Our Fantasy For Interstellar Travel is Dying

For over 50 years I’ve been reading science fiction hoping humanity will someday travel to the stars and settle other planets. Obvious other people do too, just witness the frenzy behind the new Star Wars movie, which opens on the 18th. Galactic empire stories are the new locale for big sword and sorcery epics. (Isn’t it bizarre that both are enamored with aristocracy?) What deep rooted drive makes us want to colonize distant lands? Why are we enchanted by alien landscapes, strange superior beings and their surreal cultures?

Of course, the film Avatar probably reveals our true intentions. We’d do to other worlds, what we’ve done to ours.

A Heritage of Stars - Clifford Simakavatar

I just finished A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak, which questioned our desire for interstellar travel. It was published back in 1977. A Heritage of Stars is a quaint little book, not particularly good, unless you relish 1950s style science fiction, where Simak, in his seventies, questions many of the tropes of our genre. This same questioning was evident in Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel. Both Simak and Robinson wonder at the wisdom of traveling to the stars. The distances are beyond fantastic, almost beyond comprehension. Characters in Star Wars zoom between planetary systems quicker than we travel between cities on Earth in our jet airliners. The absurdity of that strains the boundaries of absurdity. It’s only slightly less delusional than thinking we can travel to other worlds by dying.

Aurora KSMCity - Clifford Simak

Simak covers many of the most famous themes of science fiction in A Heritage of Stars. The setting is in the far future Earth, a thousand years after the collapse of a great technological civilization that went to the stars, and built intelligent robots. In some ways, it’s a variation of Simak’s classic City. America is now a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving tribes who collect the heads of robots for ceremonial voodoo. They are primitive people who can’t conceive of space travel or intelligent machines. The story is about a young man named Cushing who takes shelter in a closed-wall town, built around a former university. Cushing learns to read, discovering that humans used to be great. Cushing eventually finds mysterious references to “Place of Going to the Stars” and sets out on a quest to find it. Much like a L. Frank Baum Oz book, Cushing gathers along the way a motley assortment of strange characters to take up his quest too. A witch, a surviving robot, a horse, a man who talks to trees and a autistic like girl who can commune with the transcendental.

Along the way, Simak’s characters discover what happened to mankind, and allows Simak to philosophize about why we wanted to go to the stars. Simak also wonders if mankind is smart enough to survive his addiction to technology. Even forty year ago Simak realized that interstellar travel isn’t very practical, questioning his science fictional roots. Had Simak given up on the Final Frontier dream because he was getting old? He was in his mid-seventies at the time. I’m in a my mid-sixties and I too have given up on colonizing distant worlds. Does getting older make us realize our childhood fantasies have no foundation in reality?

Earth Abides - George R. StewartThe World Without Us - Alan Weisman

Science fiction is mostly high tech fantasy that reveals the same impulses humans have always shown. This world and life doesn’t seem to be enough for us. We want more. But the reality appears that this life and planet is all we’ll ever have. Like many other science fiction stories Simak wonders if the future of humanity will be one where we give up technology and live nomadic lives much like how Homo sapiens lived its first two hundred thousand years of existence. I can’t help but believe Simak was greatly influenced by Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. And I believe Simak would have been blown away by Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a philosophical thought experiment that wonders what Earth would be like if humans just disappeared.

Shouldn’t we psychoanalyze why science fictions two strongest themes are space travel and the post-apocalypse? Why are galactic empires always suffering collapse and revolutions? Isn’t it rather telling that our favorite fantasies feature feudal governments and primitive weapons? The heroes of Star Wars fight with swords made of light. Is the reason why conservatives want smaller governments is because they don’t have the genes to imagine large ones?

Childhoods End - Arthur C ClarkeMore Than Human - Theodore Sturgeon

Strangely, Simak reveals a problem that NASA wouldn’t discover until years later. Mainly, we can collect the data, even store the data, but we won’t always be able to access the data. One of the conundrums that Cushing and his crew face is humans went to the stars but what they discovered is locked up in technology that their post-apocalyptic world can’t access. I felt let down by Simak’s solution. Let’s just say that Simak’s hope for humanities failures is to discover supernatural powers. That was a common theme in 1950s science fiction, especially Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and its 1960s retelling, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon was never much of a technological science fiction writer, and went right for the ESP solution in More Than Human. Even the hard science Heinlein had hopes humans would discover magical powers. I guess they all grew up reading Oz books.

