Finding Sense of Wonder Science Fiction in My Social Security Years

Back in 1964, when I was twelve, the future was so bright we really had to wear shades to read science fiction.

Fifty years ago,  when I was twelve, I discovered sense of wonder in science fiction books from the 1950s.  Those books were more exciting than getting high—and I knew, because, by a few years later I was smoking dope to jet assist my science fiction take-offs.  My teen years in the 1960s was a combination of rock and roll, counter-culture and science fiction.  My mind flew interplanetary high with great expectations for the future.  In the 1970s I jettisoned the drugs, and coasted though the decades, living off the hope of 1950s futures.  Music and science fiction stoked the fires of the future, and kept the old dreams simmering.  Music stimulated my emotions and books energized my mind, but after fifty years we never reached the futures I once saw so clearly.

Between 1964 and 1969, I read book after book, that wowed my evolving mind with far out ideas.  Now my brain isn’t so young anymore, and I need some science fictional Viagra.  My future vision has been darkened by cataracts cause by living through years of reality.  Is it just me, or do kids growing up today see  different futures?  They look all cyborg cool in their Google Glass specs, but they don’t seem to see as far as we used to.  I’m not sure what they see, or what drugs they are on, but I’m not sure I like their dreams of the future.  Where’s the dazzle?  Where’s the vision?  Where’s the great expectations?  Or was science fiction no better than psychedelics at getting us Baby Boomers off Earth?

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I still depend on music every day to boost my emotional self, but I’ve developed a tolerance to science fiction.  It just doesn’t give me that old sense of wonder high that thrilled by twelve-year old self.  Maybe the future I see from my retirement years doesn’t work with modern science fiction.  Maybe I need to be young to love today’s science fiction.  But I can’t help but believe there’s new science fiction out there for us old Baby Boomers that will help us keep the old 1950s dreams alive, but where is it?

Oh, I can find plenty of books to escape into, books that make me want to turn the page to find out what will happen, but I rarely read a science fiction story that gets me sensawonder high anymore.  No offense or criticism to modern science fiction writers, but they seem more into story than ideas, especially ones that can turn into a series of books.  Many of my SF reading friends love finding a character to stick with book after book, but that doesn’t appeal to me.

Back in 2009 I wrote “My Science Fiction Thrill is Gone.”  In the almost half decade since then I’ve found a handful of really good science fiction novels that I liked:

  • Wake/Watch/Wonder trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Martian by Andy Weir

Actually, averaging one great science fiction book a year isn’t bad.  Looking back over the history of science fiction, most years only produced one or two books I really loved.  But in the past I had a lot more near misses to keep me going through the slow times.

I’ve read many fun books I’m not listing, but they aren’t the kind of SF I’m talking about.   Nor am I talking about non-SF books that impressed me with other kinds of sense of wonders.  I sometimes stumble on older science fiction books I missed from earlier times, like Dawn by Octavia Butler and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, as well as rereading many of the classics of SF I’ve encountered over my last half-century.

Yet, what I really crave is great new mind-blowing sense of wonder science fiction.  The kind I have to wear shades to read.

I can go for long stretches without any science fiction sense of wonder boosts in my life.  I miss that.  Such withdrawals are depressing.  Are all the great far out ideas used up?  I know many of my favorites concepts from my Golden Age of Science Fiction years have been done time and again.  Just how many aliens invading Earth or time travel stories can one consume in a lifetime without becoming bored with them?  How many stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before the thrill of being on Mars becomes dull?  Is there a new way to present societies developing colonies on the Moon and Mars?  And don’t get me going on how jaded I am about military SF and galactic empires.

When I look at the science fiction selection at Audible books sorted by relevance, giving the most popular and highly rated books, giant fantasy epics fill the top of the list.  A few science fiction books show up, like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One, both of which I’ve read.  However, fantasy dominates the list, for page after page.  The few new science fiction books that I haven’t read are books that I consider retreads of old ideas.  Sure, they might be great stories, but I just don’t want get involved with trilogies and longer multipart series just because of action and heroic characters.  I guess military SF give many science fiction fans something to read that feels like the old days, but I’m just too worn out on action to care anymore.  I don’t even like action SF at the movies anymore.  I was thrilled by Her.  Action packed, military based SF, including those set into galactic empires, feel like fantasy worlds to me, like reading Tolkien.

