Michael Bishop

Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has asked several of his blogging friends to review the books of Michael Bishop.  Joachim explores the 1960s and 1970s looking for intellectual and philosophical science fiction books to review.  He especially loves their covers – that’s how I got hooked on his site – and collects them into visual themes.

Joachim invited me to contribute to his Michael Bishop reviews and I reviewed Brittle Innings, a rather strange novel about a 1943 minor league baseball team playing in rural Georgia one very hot summer.  The story is a lovely historical novel set during WWII, that shows a love of baseball, a literary feel for the south, and a fondness for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In Bishop’s literary fantasy, the monster lives and ends up as a big ugly slugger playing for the Highbridge Hellbenders as Hank “Jumbo” Clerval, but the story is really about a seventeen-year-old boy from Oklahoma, Danny “Dumbo” Boles, that gets a chance to play semi-pro ball because he’s too young for the draft.  Hank plays first base, and Danny plays short stop, and together they achieve minor fame as Dumbo and Jumbo.

Michael Bishop wrote over a dozen novels from 1975-1994 that got a good deal of attention in the science fiction and fantasy genre, including winning a Nebula for No Enemy But Time (1982) and a Locus Award for Brittle Innings (1994).  No Enemy But Time was chosen for the book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels by David Pringle.  It also made my Classics of Science Fiction list.

Joachim feels younger readers need to be introduced to Bishop’s work, and thus the series of guest reviews.  I’m very glad I read and reviewed Brittle Innings because it makes me want to go read more Michael Bishop.

no enemy but time

ancient

Philip K. Dick is Dead

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brittle

JWH – 4/23/14

Transcendence–Why Is This Film Only Getting 19% at Rotten Tomatoes?

I went to Transcendence thinking I’d hate this film because of all the bad reviews it’s getting, but to my surprised I ended up enjoying it way more than I imagined.  I went with two friends – Laurie walked out, and Ann said she liked it so much she wanted to see it again.  I thought Transcendence had some big problems, but overall it was a nice exploration of the idea of brain uploading.  Coincidentally, I’m listening to Accelerando by Charles Stross this week, and the science fictional ideas in the book overlapped nicely with those of the film.  Maybe I enjoyed the film merely because it was more fuel for the ideas I’m entertaining at the moment.

If you read the reviews I do concur that the film is lackluster in action, that most of the acting was subdued, and the plotting is clunky, but it just didn’t seem that bad, not a 19% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  If you compare Transcendence to the dazzling Her, another movie about evolving computer intelligence, yes, this film is slight, but is it that bad?   I’ve seen films I thought were much worse get much higher scores at RT.

I have a hypothesis to test.  Does the acceptance or rejection of science fictional ideas in movies prejudice critics and fans opinions of a science fiction movie?  So if a movie explores an idea you hate, you reject the whole movie?

I wondered, if Transcendence presents ideas that people don’t like?  To talk about those ideas, I’m probably going to reveal some plot points, but many of these are in the previews.  The movie is about three AI scientists, one of which, the husband of the couple played by Johnny Depp, is shot by anti-AI terrorists and his wife saves him by uploading his mind into a computer.  Uploading also happens in Accelerando, and like that book, they also cover super technology brought about by post-human minds.  The book covers vast stretches of time, but in the film, all the advance technology comes out in two years.  This scares the regular folk in the flick, who feel they must destroy the Frankenstein AI.

Are movie goers tired of films about sentient computers?  Do they find post-human life offensive?  Are the networked humans too much like zombies to them?  Is nanotechnology just too scary to think about?  Or, was the ideas in the story fine, and they just didn’t like the writing, presentation, acting or settings?

TRANSCENDENCE

Science fiction books and movies have a long heritage of tales about intelligent computers.  Sometimes they are evil (Colossus), and sometimes they are fun (Short Circuit).  In Transcendence, it’s ambiguous.  Is that the problem?  Uploading minds is not as common, but there’s plenty of precedent (The Matrix).

I’m a little tired of science fiction being about saving the world.  Why does science fiction always have to involve a big threat to all of humanity?  There was no need to involve guns or violence in this story.  Gattaca was the perfect science fiction movie to me.  It was a personal story.  Ditto for Her and Robot and Frank.  Can’t we have a story about a super intelligent being without involve armies and terrorists?  Or maybe critics and audiences didn’t like this movie because there wasn’t enough action and explosions.

Or was the film disliked because it suggests that ordinary people will be obsolete?  What’s weird is movie goers love mutants in superhero comic book stories, but they don’t seem to like post-humans.  A human that can fly is fine, but one that makes us look past our due date is not?

Audiences are more forgiving than the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and the audience response at RT was 47% for Transcendence.   That’s pretty low for audiences.  Maybe I should just accept that this film was a dog, and maybe I liked it because it was about some of my pet topics.  That does fit in with my hypothesis – I liked it for its ideas, and others hated it for the same ideas.   I really hated Marvel’s The Avengers, which got a 92% critics/91% audience rating at RT, and I disliked the movie intensely because of its ideas.

I wonder if movie makers could save a lot of money on special effects if they merely created science fiction movies with extremely popular science fictional ideas?

JWH – 4/22/14

Memorable Science Fiction Missing From Audible.com

I’ve been a member of Audible.com since 2002, and over that time I’ve watched as Audible’s library of classic science fiction has grown.  It’s been very impressive, and yet, there are many great science fiction books and authors that haven’t made it into their catalog.  I’m inspired to write this because of reading “Great Unsung Science Fiction Authors That Everyone Should Read” by Charlie Jane Anders at io9.com.  Our Classics of Science Fiction Book Club has been discussing this article, thinking up our own list of SF authors who have gone missing in action, or who we think young people should track down and try.

DemolishedMan1

I thought I’d look up on Audible to see if these authors are remembered, and list the number of audio books available.  You can click on the link to read about the author and their books at Wikipedia.  I only counted whole books in print at Audible, not single short stories.

These are authors we think deserve more attention.  Charlie Jane Anders was pretty good at picking writers that are mostly not in print at Audible.com.  That wasn’t her intention, but that’s how I used her list.  The book club picked a number of authors that Audible has done a bang-up job of remembering, like Edmond Hamilton.

First, Charlie Jane Anders lists these authors as deserving more attention:

Some of the authors we discussed at our book club.  I haven’t listed them all, because some were very obscure.

We had a few overlaps with Anders, but for the most part, our fond memories were for other writers.  Overall, Audible has lots of major science fiction novels it could still publish.  Especially, Alfred Bester or Samuel R. Delany, or even Michael Bishop?  However, I still give Audible.com an A+ for preserving classic science fiction.  Hell, they’ve published eight E. C. Tubb novels, and thirty A. Bertram Chandler books.  Some of these books haven’t seen the light of day since their original ACE Double publication.

Babel-17

The book club consists mainly of older science fiction fans from around the world that have a nostalgia for the science fiction they grew up reading.  We’re worried that some of our favorite books and writers might be forgotten when we’re no longer here to remember.  These aren’t necessarily our favorite writers, but the ones our faulty memories retrieved when we tried to remembered books we had mostly forgotten, but still remembered fondly.

I have to say that Audible.com is a great resource for old science fiction fans.

JWH – 4/2/14

More Science, Less Fiction

As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always had an on again, off again relationship with science, but now that I’m retired I’m thinking about a deeper commitment.  Science fiction inspires a kind of love for science that’s not very realistic.  Science fiction is a marijuana high of smoking science, and is about as scientific as two dopers discussing theories of reality.  Science fiction is a good gateway drug to science, but sooner or later you have to move on to the harder stuff – physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

Most folks today have little knowledge of science, and most of those who do, have a Newtonian model of reality in their heads.  The hard to intuit relativity of space-time, and the bizarre quantum world is beyond all but a few to incorporate into their seeing of how things work.  We truly live in a science fictional world, where a little bit of science creates a lot of fiction. 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up, science fiction was about the future, but our lives in the 21st century present are very science fictional.  We live in times described by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Growing up reading science fiction gave me a view of the future that’s turned out to be wrong.  Before I die, I’d like to assemble another view of the future, to imagine what things will be like after I die.  But this time, hopefully, I want to install a more realistic science.  We can’t predict the future, but we can shoot down a lot of crap ideas.  I’d like to die with a reasonable idea of what my brief visit to reality was all about.