I feel let down by Simak, although I enjoyed A Heritage of Stars well enough. I believe he ends his story with false hope. Simak believes humanity can keep trying until it gets it right. Yet, he doesn’t attempt to describe what is getting it right might be. Not long ago I read a passage about Neanderthals that shook me up. It stated for the entire length of its long species’ lifetime, Neanderthals never showed any progress after achieving a certain level of development with their stone tools. For hundreds of thousands of years they made the same tools. We Homo sapiens feel superior because we’re quite dazzling with our technological innovation. However, I’m not sure we’re not like the Neanderthals in that we’ve continued to follow the same emotional and psychological patterns that we have for the last two hundred thousand years. We can’t get away from our Old Testament mindset, and without technology, we’d all live pretty much like North American tribal people before the advent of Western invaders, or the people who lived on the Russian Steppes and spoke the language that inspired all the Indo-European languages.

Kim Stanley Robinson has a much more sophisticated lesson about why we won’t be colonizing planets orbiting distant suns in his book Aurora. We are adapted to our biosphere. It’s extremely complex and interrelated. It’s extremely doubtful. even if we could travel the distance to another stellar system, we could integrate into another biosphere. Humans were made for this planet and biological landscape. We could probably export our biosphere to other barren planets if the conditions were right, but even that is doubtful.

Simak doesn’t give much focus to the intelligent machines of his story, but I’m guessing artificial intelligence has more potential validity than any other theme that science fiction explores. Simak points out that robots are the true species for interstellar travel. If Star Wars was realistic, galactic empires would be governed and populated by C3POs and R2D2s. Biological creatures would always stay on the planet of their origins, comfortably bound to their biospheres.

Simak wrote A Heritage of Stars near the end of his life, probably speculating about what will happen to humanity after his death, and revealing a certain level of age related pessimism about the future. I don’t know if he was aware of environmental catastrophes—he seemed to fear our mishandling of technology. Forty years later, our race doesn’t seem any wiser, but it does seem more suicidal.

More and more, I’m becoming an atheist to the religion I grew up with, science fiction. It’s not that I’m going to stop reading science fiction, but I no longer believe it. I study science fiction like many former believers still study The Bible. Both The Bible and science fiction reveal our deepest inner hopes. For some reason humans want to go to Heaven or Alpha Centauri. We need to understand why, and also need to understand why we’re turning our own biosphere into Hell.

Essay #984 – Table of Contents

Are Quickly Written Books Worth Reading?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 9, 2015

One of the most impressive books I’ve ever read is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson—she interviewed 1,200 people and spent ten years writing a history of African-Americans migrating out of the south from WWI to the 1970s. One of the most impressive novels I’ve ever read, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert took her five years traveling the globe to research and write. Harper Lee spent three years working with an editor after she submitted Go Set a Watchman and before it become To Kill A Mockingbird.

Should we trust authors that write and publish several books a year? I know writers write to make a living, but when I reread my favorite novels that were hastily written back in the 1960s I often wish today they had gotten a few more drafts. They aren’t holding up because not enough time and thought was spent on them.

Phoenix Rising

I just read Phoenix Rising by William W. Johnstone (with J. A. Johnstone) which came out in 2011. The trouble is William W. Johnstone died in 2004. J. A. is William W.’s nephew and carefully groomed writing assistant. Phoenix Rising is a breezy, easy read, but on the thin side. It was obviously quickly written, first of a trilogy so far, meant to hook readers to sell future installments. Since I’ve found several books published in 2011 with J. A. Johnstone name on the title page, I assume Johnstone is a novel writing factory. (I even have to wonder if he sub-contracts with ghost writers.) Both Johnstones were incredibly prolific, keeping a number of series going concurrently. Firebase Freedom (2012) and Day of Judgment (2013) are sequels to Phoenix Rising.


Now I’m not against Mr. Johnstone making a living as a prolific writer, but as a hardcore book lover I’ve got to protest. I don’t like the practice of using a dead writer’s name as a logo to sell books. Nor do I like the idea of reading books by ghostwriters who crank them out for hire. And I really hate, and this is the most important point of all, of buying a book that sets me up to buy another. This modern trend of producing trilogies and endless series is bad for the art of the novel.

