As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.

Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.

robinson-crusoe-on-mars

The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist.  Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.

Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?

The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.

f&sf-sept-1958

I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?

I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.

The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.

mars rover

I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?

Or do you still want to go?

JWH

Running Away to Mars

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 8, 2017

While reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a handbook for processing memories, it triggered several vivid revelations about my childhood. Especially the time when I ran away to Mars in 1963. That flashback revealed why I first dropped science fiction. I wanted an antidepressant. Science fiction has proven quite effective at masking reality, because I can’t even remember being depressed. How PKDickian!

Two Mars

A lifetime of contemplating the future has been an excellent mantra for ignoring the present. I am rather disappointed that running away never got me anywhere. I’ve been to Mars many times, but never to the one that exists in reality.

Today I’m plotting my own alternate history timeline. What if I had not run away to Mars back in 1963 and stayed on Earth instead? Wow, that’s more mind-twisting than The Man in the High Castle.

Maybe it wasn’t the Mary Karr book that jarred these insights. Could it have been the election? Have we all run away to imagined worlds? Reality seems so deserted these days.

JWH

The Calculus of Collecting Science Fiction Short Stories

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, October 2, 2016

My calculations all began when I wrote about the science fiction of 1966. Starting with ISFDB.org, and hyperlinking over to the World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967, (the 1967 volume covers stories from 1966), I researched each story on the internet. Reading about those stories made me want to read (or reread) the actual stories. So I checked ABEBooks.com for a copy World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. The cheapest edition was a paperback for $6.50, or $10 for a hardback without dust jacket (prices include shipping). Too much for me, considering their condition.

World's Best Science Fiction 1967

Here is the table of contents for World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967:

  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick
  • “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
  • “The Keys to December” by Roger Zelazny
  • “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty
  • “Bircher” by A. A. Walde
  • “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock
  • “Bumberboom” by Avram Davidson
  • “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl
  • “The Wings of a Bat” by Pauline Ashwell
  • “The Man from When” by Dannie Plachta
  • “Amen and Out” by Brian W. Aldiss
  • “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny

I remember owning this paperback back in the sixties as a teen, and I probably read it then. Only four of the stories have stuck in my memory though. Writing about 1966 made me want to seek a deeper understanding of that year. Yesterday, I read “The Keys of December” by Roger Zelazny. I was both impressed and moved. It’s a story about the ethics of geo-engineering a planet with emerging life. I don’t remember thinking about such topics when I was young, but I do now. I guess I wasn’t ready. I also loved how Zelazny told his story. It resonated with the genes that make me love science fiction.

Reading “The Keys of December” made me want to read more from World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. What’s driving my current interest in science fiction is akin to being a science fiction archaeologist. Every story is a clue to how we thought in 1966. Instead of reading science fiction to imagine the future, I’m reading science fiction to understand my past, and why we all grew up wanting and fearing the futures we do. Finding each story is like digging up another artifact. On some days I think having copies of all the science fiction magazines is the way to do my research. That’s possible with digitized pulps on the net. On other days, I think just collecting the annual best-of-the-year anthologies is all I need. Then I wonder if buying a couple dozen retrospective anthologies would provide all the historical evidence I should read.

Then it occurred to me to ask how many of these stories I already own. I found “The Keys of December,” “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” “Day Million,” and “Nine Hundred Grandmothers.” Four out of twelve is not bad.

That made me wonder about the mathematics of collecting short stories. How many anthologies would I need to buy to get all the stories I wanted to read from World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967? Would collecting retrospective anthologies be a better purchase than collecting annual anthologies – if my goal is to acquire all the very best science fiction short stories ever written? I’ve generally read novels. Now I’m thinking about the classics of short science fiction.

How many major annual anthologies have there been? If you start counting with The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 1 (1939), edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, and assumed just one anthology a year, the minimum collection would be 77 volumes.  (There are many years with several annual anthologies, especially 2016.) Let’s guestimate the average annual anthology has 15 stories, that would mean 1,155 stories. If I could find large retrospective anthologies with more than 25 stories per volume, I could cut down 77 to 46. The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and And VanderMeer had over a hundred stories, two of which were from World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967. (“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” and “Day Million.”) I need just a dozen books that size.