I read about 52 books a year, or on average, one a week.  I’d like to be more systematic about reading science books, but I don’t want to give up reading other kinds of books.  Actually, I don’t want to create any rigid rules to live by at all – anything I feel obligated to do, I won’t.  But lately, I’ve been reading a lot of great popular science books and I realize to better understand what I’m reading will require some applied effort.

For example, I’m currently listening to Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, and he mentions reading Einstein’s original papers from 1905 as a young student.  Smolin says they are quite easy to understand, far better than most science papers, and they set the standard for science papers in their clarity of thought.  I’ve always assumed they could only be read by genius level scientists.  It just so happens I have a copy of Einstein’s Miraculous Year:  Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics.  Now, I’m torn.  Should I stop reading Time Reborn and read Einstein?

Einstein 

Smolin makes it sound like reading Einstein’s original work is the foundation of all his scientific thinking.  This makes me think instead of reading the latest popular science books I should instead be reading older ones.  I’ve always dismissed science books older than a few years as being past their expiration date.  Maybe this is a false assumption. 

When I bought Our Mathematical Universe, I read an interesting reader review at Amazon where Michael Birman said:

Years of reading science books have produced a personal pantheon of the finest I’ve ever come across. There are several aspects of Tegmark’s book that have placed it amongst the three finest popular science books I’ve ever read. The other two books are Albert Einstein and Leopold Infield’s The Evolution of Physics and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy (Commonwealth Fund Book Program). The first book, The Evolution of Physics, is still the clearest exposition of classical and (relatively) modern physics ever written, despite its age. It remains the most authoritative, concise and profound discussion of the source of Einstein’s world-shattering ideas, and has never been surpassed as a book written by a great scientist for a popular audience. Kip Thorne’s book combines personal reminiscence and scientific exposition with an elegance and depth that makes it my choice as the finest modern popularized science book. Thorne proved that you can write about science in an engaging manner without sacrificing either intelligence or necessary relevant technical detail.

You guessed it, I ordered those two books too.  So just starting two new books has gotten me to buy three old books.  The trouble with reading current physics books is they are often so ethereal that I don’t know if I’m learning science or reading science fiction.  For the last many years, I’ve been constantly drawn back to the 19th century in literature and history, so I’m thinking I might need to return to that century to study science.  I need to learn the physics that led up to Einstein.

books_evolution 

Then there’s the whole gnarly issue of math.  My math abilities are slight.  How far can I really understand science without math?  I’ve bought a bunch of math history books, and a Great Course on the history of mathematics.  Part of my retirement benefits is getting to take two free courses a semester, and there are many online math courses.  If I wanted to, I could study math again.  And I might.  Although I wonder at making such an effort in my retirement years when I seem to be forgetting faster than I’m remembering.

Reading Einstein (I’ve already started) does make you think about the physical world differently.  To understand time in the way Smolin is talking about it in Time Reborn will take a lot of contemplation.  More and more I realize the value of Einstein’s thought experiments.

In the modern world we’re easily fooled by pre-digested knowledge we get from television.  The new Cosmos might look dazzling, but to understand it requires ignoring the frenetic CGI dazzle and returning to a slow Amish like simplicity of thought.  Just doing the math to model 13.8 billion years on a generic 365 day calendar is enlightening. 

I’ve read lately, but I’ve forgotten where, that if the most complex science can’t be explained to the average person without mathematics then that science isn’t really understood by the scientists either.  I’d like to believe that.  I’d like to believe I can understand science even if I can’t prove it mathematically.  But I shouldn’t give up on studying math either.  What I need to do is go back to the beginning and learn math historically, and progress forward through time.  Start with the Babylonians, and then the Greeks, and see if learning math in the order it was discovered will help me see a mathematical reality.

Growing up in a gee-whiz era of science and technology makes it hard to tell science from fiction.  Even the science books I read, and the science documentaries I watch, are full of fiction, even though they are factual in intent.  If I don’t comprehend what they say correctly, then I create mental fictions to explain what I think I see.  Science fiction novels that I’ve always loved to read, took science concepts and intentionally made wild fiction out of science.  Such hopeful expectations from science fiction has corrupted my mind about science.  I now need to rethink both science and science fiction.

I’ve been a life-long atheist, and been skeptical of religion, mysticism, the metaphysical and paranormal, thinking instead that science is the only valid course to understanding reality.  But the more I study science, the more I feel the need to be skeptical of my own knowledge of science.  It’s very easy to fool oneself.  Eye witnesses are notorious unreliable, and we tend to feel that other people can be tricked and not us – that what we see is real.  But isn’t that another fiction?

How much do you know could you prove?  Can you really prove the Earth orbits the Sun?  Humanity has discovered a lot of scientific knowledge in the last four hundred years, but how much could you prove yourself?  Being told something is true doesn’t mean you understand why its true.

Even if science fiction didn’t exist, we still live in a science fictional world, not because of rocketships and robots, but because we fictionalize science, we fictionalize what we’re told is true, we fictionalize everything we don’t know, and even the things we do.

JWH 3/14/14  

Human 2.0 versus Robot 4.0

If we think of all the versions of genus Homo leading up to modern man as alpha and beta tests, we can call the average person today Human 1.0.  Science fiction has often explored the idea of the next stage of humanity, which I shall call Human 2.0.  Most guestimates of Einstein’s IQ puts it around 160-180 – let’s assume he was Human 1.6.  IQ is not a reliable measure of man, but it’s useful enough for this essay.  Basically I’m suggesting that humanity is evolving toward a time when the average person’s 100 IQ is equal to today’s 200 IQ, and we can say we reached the Human 2.0 stage of evolution.

Cyborgs-vs-Humans

IQ is terribly hard to quantify, but there is speculation that some people have surpassed the 200 level already.  Might not the huge economic divide between the “haves” and “have nots” we see today already reflect the emergence of Human 2.0?  Science fiction always predicted Human 2.0 beings looking different, with bulging foreheads, and maybe six fingers.  And for some strange reason, more often than not, they predict Human 2.0 with ESP abilities.  What if people were just twice as smart, but looked no different.   Isn’t that difference enough to bring about a massive social transformation?  Isn’t that different enough to designate a new species?  Plus, if you implant a smartphone into these people, making them cyborgs, how could normal people compete?

While humans are evolving, so are robots.  Many scientists expect a point in our future where robots reach a state of intelligence equal to Human 1.0.  Let’s call that Robot 1.0.  But like Moore’s Law for computers, I expect robots to quickly evolve, so Robot 2.0 and then Robot 4.0 will quickly be upon us.  How will humans feel when their smartphones are twice as smart as they are?  I hope you’ve seen the movie Her.

There is speculation that many historical people had theoretically IQs as high as 180, or Human 1.8.  I assume our brains, although fixed in size by the shape of our heads, and limited by the birth canal, can still evolve to become smarter, but I doubt we’ll ever see Human 4.0.  We could go the Brave New World route and grow babies in artificial wombs, and use genetics to quicken our evolution, to produce big headed humans often imagined by older science fiction stories.  But for now, let’s assume that won’t happen soon.

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Let’s forecast instead, that humanity as a whole is working towards becoming Human 2.0.  If the average future person is twice as smart as today’s people, will we become smart enough to be ethical stewards of the Earth?  It’s pretty obvious that collectively Humanity 1.0 is not smart enough, because we’re ruining this planet quickly and killing off species at an alarming rate.  By that standard we really don’t want robots staying at 1.0 levels long.  We want robots to reach 2.0 and 4.0 levels as fast as possible, because we know the destructive power of Human 1.0.

Maybe that’s why so many science fiction movies predict intelligent machines attacking humans, because they can’t imagine anything smarter than people, and that’s what people would do, attack any competitors.

If science fiction is any indication of how humanity will deal with smart machines, the future doesn’t look good – but I think science fiction is wrong.  What if robots are more ethical than humans?  Most of what makes humans evil are their animal impulses, and robots won’t have those.   I’ve read people say that without our animal drives machines won’t care to live and will want to shut themselves off.  But being alive, whether via biology or cybernetics, tends to inspire a desire to keep living.