Now I admit I have many bookworm friends who love continuing stories and buying books by commodity authors. If you’re reading to kill time does quality matter if you keep turning the pages? But, if you read books to experience the human heart in conflict with itself, then you should worry about how much time it took to write a book. I read Phoenix Rising because the sub-sub-genre of survival fiction, which is part of the sub-genre of apocalyptic novels, which falls under science fiction, a topic I’m addictive to reading.


I’m not sure I would have realized just how thin Phoenix Rising is if I hadn’t also been listening to Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In one standalone volume, Niven/Pournelle gives readers far greater depth than a shelf of quickie prepper paperbacks.

Since I’ve been studying survival novels I know they have key aspects that define their appeal. First, is the cause of the catastrophe. Johnstone comes up with a horrendously unbelievable reason for civilization collapsing. One only Fox News fanatics could believe. Second, and more importantly, is how do the survivors survive. The more practical details the better. Johnstone’s not too believable here either; everything happens too easily without much drama. Finally, readers want hope. No matter how bleak the collapse, they want believable theories how humans could rebuild. What holds a survival story together is its characters. Readers want sympathetic characters to vicariously experience “how would I do it myself” situations. I think Johnstone has fans that find his type of characters appealing. They are likable good people, but the dramatic experiences their creator provide for them is flimsy, rushed and unsatisfying. Johnstone does offers hope for the future but I’d have to buy two more novels to find it, and I won’t.

I consider Earth Abides by George R. Stewart the gold standard of a survivor story. Isherwood Williams is a character that I can identify with as he experiences a series of enlightening conflicts that force readers into thinking about the mortality of our species. Earth Abides inspired Stephen King’s The Stand and many other end-of-civilization novels. We’re currently experiencing a flood of cozy catastrophes where a handful of people must survive the immediate months after the collapse of civilization.

Surviving the apocalypse is an extremely complex event. It’s all too easy to turn it into a cartoonish cliché. And I think any book written in a couple of months can’t do the subject justice.

For people who haven’t read the classics of this sub-sub-genre, Johnstone’s story is probably intriguing enough. Especially for people who think surviving is a matter of having a gun and a will to use it. Maybe Johnstone’s characters get deeper in the second and third book, but I won’t be reading them to find out. To many better books give me everything I need in one volume.

Johnstone covers all the basics, but with no finesse and style, and no insight other than conservative philosophy that’s failing to help civilization now. Because Johnstone’s premise for the collapse of the United States is so thoroughly anti-liberal using absurd extremist logic it’s hard to take the rest of his insights seriously. His story could have been far more powerful if he had put his novel through several drafts and made his premise chillingly realistic. His attack on Obama is juvenile. If liberal ideas can destroy the country like conservatives believe, then the extrapolation of how that works needs believability that would convince liberals and moderates too. Obviously Johnstone is selling to a ready-made audience of true believers. Phoenix Rising might make some bucks off of naïve readers, but it fails at creating a memorable storytelling experience.

Here’s a way to compare a great novel to hack series. A great novel has the philosophical impact of a single A-Bomb that we never forget, while hack writing gives us faked movie explosions with each volume that are momentarily thrilling, but easily forgotten. Series novels are a marketing decision, not an artistic endeavor. If you bought this novel to read on the plane it’s probably entertaining enough.

I’m not saying some stories don’t deserve the trilogy treatment, although even the best trilogies I can think of would have been artistically superior as a single large novel. Writers must love trilogies because they can sell one story three times. It also means they don’t have to edit and distill their meandering narrative into a coherent whole. And how often have you been wowed by the first book of the trilogy only to be disappointed in the next two volumes? Hack writers find it much easier to write three or more so-so novels than one great story.


And when we think about great literary novels of history, how many of them are series? Would Trollope and Proust be more read today if they had written stand-alone novels like Austen and Dickens?

Many bookworms are like addicts. They consume books. The William W. Johnstone brand appeals to their hunger, and his books are a quick fiction fix. But his books will not be remembered. They might be a commercial success now, which is fine for the writers and publishers. But they get so little enthusiasm from fans that they don’t have entries in Wikipedia. That’s quite telling.

