I’m losing it. Of course, other people might skip right past my potholes without making judgments. But I’m horrified when I’m reading along and bounce jarringly over a big one.

It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to see aging will bring additional quirks in my quarks, and at some point, I’ll stop making sense. But here’s the Catch-22. If I stop writing my mind will only get worse sooner. Writing is the cure for poor thinking or thinking poorly, even when the brain is turning to mush. I can’t give up.

I’m going to be in real trouble when I stop seeing mistakes. I hate when I can’t edit my brain farts now, but the real horror movie begins when I stop discovering those mistakes.

JWH