I hate to be an old fart bitching about how today’s science fiction ain’t as good as the stuff I read growing up, but well, shit I am.  I sped through The Martian by Andy Weir and it felt like I was twelve again, reading science fiction back in the 1960s, but we should be reading realistic literary fiction about life on Mars by now.  What the fuck went wrong?  Are the futures of 1950s all played out?  How can being a grunt in an interstellar fleet be such a popular future today?  And why did kids switch from space explorers to endless wars with the undead?  Really, is that what you want to grow up and do?  Is the only kind of alien you can imagine is the one you want to kill on your PS4 gun sight?  It’s no wonder that military SF is so popular, kids today grow up game-trigger happy, and they can only imagine futures where cardboard enemies pop up endlessly.

I want science fiction where I explore.  I want futures where fantastically far out ideas are possible.  In a way the failure of science fiction vision can be seen in the history of the various Star Trek series.  Over time stories became routine, usually about conflict with standard enemies.  Science fiction was better when it was like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where they had to invent a new concept every week.

Did all the concepts get imagined?  Have they all been used up?  Have the bright futures become boring?  Or am I just a foolish old fart?  When I was young, I remember old farts claiming their youth was better than ours, so I’m assuming I’m going through the same stupid phase they were, but still, why does things in the past now look so bright I have to wear shades?

JWH – 7/29/14

The Future 101: Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about the future, but in a different way.  Can we understand the future in any meaningful way?  Now, I don’t mean the actual future that will unfold, but the concept of the future as a feature of reality.  Asking “What is the future?” is more like a Zen kōan than a scientific inquiry.  We think of time as the 4th dimension, as one long continuous stretching of three dimensional space.  And because of science fiction we picture traveling  to other points in time as if they were another spatial coordinate.  I think this is a false concept that corrupts our sense of the past and future.

Another problem we face, is we think of time personally.  Consciousness experiences the now, so it feels like the past is our life before now, and the future is what happens next.  But if the Earth is sterilized by a gamma ray burst in the next minute, reality would continue without us, and so would the future.  Although we experience time as self-aware beings, time exists outside ourselves.  We might exist in the future, and we might not.

Time exists without our consciousness being aware of it.  A tree has very limited awareness of its moment in existence, but its there in the now, and it has a past and future.  Our conscious mind observes the now, remembers the past, and anticipates the future.  Science fiction is the literature about anticipating the future.  We like to think that science fiction both prepares us for possible futures, and helps us build specific futures.  For example, science fiction warns us against the singularity, yet inspires us to build intelligent robots.

The trouble is we don’t take the future seriously.  If we did we would eat healthy and not alter the carbon dioxide ratio in the atmosphere.  We regularly interact with the future, like a squirrel burying nuts, or humans going to the grocery store to buy a week’s groceries, but reaching into the future has a limited range.  Instead of using science fiction to prepare us for the future, we’ve often turned it into Coca-Cola and cotton candy, empty calories to enjoy in the present moment of now.  Our immediate desires always overwhelm any knowledge we might have about the future.  Dealing with the future requires tremendous discipline that most of us lack, including myself.

One analogy that has occurred to me is to think of our brain as a CPU which is the now.  The past is everything written on the hard disk, and the future is the output we’re going to write to the hard disk.  Over time that contents of the hard disk changes.  The now is the main loop of our programming, just idling through the processing cycles.  If we want to interact with the future, we have to write something out to the hard drive, or delete an old file.

Most of us have great expectations about the future.  Some of us worry about the future.  Between dreamers and doomsayers, we find all hopes and fears.  Tomorrow is often pretty much like today, but ten years from now will be more surprising than how memories of ten years ago feels now.  Everything we want is in the future because everything we have is now.  When we throw the dice we want to win big and not come up snake eyes.  We’re all futurologists in that we hope to plan our future accomplishments and predict the obstacles.