So I went shopping on ABEbooks.com. I got “Light of Other Days,” and additional copies of “The Keys to December” and “Day Million” by ordering The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg ($4.20). The best way to get “Behold the Man” was by buying The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume III, edited by Arthur C. Clarke and George W. Proctor ($8.99). That got me three stories I mentioned in my essay from 1966 that wasn’t in the Wollheim/Carr annual. The cheapest way I found “For a Breath I Tarry” was by buying Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology, edited by Eric S. Rabkin ($3.48).

For $16.67 I got all the stories I wanted, plus several other great 1966 stories, and a huge number of SF stories from over the last two hundred years. Compared to spending $10 for the World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967 in hardback, $16.67 was a great bargain. I decided I didn’t need “Bircher,” “Bumberboom,” “The Wings of a Bat,” “Amen and Out,” and “The Man from When.” They aren’t often reprinted, and I’ve never heard of any of them since. Which suggests that not all stories in the annual collections are worth remembering. How many great shorter works are produced each year in science fiction? If we say 10, then that’s 900 stories since 1926. That’s not an impossibly large number to consume. Reading three a day, would let me finish in a year. Such a pursuit would be a fascinating education in science fiction evolution and history.

Fantastic - Sept - 1966

I’ve always believed the heart of science fiction is the short stories that appear in the science fiction magazines. That’s ninety years of stories. Theoretically, it would be possible to collect (especially with pulp scans on the internet) all those issues of Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories, Planet Stories, Unknown, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Analog, Fantastic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and even read a good fraction. But that would also be more reading than I have time left in my life.

Then I wondered, would it be possible to collect all the annual anthologies and read them. Would reading the yearly best of the best be worth my time? The 77 volumes since 1939 is not a huge number of books. I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of old science fiction, but I could finish that pile of 77 books in a decade.

The Big Book of Science Fiction

Then I wondered about the mathematics of retrospective anthologies. I already own The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. It has over one hundred stories. I could read it in a year. What if I read one large anthology a year that collects the best science fiction short stories ever written, how many years would it take before I felt I had read the greatest short works of the genre?

I’ve already read countless SF stories in my life, yet I don’t remember most of them. That’s because I consumed science fiction, like eating M&Ms. What if I studied science fiction like I used to study American and English literature in college? Could I create a taxonomy of science fictional themes? I’ve been reading science fiction long enough to see it evolve. For most readers, science fiction is merely entertainment. Exciting stories well told. But I’m starting to see that the science fiction writer has a unique job in society.

Their task is to speculate about possibilities that science has yet to thoroughly explore. Most of the time science squashes these speculations, but not always. Over the centuries many writers speculated about building flying machines. We don’t think airplanes are science fiction anymore because aircraft are mundane now. At one time, speculation about flying machines was science fiction. I wonder how many science fiction stories written fifty years ago have either been shot down by science, engineered into reality, or still a realistic speculation? I also wonder how many science fictional ideas we still want to come true? We’ve been wanting colonies on Mars for a very long time now. Ditto for intelligent robots. Will that change once we’ve been to Mars or lived with AI? What will science fiction writers write about once we’ve settled the galaxy?

That’s why I wonder about numbers. How many science fiction stories have been written? How many unique themes have been developed. How many variations on each theme have emerged? How long does an idea take to die once science has covered it’s territory?

F&SF November 1963

Think about the story “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, first published in F&SF (Nov. 1963). It was one of the last great stories about life on Mars. On July 15, 1965, Mariner IV flew by Mars, and 21 grainy pictures of the red planet forever killed any hope of finding Barsoom. I remembered when that happened. I was so disappointed. Mars looked like the Moon. Yet, we still want to read stories about Mars like we imagined it before Mariner IV. People haven’t stopped reading The Martian Chronicles. Writers and publishers still put out books like Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Science fiction isn’t only about speculation, it’s also about the dreams we want to dream. When does science fiction become fantasy?

mars_m04_11e

I wonder if I studied 19th century science fiction thoroughly, and understood the hopes and fears of 19th century people had for the 20th century, would I better understand our hopes and fears for the 22nd century?