I read a lot about the 19th century, both fiction and nonfiction, and the rise of the first machine age and industrialization caused a lot of human suffering and angst.  Jobs are important to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of humans.  One problem with life on Earth in 2014 is we have way too many people compared to the number of fulfilling jobs.  People in the 19th century asked why build machines to do our work when so many people want those jobs.  Many are still asking the same question in the 21st century, but few people think progress will hit the brakes.

I’ve always been a science fictional dude, so I have a science fictional solution.  Let intelligent machines have all the solar system except the Earth and Mars, and we share the Moon.  Space really is a hostile place for people, either much too cold, or much too hot, and always way too radioactive and thin on something to breathe.  Instead of designing machines with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, design them to live in space, and leave Earth to us.  Let robots have the spaceship building business and sell us rides to Mars.

I wouldn’t think even Humans 2.0 would want to compete with Robots 4.0, or Robots 32.0.  Let’s invent smart machines and then tell them to keep anything they learn a secret from us, so we can figure things out for ourselves.  Instead of programming them not to kill us, lets program them not to crush our spirits.  Let’s keep our jobs and ambitions, and let AI robots create their own societies away from us.

We need to preserve space on Earth for all the animals, as well as all the old fashioned humans, and the newly evolved humans, and maybe for some of the robots.  But do we want to coexist with machines that are smarter than us than we are to pug dogs?

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Science fiction is constantly changing and evolving.  It represents our most ambitious fantasies, but in recent years I think we’re all becoming more realistic.  I don’t think humans will be colonizing the solar system and the galaxy.  Earth, and maybe Mars, might be our only homes.  We need to protect our environments because we need to live here for millions of years.  Maybe Human 3.0 or 4.0 will adapt to living in space.  I just don’t see Humans 2.0 going the Childhood’s End thing, and destroying Earth and leaving it for space.   I think the conservation of our planet is very important because we’re going to need it for a very long time.

There is no heaven or final frontier, just Earth.

Let the robots have the stars.

JWH – 3/4/14

1964–Fifty Years of Reading Robert A. Heinlein

While everyone is remembering it was fifty years ago that America discovered The Beatles, I’m remembering it was fifty years ago that I discovered Robert A. Heinlein – a discovery that had far more importance to me.  1964 was the year after Project Mercury, and the year before Project Gemini.  Back then each space mission got uninterrupted coverage on CBS, NBC and ABC, and I always got to stay home from school and watch.  1964 was also the year a very futuristic World’s Fair in NYC and everyone seemed to be thinking about the decades to come. 

1964 was the year I turned 13 and I started thinking about my future. 

Now it’s 2014 and I’ll turn 63 later is year, and I think about my past.

As much as I love The Beatles and remembering 1964, 2014 is my 50th anniversary of reading Robert A. Heinlein.  I thought it might be interesting to analyze why reading the twelve Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964 was so much more important than “Twist and Shout.”  Wouldn’t it be fun to read a series of blogs by baby boomers remembering all the artists that meant more to them from 1964 than The Beatles?

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I read science fiction before 1964, but it wasn’t until I discovered Heinlein that I became a hardcore science fiction fan.  I turned 13 on November 25, 1964.  For some reason I started puberty by rejecting religion and God, becoming an atheist, and embracing science fiction.  I’ve always joked that science fiction was my religion, which made Heinlein my messiah.

I have my 8th grade English teacher to thank for introducing me to Heinlein, although I’m pretty sure I would have discovered him one way or another.  I wished I remembered this lady’s name, and had a photograph of her.  She had a remarkable teaching method.  For each six weeks grading period she required the class to read and report on three books.  However, if you read five, she would raise your grade one letter.  That allowed me to be a B student that year – at least for my English class.  My teacher provided us with a list of approved authors and Robert A. Heinlein was one.  In the 1940s and 1950s Heinlein had published twelve young adult novels with Charles Scribner’s Sons that had gotten a lot of recognition with librarians and teachers.

The first of the twelve juveniles I discovered was Red Planet, after that I quickly consumed the other eleven, and then went on to read the Heinlein adult novels.  Sadly I don’t remember the order in which I read them.  I do remember the night I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, my favorite Heinlein book, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel.

HSSWT

I was babysitting for an airman my dad knew from work at Homestead Air Force Base.  I was dropped off at their house around eight, after the kids were already put to bed, and the couple didn’t return home until after three.  So I was paid fifty cents an hour to read Have Space Suit-Will Travel.  I was blown away.  When the couple came home the young dad offered to drive me home, I told him I’d walk.  It was 3:30am, and I wasn’t even sure where I was.  I had a vague idea my house was north of their house, so I started walking.  It was eerie out – completely dead, with a bit of a mist from the dew. 

I wasn’t afraid, but the long walk was surreal.  All I could think about was Kip’s adventures, going from Earth, to the Moon, to Pluto, to a planet orbiting Vega, to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.  My brain speeded on thinking about the future and I felt very alive.

A sliver of the Moon glowed in the sky that dark night fifty years ago, and the stars looked down on me, and I up at them.  I was living the mundane life of an 8th grader, the 1960s was heating up, and all I could think about was living in the 21st century.  Now, it’s 2014, and my future is almost over, and more and more, I think about the past.

The promise and potential of space travel was why I loved Heinlein.  Elementary school had been about Project Mercury, Project Gemini was going to be my junior high years, and Project Apollo my high school years.  I started the 1st grade a couple months before Sputnik went into orbit, and graduated high school a couple months before Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon.  That, reading science fiction, and being a baby boomer growing up with the rock music revolution of the 1960s, did a number on me. 

So did the drugs.  Strangely, by 1968, science fiction had taken me far further than the chemical trips I had started taking.  Reading Stranger in a Stranger Land in 1965, I’m sure I saw it way different than Heinlein intended.

I read everything I could about NASA.  In 1964 all I could think about was the rock music on the radio, the science fiction I read, and the future of manned space flight.  I was positive I’d grow up and in my lifetime we’d build a colony on the Moon and Mars, and just maybe, I might get to go. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Heinlein made it all sound so simple, so obvious, so right.  Humans were meant to go to the stars.  His twelve young adult novels were a roadmap for all my tomorrows.

1947 Rocket Ship Galileo Moon
1948 Space Cadet Asteroids, Venus
1949 Red Planet Mars
1950 Farmer in the Sky Ganymede
1951 Between Planets Venus
1952 The Rolling Stones Moon, Mars, Asteroids
1953 Starman Jones interstellar
1954 The Star Beast Earth with interstellar visitors
1955 Tunnel in the Sky interstellar
1956 Time for the Stars interstellar
1957 Citizen of the Galaxy interstellar
1958 Have Space Suit—Will Travel Moon, Pluto, Vega 5, Lesser Magellanic Cloud

Ross, Morrie and Art, three teens in Heinlein’s first juvenile only go as far as the Moon, but in the last book, Kip and Peewee leave the galaxy.  The first half-dozen are about interplanetary travel, the second half-dozen have youngsters like me going to the stars.  These books made me a true believer in space travel in the same way Christians believe in heaven.

I’m now an atheist to my own religion, and Heinlein and his books are in my past.  They are just fun stories now, myths I lived by growing up a half-century ago.  The future was everything I never expected.  As I spend my retirement years trying to write science fiction, I imagine a much different future than I did at age thirteen.  What will the next 50 years be like? Can I conceive of a more realistic future, one that might happen, or will I only invented imaginary futures that will become fantasies like the Heinlein stories?  Do I stir up the passion of kids to believe in scientific fairy tales, or do I try to give them hope about real scientific possibilities?

Like the 1964 me, I still contemplate the future.  I have no space suit, I will not travel to the stars, but the future still holds exciting possibilities.  If I’m alive in 2051, what will I write about looking back on the next fifty years?