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We want to know the future even though we know we can’t.  We predict the future even though we know we’ll be wrong.  We just can’t help ourselves.  Some people believe in crystal balls, others in statistics, but some turn to science fiction.  Science fiction plays on the same dichotomy as most people feel about the future—some SF writers write about what they hope will happen, and others write about what they fear will happen.

For over a century before space travel writers wrote about humans traveling to the Moon, planets and to other star systems.  Did science fiction writers predict that humans would travel in space, or did they inspires people to build rockets and space capsules?  Would space travel ever been invented if we hadn’t dreamed about it first?  Some people believe the future already exists and its just a matter of waiting for it to play out.  Others believe the future does not exist, only the now exists, so whatever the future will be won’t be determined until we reach that now to be.

From my personal experience, and reading piles of science books, I don’t think the future exists yet.  Nor do I believe time travel is possible.  I’m a now person.  However, I do think we can interact with the future in limited ways.  On the other hand, I’m not sure our many fantasies about the future do anything at all.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always said, “The future is everything I never imagined” even though I spent all my time trying to imagine the future.  Now that I’m living in the future, or a future now, it feels like any fantasy I had wiped out its possibility of coming true.  Sort of a weird corruption of the Uncertainty Principle.  I pictured myself going to Mars, so I never went to Mars.  I pictured humans going to Mars, so no one made it to Mars.  Sorry guys, to jinx things.   My mother had a variation on this theme.  She believed worrying about something bad will happen would keep it from happening.

Most of us will wake up tomorrow and find the future, and we’ll do that on average 30,000 times.  Each time a little surprise—until the day we don’t.  Now will cease to exist.  What divides us from the rest of the animals on this planet is we have hopes for the future.  We all want something from the future.  If we’re a child, we want Santa to bring us something exciting, if we’re a teen we want to fall in love and lose our virginity, if we’re in our twenties we want to graduate college and find a great job, and so on, until our only hope is to have a tomorrow, any tomorrow.  Some people want to be rock stars in the future, and others just want more to eat, and some just hope to keep existing.  To me happiness is having something to look forward to, even though it might not happen.

Science fiction books are fantasies about the future, some about things we want to happen, and some about things we hope won’t happen.

The common assumption is science fiction does not predict the future, but speculates on possible futures.  The truth is science fiction is a bunch of wild ideas that we find entertaining and has no relationship to the actual future even when it’s seriously speculative, extrapolating on current events, and is of little use for preparing us for the future.  Science fiction is fun escapism from the present for the most part, and occasionally insightful observations about the here and now.  Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is a brilliant use of science fiction, but does it help us with the future, or help us with how we live now?

Robert A. Heinlein took himself quite seriously as a writer of speculative fiction.  He thought three books expressed his ideas best:  Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I doubt he meant to be remembered for starting military SF, creating a hippie Bible, and not starting a popular catch phrase about free lunches.  I’ve read these books many times and I don’t think they say anything about the future at all, but a whole lot about Robert A. Heinlein.  He wanted them to be about freedom and responsibility, but I’m not sure even that comes through.   Stranger in a Strange Land was Heinlein’s idea of 1990 from 1960.  Many people think it’s about the 1960s.  After living through both times I don’t feel its about either, but it seems to say a whole lot about Heinlein’s pet ideas and peeves.

I’m starting to wonder if science fiction is about no time at all, like The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

I’m reading Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.   I don’t think we can predict the future, but I also think the only way to talk about the future is through statistics based on knowing a whole lot data about the past.  I’ll write The Future 101:  Statistics in the future. (Is that a prediction or plan?)  But for now, I shall ask, “How many science fiction novels study the past to extrapolate the future” like Piketty?  I think the common quick answer will be:  Many.  However, I think that’s wrong.  If a science fiction writer writes a well thought out book about people living in the year 2114 and how global warming has changed the world, is that really doing the same thing that Piketty is doing with all his graphs and data sets?  It’s obvious that it’s what climate scientists are doing, but is it the same thing for novel writers?