Millions of people want to be writers, and many of those would-be writers see developing continuing character stories as key to making a living. I can’t blame them for that. But what they crank out is fast food. If you’re a bookworm that craves novels that expand your map of reality then I’d avoid books with sequels.

My protest of the Phoenix Rising series is not because it’s bad, but thin, hastily written, with stretched out stories without the fully developed elements of a satisfying novel. If readers want a powerful trilogy on the survivor theme they should read:

  1. Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart
  2. Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank
  3. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I know I’m going to come across as a nut here because trilogies and continuing character series are almost the norm now.


A Feminine View of an Apocalypse

I hope I’m not being too sexist here, when I review Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  The books seems to be a feminine take on the end of the world.  But I have read many end of the world stories, and I think they’ve always have been written by males.  Books about the collapse of civilization are a special favorite of mine since I was a little kid, and now they are becoming very popular with young adult readers.  It’s rather fascinating to read a woman’s take on the genre.

First off, this isn’t going to be a regular review, because it’s going to contain spoilers to all the essential events in the story.  Let’s just say that I found Life as We Knew It to be extremely readable and likeable, but I want to dissect it because it was such a different view on the end of the world as I know it.  It was a rather nice and civilized view, and I’m essentially asking if that’s because the author was female.  Of course, this is a YA novel, so maybe it was pulling its punches, but then I’m not sure if YA readers want to be handled with care.  Kids loved The Hunger Games, which made them sort of like Romans at the Coliseum.

Surviving a brutal world at the collapse of civilization is the core appeal of reading end of the world stories.  Like I said, I really liked Life as We Knew It, and felt it was a compelling read.  I’d recommend it to any adult or kid who loves to read YA novels, but I’m now going to pick it apart for psychological reasons.  If you haven’t read it, don’t read beyond the cover photo.


When civilization collapses all rules disappear.  Survival is the number one driving force.  And in most post-apocalyptic novels of this type, the key conflict is kill or be killed.  Susan Beth Pfeffer completely side steps this issue.  An asteroid hits the moon and brings about catastrophic changes to life on Earth.  The story takes place from May to March, beginning slowly, but ending with a brutal “nuclear winter” like winter.  The story is told by Miranda, a sixteen-year-old girl in diary form, and is about how her single mother Laura keeps Miranda, and brothers Matt and Jon alive when civilization falls apart.

One reason I love these after-the-collapse stories is they present a perfect fantasy puzzle of “What would you do?” in the same situation.  If you were sitting in your suburban home watching the news and knew that civilization was about to come to an end, what would you do?  Laura withdraws a lot of cash out of her bank and pulls her kids out of school.  She also gets an old lady neighbor and they all go on a frantic shopping spree for food and necessities.  Now this is practical, but Pfeffer presents this chaotic moment as too civilized.  Sure it’s a madhouse at the grocery story, but not crazier than Walmart at 4am on Black Friday.  And it’s a bargain, all shopping baskets can be stuffed with as much stuff as possible for just $100, so each person gets several loads.  That’s just unbelievable.

And here’s the thing, that one shopping spree lasts the family eleven months.  Even though they live near a pond, there is no mention of fishing.  Even though they live in the outskirts of town with lots of trees to cut down for firewood, there’s no mention of hunting squirrel, rabbits, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, frogs, turtles, dogs, cats, birds or anything else.  Everyone begins to starve, but they take dead bodies to the hospital.  If these people are that hungry and think they won’t make it through the winter, why aren’t they eating the dead?  I’ve been a vegetarian since 16, but hey, every real life story I’ve ever read about starving finally comes down to cannibalism.  By the time Mrs. Nesbitt died, Miranda and family should have been hungry enough to eat her.

Pfeffer evidently doesn’t believe in killing animals for food even though the family eats a lot of canned meats.  It’s strange that the boys chop wood seven days a week to get ready for winter, but never go hunting and fishing.  Nor do they go scavenging.  In Pfeffer’s world, the rule is people leave each other alone, and only plunder each other’s houses if the family dies or moves south.  But Matt, Jon and Miranda never routine scavenge homes on their own.  That’s way too civilized.  And dare I say too girly?  Life as We Knew It is way too civilized view of no civilization.  America is full of gun owners, but we don’t see guns in this story except for a couple tiny mentions.