How many people will go to Mars if Elon Musk builds the rockets to take them to the red planet? Where did Elon Musk get his desire to go to Mars. Will there actually be a hundred people willing to go, even if they think they might die, or never return to Earth? It’s one thing to read science fiction, its another thing to actually live it. Is reading hundreds of old science fiction stories a way to understand why?

JWH

Are We Going To Mars Because of Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 24, 2015

The new movie, The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name, is generating tremendous buzz, for the movie, for science fiction fans who love books that inspire space travel, and for NASA types who feel Mars is the place to go next. Last year I wrote a review of the novel, “When I Was Martian” where I gushed about the book but wondered if I really wanted to go to Mars. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought Mars must be a wonderful place from all the science fiction I read. However, over the decades, all those robotic missions have convinced me Mars is only a suitable destination for robots and geologists.

The-Martian-Matt-Damon-Hamilton-Watch-5

Millions of people still want to go to Mars, and NASA recently released gargantuan plans to visit Mars by 2039. On the other hand, yesterday I read three essays questioning our desire to go to Mars. The first, by Ed Regis in the New York Times, “Let’s Not Move to Mars” is probably the most critical. Regis wonders why anyone would be willing to live in a capsule with the living space of a SUV for seven to nine months, only to get to a destination with little atmosphere, the scenery all rocks, and far colder than any place on Earth.

Over at The Guardian, Chris Chambers writes about the psychological impact of travel to Mars. He makes going to prison an appealing alternative to traveling to Mars. And this blogger compares colonizing Mars to going to Hell. I’m not sure how many people have The Right Stuff to get to Mars—to actually enjoy the experience. I doubts its many.

I have to wonder if most people who dream of going to Mars do so because of science fiction. I’ll admit I wanted to go to Mars because I pictured Mars like the novels of Robert A. Heinlein (Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Podkayne of Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land). I’ve known guys older than myself who dreamed of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But is even the Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova any less romantic? Compared to reports sent back by NASA robots, can any work of fiction convey the true brutality of living on the Red planet without being escapist?

Mars can get as cold as -225F, and the surface air is as thin as being four times the height of Mt. Everest here on Earth. Why would anyone want to live there—or even visit? My best guess is science fiction. How can stories make us so irrational? Fiction is appealing. Fiction is an alternative to reality. If we analyze ourselves, does reading reveal a desire for adventure and travel? Or does reading reveal we’re bored with our lives and just want to go somewhere different? Or even want to be different people? Kids used to want to be astronauts when they were famous and legendary, but now all the people who fly up into space are mostly nameless. If I was young I might still want to go to Mars, even knowing what I know now. It’s appeal is that strong. Why?

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, The Martian is creating a lot of excitement, both for the movie and the desire see manned missions actually go to the Red planet. Since the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomy has been going through a renaissance larger than what it went through in the time of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo. I think space exploration gives some people a sense that existence has great meaning. Does that sense of purpose come from a love of science, or science fiction?

Aurora KSM

Yet, even science fiction is becoming more realistic about the possibilities of space travel. In his new book Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson questions the wisdom of leaving Earth. If science fiction is guilty of overselling space travel should it now be responsible for removing the false romanticism its given the final frontier? How many people would remove their names from the Mars One mission if they read Aurora?

I still think it’s possible that some humans will want to colonize the Moon and Mars. Whether they are thrill seekers or final frontier missionaries is another issue. To live on the Moon or Mars will require living mostly underground, in highly controlled environments that are always one technological failure from extinction. All the science fiction stories we now read about cities on the Moon and Mars are 99.99% unrealistic fantasies. Too much of science fiction is about transferring Earth living to space life, and it won’t be like that. Should science fiction be held responsible for false advertising?

I must admit, even my hopes for the realistic possibilities of space travel are still driven by the science fiction I read. My guess is anyone who hasn’t been enchanted by the genre would see that space is only suited for robots. 

JWH

Would You Go To Mars?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 6, 2014

Have you ever wanted to go to Mars?  Probably not, but if you have, have you ever wondered why? What’s the appeal of leaving Earth and traveling to another planet? Over 200,000 people signed up for Mars One, which hopes to start sending four people to Mars every two years starting in 2024, in one way missions. NASA is talking about manned missions to Mars in the 2030s. China also has its sights on Mars.