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JWH – 2/3/14

A Concise History of Science Fiction Short Stories

Let’s face it, the short story is a fading art form that most modern readers ignore.  The short story will never fade away completely because of would-be novelists, MFA Creative Writing students, and legions of fan fiction writers.  The short story existed before mid-19th century in proto-forms, had it’s heyday of mass popularity from the 1850s to the 1950s, and continues to exist now in various subcultures centered around mystery and science fiction writers, academic literary writers, and fanfic writers.  Before television in the 1950s, there were hundreds of magazines devoted to the short story, filling the newsstands each week, that were read by the masses as a popular entertainment.  Television killed that publishing industry.  Today if you search hard at good bookstores, you can find a handful of story magazines to buy.  Most literary magazines have print runs in the hundreds, or low thousands, and a handful of genre magazines have paid circulations in 20,000-30,000 range.

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My motive for writing this essay is to give modern science fiction fans a sense of history of how science fictional ideas emerged out of magazines in the 19th century, grew in popularity with the general fiction pulp magazines of the early part of the 20th century, coalesced into a specific genre pulps starting in 1926 with Amazing Stories, grew even more in popularity in the 1930s and 1940s in many more pulp titles in the U.S. and Great Britain, and peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, when the SF novel became the dominant form of expressing science fictional ideas, and afterwards when television and movies became the main purveyor of science fiction.

all_story_190810Amazing_Stories_April_1926

In the 19th century the genres we know today were all available in general circulation magazines.  The rise of the literate middle class, combined with the advent of cheap publishing, created a reading boom.  Think of 19th century magazines as the television of its day – the technology of how people studied the world then, because they didn’t have the radio, television, or the Internet.

All subjects and genres have probably existed for millennia as oral tales, myths, bible stories, anecdotes and even jokes, but as they gelled in the 19th century, certain favorite fictional topics and genres emerged, and maybe the last and least of them, was science fiction.

  • Sex – stories of romance, courtship, sex, marriage, children, families have always been the most popular story subject.
  • Mystery – murder, crime, detectives right from the beginning, especially with Edgar Allan Poe, have been the next big favorite.
  • History – recreating the past has always had its reading fans.
  • Westerns – came out of the urge to write historical fiction to become it’s own genre.
  • Fantasy – the supernatural and magic is probably the first genre.  Horror is a major sub-genre.  Think ghost stories.
  • Intrigue – Tightly plotted stories of conflict over politics, espionage, money, industry, diplomacy has a distinctive readership.
  • Travel – people in the 19th century couldn’t get enough reporting from other lands, and even in the 21st century with television and the internet, fiction about travel is still popular.
  • Humor – ranges from crude to highbrow, and is very hard to write.
  • War – many people consider history the chronicles of wars, but war fiction is about humans at their worst and best.
  • Sports – games, hunting, fishing, living in the great outdoors
  • Forbidden – Pornography, sadism, masochism, perversion – all the stuff kept under the counter.
  • Future – it’s very hard to define science fiction, but generally it’s stories about the future.  In the 19th century it was often about planned utopias, speculation about disturbing trends, how inventions would change society, the marvels of possible new discoveries, and that emerging academic discipline, science.

No categorization is perfect, and most stories involve cross fertilization.  Starting with a microscopic audience in the distant past, to a massive audience today, stories about science fictional ideas have appealed to a segment of readers.  For most of literary history there has been little demarcation between fantasy and science fiction.  Mostly, this was due to the concept of science and scientists having not been invented.  It wasn’t until the 1830s that science as a discipline and label was created, so it’s not surprising that it was until the 1930s that the term “science fiction” finally caught on, and even until the 1950s that it was widely use.  Nowadays, in the 21st century, most people associate the term with movies and television shows, and not books, and definitely not short stories.  But I firmly believe it’s the short story where the best SF ideas emerge first.

We know speculation about intelligent life on other worlds has existed as far back as classical Greek times, and that stories about space travel, artificial life, mechanical beings, and such have appeared occasionally throughout the centuries, but there were no real science fiction fans until the 20th century, when the term science fiction was invented.  Science fictional ideas slowly became popular in the 19th century periodical, gained momentum in the first half of the 20th century, and became very popular in the second half.  Most of the 19th century stories were wild, fantastic and even silly.  They are rarely read today, and seldom anthologized. For example, here is one to try, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1844.

best-science-fiction-of-the-19th-centuryToC

I’m encouraging modern SF fans to read modern SF short stories, then then to explore the history of SF stories, because they have a rich heritage and are a wonderful art form, if you can get into them.  Most readers no longer like reading short stories.  When I was growing up back in the 1960s, reading the science fiction digest magazines was my introduction to science fiction fandom, but also to a mother lode of science fictional ideas.  SF novels are usually plot driven, whereas SF short stories are idea driven.  Science fiction short stories are memorable for wild, far out ideas, thinking out of the box, pushing the limits of new concepts, experimenting with writing techniques, exploring borders between the known and the unknown, and just having a lot of fun by endless speculation about possible futures.

Like I said, few science fiction fans read the current print and online magazines that publish science fiction, and far fewer still go back and read the older stories where science fiction began.  Older stories reflect an evolution of thinking in general, and specific writing styles over time.  To be honest, most past science fiction stories aren’t worth reading, even many that were collected into anthologies.  Editors constantly resurvey the genre publishing retrospective anthologies looking at our genre history with new eyes, and often old favorites disappear over time.  Few science fiction short stories are worth reading when they are published, and far fewer older stories are worth remembering by modern minds.  But some are, and over the years and decades, anthologists have collected them.

From the first issue of Amazing Stories till the present, magazines and original anthologies have generated millions of science fictional ideas.  Sure the science fiction novel and movie are the far more famous, but it’s the short story that’s the evolutionary engine of the genre.  With less at stake, writers can easily experiment in the shorter forms of fiction, and the short story seems to bring out more variety of science fictional ideas.  Sadly, the art of short fiction is disappearing from the genre just as fast as it has disappeared from the fictional mainstream.  Few science fiction fans read SF short fiction, either in the dying print format, or the emerging online electronic formats.

At the Classic Science Fiction book club we try to remedy this by discussing one short story a week.  Few members join in, but there’s enough to keep the feature going.  For the first couple of years we only picked stories that were free on the net to make it easy for members to find and read.  As it’s gotten harder to find free reprints of classic stories, we’ve decided to pick a big anthology of stories that can be our textbook.  The book we want has to have a great selection, be readily available used, and cheap.  Two were nominated, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame:  The Greatest Science Fiction Stories Ever and The Ascent of Wonder edited by David Hartwell, with the Hall of Fame volume winning out.  It’s pretty easy to find both of these books for less than $5 at ABE Books and Amazon.

This got me to thinking:  “What were the greatest SF retrospective anthologies ever?”  It seems like every decade of my reading life some editor has come out with a huge anthology that surveys all of science fiction for its absolute best stories.  New SF readers need an introduction to the history of the short works of science fiction, but that introduction always needs to be updated.

When I was growing up reading science fiction short stories in the digest magazines F&SF, Galaxy, If, Analog, Amazing and Fantastic, short SF was considered the heart of science fiction because of the high concentration of  exciting science fictional ideas.  Old timers would talk about the great stories from the pulp era, usually describing the idea and not the plot, and there were many anthologies that collected these stories for new SF fans to catch up on the past.  Hell, most of the great SF novels we baby boomers read first appeared as a series of short stories, and they were called fix-up novels, like City, The Foundation Trilogy, A Canticle for Leibowitz, More than Human, A Case of Conscience, etc., or they were famous collections like I, Robot, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, The Menace from Earth, etc.

Fans of the genre usually attribute the beginning of science fiction to the publication of Hugo Gernsback’s  Amazing Stories (April, 1926) but short fiction featuring science fictional ideas have been around a very long time.  At first Gernsback called his stories scientifiction, trying to classify a certain kind of story.  Before that, sometimes this unknown type of story was called the scientific romance.  Sam Moskowitz create a number of anthologies featuring earlier science fiction such as Masterpieces of Science Fiction (1650-1935), Science Fiction in Old San Francisco (1854-1890), Science Fiction by Gaslight (1891-1911) and Under the Moons of Mars (1912-1920).  More can be read about these pre-Amazing era of science fiction in Pilgrims Through Space and Time by J. O. Bailey, a classic study first published in 1947.