Liberals often ask NRA members why do they need assault rifles.  Well, they are for the end of the world.  When civilization goes down the toilet, it’s a dog eat dog wild west world.  In Susan Beth Pfeffer’s apocalypse it’s a please-and-thank-you end of the world scenario.  Only nature kills, not people.

Like I said, Life as We Knew It is a gripping, well told story, even though it doesn’t fit the standard after-the-collapse model.  Is that because Pfeffer is a woman and expects the end of the world to be different?  Or does she believe young adult readers shouldn’t imagine such a brutal existence, even though they’ve been assigned Lord of the Flies for decades?   Or is her novel just a cozy story of how she thinks things should be if civilization should collapse?  Sort of a politically correct Mad Max?

Even the ending was too nice.  Miranda has decided to leave home to die in hopes of leaving more food for her younger brother who everyone thinks should be the ultimate survivor.  But at the last minute she finds a flyer from a newly set up government office that’s giving away food.  They are saved.  Civilization hasn’t completely collapse and its making a comeback.  Survival has merely been one of waiting, hoarding food, and rationing.  No one in this story fights to survive.  They struggle, they endure, they work hard, but they don’t fight.

The thing I’ve always loved about after the collapse stories is the pioneering spirit of starting over.  Of reinventing old ways of doing things to replace modern technology.  There is no invention in this story, no learning to make bows and arrows, no Gilligan’s Island professor inventing new tools out of old parts, no reading old books to figure out how to make animal traps and cure hides.  Most of all, these people don’t scavenge, steal or kill.  Nor are they preyed upon by armed hoards of starving survivalists.  Every family holes up in their own house and waits.  Ultimately, waits for the government to help them.

Hey, I’m about as liberal as they come, but I know better than wait on the government after civilization goes down the drain.   I don’t know if the collapse of civilization would be as brutal as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but it should be as brutal as Survivors (BBC 1975-1977), a favorite TV show of mine.   My all-time favorite after the collapse story is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.  That’s because it’s about the intellectual rebuilding of society.  Stewart shows that once civilization collapses it will be very hard to rebuild.  I’m afraid Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t really understand what a collapse of modern society means, or she didn’t want her story to be all about realistic brutality.  I have to give Suzanne Collins a lot of credit for having her sixteen-year-old Katniss facing realistic brutality in a honestly violent way.

Even if Pfeffer didn’t want Miranda and her family shooting guns at other people, she should have at least included a local militia protecting the neighborhoods and setting up the power behind the rule that you don’t loot your neighbor’s house unless they are dead or moved.  Pfeffer makes no suggestion that strangers would organize or work together.  Family is the only bond.  That’s odd, don’t you think?  After every natural disaster I see endless news stories about strangers helping each other.

Also I was disappointed that Miranda and her family totally depended on the phone, radio, TV and the Internet for their news, and once those systems died, they just did without.  Why didn’t they communicate more with other people?  Why wasn’t their some kind of gossip grapevine, or bulleting board news system?  Pfeffer’s characters aren’t inventors, but I think necessity really is the mother of invention, and they faced a whole lot of necessity.

I believe we all write end-of-the-world stories that reflect our own psychological make-up.  And this could be a little like taking your clothes off in public.

I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because her nonviolent view of the end of the world is so very different from all similar books I’ve read which have always been written by males.  Is that sexist or political incorrect of me?  Who says end of the world stories have to play by masculine rules?  But why didn’t Miranda try to catch fish at the pond, or the boys try to kill squirrels when they were chopping wood?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe most women would be fighters in real life, and probably if they wrote fictional accounts of surviving, their characters would be fighters too.  I’m just wondering why Pfeffer wrote such a polite story about a brutal time?  Is this her naked honesty of how she thinks people would behave?

In this story food only comes from the grocery store, and help only comes from the government, and desperate people never resort to using guns.  Where’s the 4th of July spirit?  I grew up watching westerns, so I guess I might be indoctrinated differently.

Maybe I shouldn’t write such a story as this, because my naked views might be loathsome.  But now that I’m old, and in declining health, it would be much different from one I would have written at 25.  I should write an after-the-collapse story about a gimpy old fart trying to survive the end of the world.  It would have a hilarious scene of a life long vegetarian killing and eating a squirrel.

JWH – 7/4/13


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