Why do so many people want to go to Mars?  At National Geographic I found this short film, which interviews five people that are volunteering for the Mars One mission, even though it means not coming back.

Are these five people just unhappy with their life on Earth, and hope to find something new on Mars?  I think that’s how I was in my teens, back in the 1960s, when I used to dream of going to Mars. I read a lot of science fiction, and I guess I was seduced by the romance of adventure and excitement. The trouble is my personality type isn’t suited for adventure and excitement. I recently wrote “When I Was A Martian” about growing up thinking like these people in the film.

I can’t imagine Mars One succeeding before NASA or China, but I guess it’s possible. If there were ten times as many volunteers for Mars One, two million people wanting to go, all willing to donate one hundred dollars a month to the cause, that would generate enough private money to fund such an ongoing space mission. But would the lucky four who got to go to Mars be just average people like in the film, or would Mars One pick the right stuff astronauts like NASA? What if Mars One astronauts were chosen by lottery? What if ordinary people could go to Mars – would you go? When I was a kid, I would have said yes. For most of my life now I would have said no.

Orion_with_ATV_SM

NASA’s new space transport, the Orion, is designed for trips to the IIS, the Moon, asteroids and Mars, but somehow I can’t believe it’s big enough for trips further than the Moon. It only has 316 cubic feet of living space. A 10x10x8 foot room has 800 cubic feet, so can you imagine living over year with three other people in the space of a small bedroom? I can understand a spacecraft that size for a three day journey to the Moon, but not an 8 month journey to Mars, or similar length to an asteroid. Of course, it will be combined with other modules for longer trips, but I can’t imagine them being huge and roomy.

Orion_docked_to_Mars_Transfer_Vehicle

Russians and Americans have lived in space for over a year on space stations, but they have a good bit more room and variety of habitat modules. That makes me wonder, just how big does a mission to Mars spacecraft have to be to make it psychologically comfortable? What would be the most limited accommodations you could handle for a mission that could last 400-450 days.

Men and woman have sailed non-stop solo around the world in trips that were almost a year, living in cabins that about about the size of the Orion spacecraft. But only certain kinds of people have that kind of mental make-up for such solitary sailing. Which would you prefer, being a solo astronaut, or be crammed in a can with three other people for an eight month voyage to Mars? If I went with other people I’d need my own private living space, but then I doubt I have the right stuff.

I’m 63, so a one way trip to Mars doesn’t scare me.  Sounds like a better way to die than getting cancer or Alzheimer’s. But the Mars One volunteers who are interviewed in the film are young people who have every reason to stay on Earth. I wonder if they would really go if they got the opportunity.

There’s a kind of Ponzi scheme to Mars One.  They hope to send four people every two years, but after ten years they’d have twenty people on Mars. How many supply rockets will it take to keep those people alive? At what point could the colonists become self-sufficient? How many supply rockets will it take to build a self-sufficient infrastructure? When people aren’t selected to go, will they lose interest, stop donating money and strand the early settlers?

After we see people living on Mars, and what life would be like there, will people change their minds? I can’t believe the reality of life on Mars will be that appealing. Once a one-way program for colonizing Mars is started, ending the program means a death sentence to all the colonists. The ethical thing to do is build a self-sufficient colony first, with robots, and when it’s obvious that a human viable colony on Mars could survive, then ship the volunteers.

I bet if you wait until 2024 and asked these five people in the film if they still wanted to go to Mars they’d say no. People who are really willing to be astronauts are also willing to work their whole life towards that goal with an almost single-minded devotion.  And even among professional astronauts, I’m not sure how many would even commit to a 2-3 year mission. The failure rate of unmanned Mars missions is around fifty percent.

I’m not sure how many people actually would give up their Earthly lives for living in space.  Mars, the Moon, asteroids, the outer moons, they are all just rocks, with lots of radiation and intense cold. I think science fiction has oversold space travel. I think we will travel to the other planets, and maybe even colonize the Moon and Mars, but only very unique individuals are going to go, and even rarer folks will stay. I don’t think people who dream of traveling into space really understand what it means to leave Earth for good.

JWH