Pilgrams-Through-Space-and-Timescience fiction by gaslight

Amazing_Stories_April_1926

During the late 1920s and for most of the 1930s, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder and Astounding Science Fiction was the primary source of science fiction as it wasn’t common yet to publish such genre stories in book form.  This era is decidedly different than what came afterwards,  what the first fandom read and loved.  There are two great anthologies to track down if you want to get a taste of 1930s science fiction, Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, and Science Fiction of the 30’s edited by Damon Knight.

Before-the-Golden-Agescience-fiction-of-the-30s

Then in July, 1939 John W. Campbell published his famous issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and what later old timers called The Golden Age of Science Fiction began.  Much of what came out in hardcover from the legendary small press publishers, Gnome Press, Fantasy Press, Shasta, in the early 1950s, first appeared in the pulps in the 1940s.  Few modern science fiction fans know about John W. Campbell and how he changed the direction of science fiction.  He’s famous for discovering Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, among many others.

astounding science fiction july 1939 astounding science fiction march 1941

Then right after the war, in 1946, maybe because WWII involved atomic bombs and V-2 rockets, or maybe it was just time, two retrospective science fiction anthologies of science fiction short stories were published, Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, and The Best of Science Fiction edited by Geoff Conklin.  I discovered both anthologies as tattered library books in the early 1960s as a neophyte SF fan.  The first, and the one that made the biggest impression on me was  Adventures in Time and Space (Toc).  It was a huge book that collected stories that defined that first The Golden Age of Science Fiction.  Growing up talking to older fans I always thought the Golden Age of Science Fiction was 1939-1949, but later learn the golden age of science fiction was 12.  Every year we have twelve-year-olds discovering science fiction books, but how many today ever discover the new short stories, much less the classic short stories?

In my early teens, the stories I read in the digest magazines Galaxy, If, Amazing, F&SF and Analog, would define my Golden Age nostalgia at 62.   1950s science fiction discovered in the early 1960s, along with newer writers like Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, John Brunner, created my definition of science fiction, that is essentially unchanged today, and I assume is different from how younger generations define science fiction.

I also assume subsequent generations of SF fans will look back and define SF differently, and they probably don’t include SF short stories in their formative years.  Their Golden Age of Science Fiction might be Star Trek, or Star Wars, or video games I don’t even know the name of.  However, science fiction continued to produce short stories, and a few people read them and will remember them.

What anthologies are there for every Golden Age period of science fiction that have come out in the last 60+ years?  The four pictured below cover the 1940s and 1950s, but sadly they are out of print.  They can be found used if readers take the trouble, but probably 99.9% of science fiction readers don’t take the trouble.  As newer retrospective anthologies come out, fewer stories from these years become representative, because more recent anthologies have to cover longer stretches of classic science fiction short stories.  In the early 1960s I had to discover these 1940s books.

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the-best-of-science-fictiona-treasury-of-great-science-fiction

I eventually bought Adventures in Time and Space, but not the original 1946 edition, the 1957 Modern Library reprint.  I lost that copy over the years, and now have 1990 SFBC edition.  I reread this famous anthology every ten or fifteen years to take me back to the headspace of my childhood.  Every time I reread “Requiem,” “Forgetfulness,” “Black Destroyer,” “Nightfall,” “Farewell to the Master,” “By His Bootstraps,” and many others, I’m reacquainted with 1940s science fiction, and the 1964 me.  These stories were already over two decades old when I first read them, and they had a feel of quaintness fifty years ago, so I wonder what teens today will think of them?

Even though I’m encouraging younger readers to try these old stories, I have to warn you, they are old.  Not as ancient as those from the 19th century, but they represent a different mindset than what I assume a kid today has.  Part of reading anything old, whether it’s The Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, or Mark Twain, is you’re exploring ancient thoughts and thinking.  Some old writers can actually speak across time and still have vitality.  Most writers can’t.  You read those writers with an academic mind, playing both an English professor, anthropologist, and historian.

Science fiction is often described as evoking a sense of wonder.  Reading these old stories is like being the Indiana Jones of science fiction, looking for rare treasures of wonder, working as an archeologist uncovering ancient far out ideas and trying to piece together the evolution of science fictional memes.

Adventures in Time and Space is a rare example of a retrospective anthology getting reprinted, and although it’s been reprinted many times, it’s long out of print.  For some reason many anthologies seldom get reprinted or stay in print.  I guess it’s a copyright issue.  So most of these books I mention here are not in print.  Which is a shame, because they represent a special kind of history – our genre history.  And wouldn’t it be great if someone could reprint all these wonderful books as ebooks and audiobooks?

The Best of Science Fiction (ToC) edited by Geoff Conklin, that also came out in that breakthrough year of 1946, never had the lasting fame as Adventures in Time and Space.  This historical collection was reprinted once in 1980 as The Golden Age of Science Fiction.  Geoff Conklin went on to edit many more science fiction anthologies, but none of them became classic like Adventures in Time and Space.  If you can get ahold of a copy of the Healy and McComas volume it contains some of the most remembered stories from the late 1930s and early 1940s era.  Wikipedia shows its table of contents and many of the stories and authors have links to entries.  Of course, the titles in red are the stories now forgotten.  By modern standards, these tales are still part of the ancient history of science fiction.

the-best-science-fiction-stories-1950the-best-science-fiction-stories-1951

Starting in 1949, and running through 1958, T. E. Dikty and Everett F. Bleiler started an annual anthology series that collected the best stories of the previous year.  Then from 1956-1968 Judith Merrill created her The Year’s Best S-F series.

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All through the 1950s there were periodic collections for F&SF and Galaxy magazines that collected the best stories.

the best from fantasy and science fiction 7th seriesGalaxy Reader 2nd

a-treasury-of-great-science-fiction

In 1959, Anthony Boucher edited A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, a two volume anthology that collected 4 short novels, 12 novelettes and 8 short stories to give a really big overview of the science fiction genre.  For years this two volume set was a prime inducement to join the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC), and gave new fans a sense of SF history.  It’s not really a great collection for a retrospective short stories because it was dominated by four novels, although great ones.  See TocV1, TocV2, because it might be worth collecting.  Volume 2 has Brain Wave by Poul Anderson and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, a couple of my favorites.

Worlds-Best 1967Worlds-Best 1968

Worlds-Best 1969Worlds-Best 1970

Starting in 1965 and running till 1990, Donald Wollheim edited World’s Best SF.  Wollheim was the Gardner Dozois of his day, or maybe I should say Dozois is the Wollheim of today.  These were my favorites annual reads when growing up, and couldn’t resist showing four covers that are burned into my memory.  Wollheim’s taste was closer to mine than Judith Merril.

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At the beginning of 1970s, one of the greatest retrospective SF anthologies ever came out, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (ToC), edited by Robert Silverberg.  The selection is so great that every story has an entry at Wikipedia.  That says a lot if a story is remember well enough for people to write a history about it for an encyclopedia.  This book is still in print, and has often been reprinted.  It is one of the most famous science fiction anthologies ever, but it only collects stories published through 1963, and time rolls forward.  Ben Bova, Terry Carr and Arthur C. Clarke edited four more volumes in the series: Two A, Two B, Three and Four.   Annoyingly, only v. 1 and 2a and 2b are in print, but they do collect some of the most famous and loved short stories of science fiction.

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In the later 1970s I started seeing some odd mass market paperbacks called The Road to Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn.  Eventually they included six volumes:

  • The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells (1977) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 2: From Wells to Heinlein (1979) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 3: From Heinlein to Here (1979) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 4: From Here to Forever (1982) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 5: The British Way (1998) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 6: Around the World (1998) (ToC)

The original four came out as mass market paperbacks, but eventually reprinted as trade editions when the last two volumes completed the series.  They can be expensive to track down now, which is rather depressing, since they make a very nice overview of science fiction.  Even the Kindle edition of volume one is $31.49, and the trade paper of volume 3 is $57.75, which means few people will ever buy them.

Since 1953, The Hugo Award, selected by fans, has been given to short stories and novelettes, and in 1968 they created the novella category.  If you follow the links from the story length you’ll see listings of famous stories published since then.  Since 1966, The Nebula Award, selected by writers, have been given for short stories, novelettes, and novellas.   Again, follow the links to the listings.  Over the years these award winning stories have been collected into anthologies for The Hugo Winners (5 volumes) and The Nebula Awards (1-33, 2000-).

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In 1992, Tom Shippey edited The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories (ToC) which aimed to give a concise collection of 20th century science fiction.  Luckily this volume is still in print.

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Then in 1993, Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery took another look at 1960-1990 American science fiction short stories with their book, The Norton Book of Science Fiction (ToC).  Not quite a SF feminist manifesto, this anthology included far more women writers than prior retrospective collections.

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In 1994, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer came out with one of the biggest retrospective anthologies ever, The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (ToC), with stories going back to 1844 (“Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne).  This massive book, almost a 1,000 pages, took a new look at the complete history of the science fiction short story, with the focus on real science fiction.  Sadly, this one is out of print.

women of wonder classic yearswomen of wonder contemporary years

The 1990s was a great decade for retrospective anthologies, especial this two volume set edited by Pamela Sargent that showed a different look at science fiction, emphasizing how women wrote SF.  Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (1940s-1970s) (Toc) and Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (1970s-1990s) (ToC).

The Years Best Science Fiction 30thYears Best SF 18

Since 1984 Gardner Dozois has been editing the annual The Year’s Best Science Fiction.  If you don’t currently read the printed or online SF magazines, this is one of two great annual resources to keep up with short science fiction.  The other is David Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF which started in 1996.

Internet Science Fiction Database offers lists of top stories and anthologies at their site on their ISFDB Top 100 Lists.  Sci-Fi Lists, a fan polling site offers Top 100 Sci-Fi Sort Fiction, and Next 100 SF Short Fiction.  Ian Sales offers “The list: 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women.”  Free Speculative Fiction Online links to legal free copies of science fiction short stories.

Any story that catches you attention from the table of contents listed here can be researched at ISFDB to see if it’s in an anthology you already own.

Current Print and Online Science Fiction Magazines

History of the Short Story

JWH – 1/23/14

Why Were The Two Most Famous Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century Not Written By Science Fiction Authors?

The two most famous science fiction novels of last century were Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  Now I didn’t write that to generate a flame war among science fiction fans, or as a slight to genre writers, but because I believe it’s true, especially if you ask people who don’t normally read science fiction.  I’m actually wondering why the two biggest successes using science fiction as a writing technique weren’t penned by writers who specialized in writing science fiction?  Huxley and Orwell were straight ahead literary guys – total amateurs at speculative fiction.  They probably never heard of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell.

And, the two most famous science fiction novels of the 19th century, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, were not written by a genre writer either.  H. G. Wells existed before the science fiction genre was established.  Nor were his books written for the genre reader of his day, which did have a lot of science fiction, even though it lacked the label.  In the 21st century, when science fiction is a well established, and a well loved genre, it bizarrely seems that the people who aren’t science fiction writers have the biggest successes with the technique.  Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are two good recent examples.

What are these non-SF writers doing that SF genre writers aren’t?  I just got through rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four and I thought about this the whole time I was thoroughly enjoying the book.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is so different from the genre science fiction books I normally read that I’m tempted to say it’s not science fiction.  Many literary writers and English profs claim just that, but they would be wrong.  Insanely wrong.  George Orwell might not have written for Campbell’s Astounding, and probably never even read the famous pulp, but Nineteen Eighty-Four would have fit comfortably in that magazine as a serial.  No Astounding reader would have made one objection as to it not being science fiction.  And I’m quite sure readers would have voted it the best story of the issue, even if Heinlein had had a story in that issue too. 

Not long ago I reread Beyond This Horizon by Heinlein and I felt pretty sure that Heinlein wrote it hoping it would be another Brave New World.  Heinlein was savvy enough to know that Huxley’s book sold far more than pulp fiction, and at the time, very little science fiction was even being published in hardback, or that new format, the paperback.  Here’s an early paperback cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four – looks just like a science fiction novel, doesn’t it?

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While reading Nineteen Eighty-Four this time I was blown-away by Orwell’s world building genius.  World building is an essential feature of SF/F, which books like Dune and The Lord of the Ring illustrate.  J. K. Rowling is a billionaire for her world building, and deservedly so.  Does that mean Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world is just better painted than all the other genre stories working with the same idea?  Does The Handmaid’s Tale just out dystopian run of the mill SF writers?  Maybe so, but why?

It’s pretty obvious that more people on Earth can understand what the implications of Big Brother are over philosophical implications of Arrakis.  Too many hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century encountered a totalitarian state first hand, or fought against them in wars, or spent years hearing about them in the news, not to understand the brilliant portrayal of Big Brother and the savage criticism of them with the creation of Newspeak.

The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are so well known in the 20th century is they describe so clearly the quintessential fears of the 20th century.  All stories set in the future are about the present, and I guess the better they are about exploring the present, the more copies they will sell, and the better chance they will be part of the curricula in high schools and colleges.

The entire time I spent reading Nineteen Eighty-Four off my Kindle I was amazed by how relevant this book written in 1948 was to 2013.  To write that Orwell was brilliant is an undeserving understatement.  We live in a society that worships freedom, yet we live with constant NSA surveillance, continuous war, Homeland Security, and the sun never sets on our drone airspace.  Our paranoia knows knows no bounds.  In terms of political psychology and insight into the human heart, Orwell runs away with the prize for applying science fiction techniques for writing about the future to say so much about now.  Nor has any science fiction writer ever attempted to explore the linguistic territory of Newspeak, which is the real science that makes Nineteen Eighty-Four great science fiction.

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I haven’t reread Brave New World recently, but I plan to.  Brave New World was written in 1931 and I just finished a book,  One Summer: American 1927 by Bill Bryson that is the perfect companion to the Huxley book, because it explained the world Huxley was living in when he wrote his classic.  It’s a time when many U.S. governors and mayors belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, where many prominent Americans publically espoused beliefs in eugenics and extreme racism, where many states had passed eugenic laws, and racism was the law of the land.  The twenties was the decade that mass production and mass communication really got massive.  It was a decade where America began the Americanization of the world.  That scared Huxley.  Huxley was afraid of America in 1930, and Orwell was afraid of Russia in 1948.

Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are true dystopian novels – they are anti utopian, written in response to intellectuals promoting utopian solutions to world problems.  Huxley and Orwell understood the world in which they lived, and wrote books that showed off that knowledge in deeply insightful ways.  They both used science fiction as a literary device to philosophize about ideas if written as nonfiction would have been entertaining to few, and boring to many, but because of those techniques, wowed millions.  Readers still study and reference their work.  And those novels would not have had the impact they did without the science fiction. 

Huxley and Orwell, and other literary writers, use science fiction to bring political, ethical and scientific ideas to the masses.  Why don’t more genre writers attempt this?  Heinlein tried, especially with Stranger in a Strange Land, his most ambitious novel.  So, why did he fail?  I think for two reasons.  First, it included ESP, or PSI powers, that aren’t scientific or believable, and second, it promoted his personal ideas about freedom, especially sexual freedom, nudity, and group sex, which few people beside the hippies of the 1960s shared.

Ray Bradbury hit one out of the park with Fahrenheit 451, but it’s never achieved the popular acclaim that Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four has.  Maybe because it wasn’t nearly as ambitious as those two.  And dare I say it, maybe the target, those people who would give up reading for mindless television, were insulted rather than inspired to canonize literacy?

John Brunner also tried several novels of this type, using science fiction to make political statements, especially Stand on Zanzibar.  Zanzibar was an experimental tour de force that was hard to comprehend or read by the general reader, but dazzled the exceptional reader.  It should have been a contender.  It should be better remembered.  Both Fahrenheit 451  and Stand on Zanzibar are shining examples of what pulp writers can do when they aim high.

I think the genre writer that comes closest in writing ambitious science fiction for the non science fiction reading masses was Orson Scott Card and his book Ender’s Game.  It was obvious targeted at genre readers, but it was widely read outside of the genre.  It was never as sophisticated as Huxley and Orwell’s books, and didn’t deal with broad contemporary issues, but it dealt with xenocide in a way that made it relevant to the average reader who could translate it into commentary on genocide, or commentary on science fiction.  Unfortunately, the recent movie version of the story targets Ender’s Game at the lowest common denominator video game player, whose kill anything that moves instinct means they have deaf ears for the ethical insights.

The 2014 Earth is just as fucked up as the 1948 Earth, even more so, so why aren’t we reading novels that targets our political, social and ethical failures like modern science fictional smart bombs that are literary descendants of Huxley and Orwell?  Is it because serious thinkers no longer believe that science fiction is the proper tool?  Has decades of fun science fiction dulled the edge of sharp science fiction?  Or maybe we don’t have political and social thinkers like Orwell or Huxley anymore, because those writers work for the New York Times or Fox News.  Let’s hope it’s not that times aren’t bad enough yet to be muses for such writers.

JWH – 12/31/13

Learning to Write Science Fiction By Studying Temporal POV

My goal is to write a science fiction novel, but I don’t have the skill or discipline to finish one now.  I write scenes and chapters, and then rewrite them.  I spend much of my time thinking about fiction and how it’s created.  I also spend a lot of time thinking and reading about the past and how we learn about it in fiction and nonfiction, films and documentaries, television shows, and even poems and songs.

When we read science fiction we read it imagining the scenes are happening in the future.

All art is communication from the past.  Even when artists are creating their artwork in the present, they are inspired by the past in creating their communiqué to the future.  Yet, when we experience art, we experience it in the present.  Writing science fiction is hard because I’m writing a message to the future, about the future, but it’s really about their past, and my past, but perceived in some future present.

Once you start thinking about artistic temporal POV it gets as twisted as a time travel paradox.

Most readers will be thinking I’m overthinking this and say, “Quit procrastinating and go write a story about spaceships and robots.”  I can crank out bad fiction all day long.  Fiction is like a stage magic – full of illusions and sleight of hand.  It’s easy enough to fool readers with crude make believe, but it’s damn hard to create a slick piece of storytelling magic.

My retired life is divided into three modes.  The first, I spend living in the present, cooking, cleaning, having friends over for dinner, getting the hot water heater replaced, shopping for books, paying bills, etc.  The second, and what I spend most of my time doing, is decoding messages from the past.  The second mode happens in the present, so reading a book – the act of sitting in a chair and looking at pages – I’m still living in the first mode.  In my head though, I’m decoding messages from the past.  Most people never think about this, and reading a book or watching a movie is the present.  It’s only when you examine how art is created that you start decoding the message from the past.  My third mode of existence, which I’m working to expand, is spent coding messages to the future.

This morning I woke up at 4:09 am. I sat in the dark (I sleep in a chair) thinking about all this.

Crosby, Stills & Nash 

I put on Crosby, Stills & Nash, CSN’s first album.  Listening to an album on headphones in the dark before dawn is a great time to focus on music and stimulate thinking.  I remember buying this album the week it was released in 1969 and how excited I was to discover it.  The Byrds were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was another favorite band, so the names David Crosby and Stephen Stills jumped out.  The album blew me away back then.  And as I listened to it now, I admire it greatly for its artistic construction, and find it beautiful to hear.  However, the songs are fascinating.  They are histories themselves, many about famous girlfriends.  Or the songs have a history themselves, like “Wooden Ships” which months later appeared on the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers album.

Why am I talking about music when I promised to talk about science fiction?  I’m working on a story that I want to be about legendary people.  When you read it, these people will be from the future, but the narrative will make you feel they are from the past, but the scene will be set in their present.  What details from fifty years ago about ordinary people living their present survive to make legends?

Like I said, all artwork is a communication from the past.  But even my urge to hear this album this morning comes from an earlier communication.

legends_of_the_canyon

The other night I watched Legends of the Canyon about many famous musicians, songwriters and groups that lived in Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, including The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Because David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Dallas Taylor were prominently interviewed, the film almost seemed to be about the birth of CSN.  Now I want to find time to listen to Joni Mitchell and The Mamas and Papas albums.  I don’t think I’m an old guy that dwells on the past, at least not my personal past, but much of my retired time is spent listening to music, reading books, watching television and going to the movies.  These people who lived in Laurel Canyon lived lives that are still being written about again and again.  Imagine writing about such people who live in the future.  How do you capture their essence in the fewest words?

One thing that struck me was the memories of Crosby, Stills and Nash had of the first time they played together.  Crosby and Nash insist it was at Joni Mitchell’s house, Stills adamantly insists it wasn’t.  Reading science fiction often feels like science fiction writers are predicting the future, but they are not.  They never try to predict the future.  We remember the past imperfectly, but we constantly mine it for value.  Don’t we also mine speculation about the future for value even though we know those stories are completely untrue?  Doesn’t fiction create truth out of lies?  

I’m consuming the past.  Part of that is being in the present moment just enjoying the art, but more and more, I’m thinking about where and how the art was produced.  I have read many books and articles about these bands, albums and songs.  As interpreters of art we do not have to know the history connected to them.  You can listen to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” without ever knowing that Stephen Stills was writing about Judy Collins.  However, if you do study it’s history, the nature of how you appreciate the song changes.  The more you know how the song was recorded, and how the band was formed to record it, the more you realize the song is history, part of the past, and not part of the present.  Won’t the same be true about science fiction?  The more you know about science and the present will enhance the art of painting imaginary futures?

hemingway 

Am I studying art, or studying history?  Yesterday I cooked lentil soup while listening to The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway Volume One.  The stories are exquisite.  They are wonderful read by Stacy Keach (who Judy Collins left Stephen Stills for) on the Audible edition, making them dramatic, and the intent of Hemingway’s writing clear and obvious.

For my retirement years my goal is to write a novel, and I’m working on it sporadically.  I’m not a very good writer, so I’m spending part of my days studying fiction and writing styles.  When I listen to Hemingway I realize two very important things.  One, Hemingway wrote as if he witness these events first hand.  Some of his stories, like the Nick Adams tales, are autobiographical, but others like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are obviously fiction, but the details are so vivid, that I believe many of them are autobiographical too.  Second, Hemingway wrote in a style that describes much with few words.  His scenes are vivid and dramatic, with dialog so pitch perfect that they feel ultra realistic, like everything he writes is a documentary film.  It has tremendous impact.

For example, just a few lines of dialog paints a vivid picture of the mother in “Soldier’s Home.”  How did Hemingway create her?  Was she like his mother, or did one of his friends tell him a story about their mother, or did Hemingway make it up whole?  Like a poet, Hemingway uses very few words to capture this woman.  The scene reminded me of conflicts with my mother when I was young.  No matter where Hemingway got his idea, it feels like it had actually happened.

Most fiction is made up in the head of the writer.  It’s not based or inspired by anything that really happened.  Great fiction either captures real events, or fakes them so well they feel real.  Good writing is about pulling off this trick.

I spend my days experimenting with writing science fiction, but I want to use the Hemingway style.  How do I write about a future that will never exist as if I’m chronicling something I experienced for real?  It’s only possible if I can visualize it completely, as if each scene really happened.  I’m working on a scene where a man and women meet for the first time – how can I convey it to readers who can’t see what I’m seeing in my mind, and for me to make them feel they are experiencing something that really happened?

Philomena

After I cooked the soup, I went to see Philomena with my friends Janis and Anne.  It’s a movie based on real life events, which was also published as a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.  We all loved this quiet little movie because it was so real.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how real life is turned into fiction, or how completely fictional characters are made to seem real.  It often seems to me that the fiction with the most impact is either based on real events, or at least written by people who have been to the times and places where the stories took place. 

That means science fiction and fantasy have a very real handicap.  If everything comes out of the author’s mind then the story is limited by the author’s imagination.  That’s why the Harry Potter books are so impressive.  J. K. Rowling spent years imagining her characters and scenes.  She even drew detailed pictures of them.  And that might be why movie science fiction and fantasy is so much more popular than book SF&F.  Movies have to create all the visuals and that makes the stories more real.

Science fiction and fantasy stories must spend a lot of time painting the scenery and explaining the cultural background, but don’t you think the Harry Potter books feel like the events actually happened?  Isn’t that why they succeeded and other books about schools for wizards don’t?

from-lark-rise-to-candleford

Sometimes history is so distant that we must recreate it from imagined details.  After the movie last night, Janis and I watched Alpha House, and then I watched an episode of Lark Rise To Candleford.  Flora Thompson wrote a trilogy of books that were autobiographical sketches of growing up in rural England in the late Victorian times.  As much as I love the TV series, it’s full of anachronistic thinking.  I’ve read a little bit of the original book and it’s absolutely wonderful in providing period details.

Writing science fiction is like producing a television show over a century after the events – only a strange stylized view comes through.  I wished I had the skill to write about the future with the details of Flora Thompson’s written observations.  Since that’s impossible, I’d have to make up the details with that level of realism.  I don’t know if that’s possible.

distrust

I’m currently listening to Distrust That Particular Flavor, a nonfiction book by William Gibson, where he talks about learning to write science fiction, but also deals with understanding the past, present and future.  Gibson also admits to not knowing how to write when he started writing but taught himself.  Listening to his essays I get the feeling he’s also obsessed with time and science fiction too, but maybe in a different way.  He talks about writing about the net before the net caught on, and writing about future technology that we have no words to describe, especially verbs that explain its impact.

1984_pulp3

I’ve also reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  It is a book written in the late 1940s about 1984 but about a future that has never happened but is all too real, that is now part of our past.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is a brilliant piece of science fiction, absolutely stunning, among the best examples of the literary technique ever produced.

So, what makes Orwell’s great novel great?  To me it’s the temporal POV.  It reads like the events have already taken place, like the details given were facts of memory, like the characters actually lived through these events.  It feels like Orwell lived through this time like Hemingway lived through the events in his stories.  That’s a neat trick for a science fiction book.  It’s a trick of literature.  It’s a writing trick that distinguishes literature from genre.  And it’s one very hard act to pull off.

In struggling to write my scenes, which I do over and over again, at best I can produce pulp fiction.  I’m not being critical.  There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction.  Hell, my writing isn’t even good pulp fiction.

But what all of this exploration of time and science fiction has taught me is I want to write as if I’ve already experienced what I’m writing.  In other words, I want to write about the future as if I’ve already lived it, instead of imagining a future I might could live in.

JWH – 12/18/13

Science Fiction: Nostalgic Past v. Dystopian Future

I am sixty-two years old and I want to write and publish my first science fiction story.  I started reading science fiction in 1962.  What science fiction was to me then, and what science fiction means to me today, are vastly different literary forms.  On Tuesday, SF Signal ran “How to Escape the Legacy of Science Fiction’s Pulp Roots” by Gareth L. Powell, which triggered a lively discussion in the comments section.  Many readers took it as an attack on classic science fiction, but I don’t think that was the point, but the real point is rather complicated because of various viewpoint perspectives.

  • For many people science fiction equals the Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov era
  • Some of these people are older fans that grew up with those stories and have tremendous nostalgia for them
  • Some of these people are younger fans that have discovered this classic era and love it
  • Some of these people are non-SF readers who rejected SF because of this era’s lack of literary quality
  • Some of these people are current SF fans who have no interest in past SF and feel it’s irreverent to contemporary SF
  • Then there are general readers that have read a few of the classic SF stories and now they narrowly define SF by these old classics
  • Then there are many readers, young and old, that are completely ignorant of SF, classic or modern, and the phrase science fiction equals movies and television shows, and book SF and its history are invisible to them

saturn

Powell, a science fiction writer, was talking to a book club that obviously wasn’t a SF book club and said of them:

I noticed this recently, when I spent an enjoyable evening being quizzed by members of a local book group about one of my novels, which they had been reading. They were a nice group of people but, when they spoke of the science fiction books they had tried previously, not one of them mentioned anything less than fifty years old! In their youths, they’d tried reading Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but had been put off by, as they saw it, a concentration on ideas at the expense of characterization or literary merit.

I’ve known lots of people like this in my lifetime.  Over there years in the general literary press, writers like John Updike and others, have expressed this view about science fiction.  Basically they say it’s poorly written kid’s stuff, and they are referring to the classic Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov era of SF.  SF fans have always reacted badly to this – especially the old fans who grew up reading and loving classic SF, and the younger fans who have rediscovered it.

Gareth L. Powell is a writer of new science fiction and feels, “As science fiction writers and fans, we are rightly proud of our genre’s origins and heritage. Yet sometimes, those same origins can be a millstone around our necks, dragging us down.” 

Powell goes on to admit an influence and admiration for classic science fiction but suggests that the literary past can be a burden to contemporary writers. 

That is my conflict too, but for other reasons that don’t pertain to literary style.  Powell, as a writer is trying to discover new territory to write his science fiction and says,

But, can we really blame them? Those early classics (and the million derivative works they inspired) helped establish and reinforce the popular perception of science fiction as a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature. For modern non-SF audiences, they have little appeal. Readers are more sophisticated now. The only way we’ll escape the legacy of our pulp roots is to promote the innovation, literary merit, and relevance of the best modern genre writing.

Some fans will always cling to the ‘golden age’ works of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and I can understand why. They provide a magic door back to the simple pleasures of a simpler world – a world before global warming, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic uncertainty; relics of a world where the future was easily understood, and (largely) American, middle class and white in outlook, origin and ethnicity.

My reading world of 1962 is so much different than my reading world at age 62.  I still read and love 1950s and 1960s science fiction, but I’m willing to admit that it was poorly written, but that’s not an essential complaint, at least by me, no, my problem with classic science fiction is it’s dated.  It’s wrong.  It’s about futures that will never be.  Classic science fiction futures have become my nostalgic past.  I read old SF to relish how I felt when I was young and the future was full of fantastic possibilities.

When science fiction writers like Robert Silverberg  admit that interstellar travel is probably impossible, and I’m starting to doubt that even interplanetary travel and colonization will happen, then it’s time we need to completely reevaluate science fiction.  But isn’t that what new SF writers do?  If I have any criticism of Gareth Powell, it’s not over his criticisms of classic science fiction, but rather, over how he’s reimagining science fiction.

If science fiction fans want the respect of the literary world at large they need to take their genre more seriously.  Doctor Who and Star Trek reboots are just recycling a nostalgic past.  So is the new space opera.  Science fiction has become horribly incestuous.

I’m 62 and want to write science fiction.  I’m inspired by the science fiction I discovered in 1962 – but I don’t want to live and write in a nostalgic past.  I don’t think Powell went far enough in suggesting that classic science fiction is a millstone around the neck of new science fiction writers.  Most science fiction, and I’m talking 98-99%, is recursive science fiction fantasies. 

Real science fiction is about writing about possible futures.  You can’t do that by writing about impossible pasts.  You can’t be the next H. G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov by recycling their ideas about the future.  The thing about science fiction is it always gets the future wrong, but it’s fabulously right when it’s inventing new possible futures.

Right now dystopian science fiction is very popular, very exciting to young people.  Their instincts tell them the futures of science fiction pasts are nostalgic pap.  Sure, there’s a large segment of the young and the old that want to cling to the futures of classic science fiction, but they need to either accept their fantasies are fantasy and not true science fiction, or go read some science books.  On the other hand, we need new writers that can imagine some possible non-dystopian futures.  And do you know the definition of non-dystopian?  It’s utopian. 

That’s why so many readers love classic science fiction.  For all the scary aspects of alien invasions, collapsing civilizations, nuclear wars, there was a sense of utopian dreams in that fiction, of interplanetary and interstellar travel, life extension, new civilizations, immortality, intelligent machines, brain uploading, etc.  The reason why teens love dystopian fiction is not because they want to dwell on the horrible, but because the characters are free to fight for a new way of living, invent new societies, to rebel against authority, to live without parents and rules. 

Readers are attracted to the positive, even if the setting is a nightmare.

Classic science fiction is both inherently positive and now nostalgic.  But the futures it predicted aren’t going to happen.  Powell is right, the challenge of new science fiction writers is not to be burden by past science fiction.  Not just because it has the reputation for being poorly written, but because its now dated and wrong.  I know why so many people love classic science fiction and defend it so passionately.  I’m sure Powell knows too.  But lovers of classic science fiction shouldn’t be offended when we criticize classic science fiction.  The goal of this criticism is to write better science fiction.  It’s called evolution.

JWH 12/7/13

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