I don’t think so.  Is there any past science fiction novel about our times that sounds anything close to what’s happening now?  Climate scientists have been graphing changes in average world temperature and CO2 concentrations for decades, and our current temperatures and concentrations fall nicely on their graphs.  Is this predicting the future?  Maybe that’s as close as we can come to predicting the future.  The thing about graphs is they do change, and sometimes surprisingly so, but there’s always a reason why the numbers do something different that changes the direction of the curve.  Being able to say what those things will be ahead of time is really predicting the future.  And we can’t do that.

We can predict rising CO2 concentrations, but we can’t predict what we will do about them

Scientists had hoped twenty years ago that humanity would have heard their warnings and changed their habits so their curves would have reversed direction.  They were hoping to change the future.  Science fiction writers writing about the future of humans colonizing the solar system and the galaxy were hoping they were influencing such a future to happen.  Has that happened?

Science fiction never wanted to predict the future, it never has.  Science fiction has always been about shaping the future.  And strangely, isn’t that what we do all the time.  When Apple rolled out the iPhone didn’t they shape the future?  Without Amazing Stories and Astounding, would we have the space programs we do have today?  Did “The Man Who Sold The Moon” shape the future to produce SpaceX?  I don’t know.  That’s why I writing this essay.

The future is relentless, it’s always coming.  Everything in the now makes the future.  A tree making a seed effects the future.  When we buy groceries how much is just putting food in a shopping cart and how much is reaching into the future to make Thursday’s night dinner?  If we knew that, we’d know how much science fiction influences the future.

JWH – 6/19/14

When I Was A Martian

A popular new book out now is The Martian by Andy Weir, his first novel, about an astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars after his fellow crewmen think he’s dead and they have to leave quickly to save their own lives.  Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, and his story is very much like last year’s film, Gravity, where a solo astronaut must use his scientific wits to stay alive for hundreds of days in an environment that relentlessly keeps trying to kill him.  Watney is like a modern day Robinson Crusoe.  The Martian is a bit of a publishing sensation because it started out as a free ebook at the author’s web site, later became a 99 cent Kindle ebook, then a New York Times bestseller published by Crown, and finally is being promised to be made into a major motion picture.  The story is as good as the book’s success.

I raced through The Martian because it was a riveting read despite the fact that it’s very technical.  If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut on a mission to Mars, then this book is for you.

The Martian

Watney thinks of himself as a Martian, because he’s the only living being on Mars.  When I was a kid I used to pretend I was a Martian.  Back in the 1950s, flying saucers were a big thing with the nutty folk, and when I heard that some flying saucer conspiracy crazies thought the U.S. Air Force kept secrets about UFO’s at Wright-Patterson AFB, where I was born in 1951, I imagined that I was secretly a Martian raised by my human parents who didn’t know their real kid had been swapped by Air Force brass.  If was a fun fantasy to explain why I was so different from my mother, father and sister.

I don’t know when I first heard about Mars, but it seems like it’s always been something I knew about, like dinosaurs.  I’m sure Mars was programmed in my brain before I could even talk, by Saturday morning cartoons and Saturday afternoon science fiction movies.  By the late 1950s when I started reading books for fun, I immediately searched out books on Mars, both fiction and nonfiction.  Before the summer of 1965 I had read enough books on Mars to have endless fantasies about ancient dead cities and the exotic aliens that had built the canals.

Red-Planet

I had read many books about Mars, but the one that really hooked me on science fiction was Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, the first Heinlein book I ever read, back in 1964.  I was twelve when I read that book, the legendary Golden Age of Science Fiction.  By the time I turned 13 that same year, on November 25th, I had read every Heinlein book I could find.

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It was a crushing blow by mid-July 1965 when the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars and took a handful of grainy black and white photos that invalidated all my science fictional dreams.  Mars was as dead as the Moon, and the beautiful canals were replaced by goddamn craters.  Heinlein’s speculative fiction about Mars was now just fantasy novels like the Oz books.  No more old ones, no more Willis, and no more Barsoom.

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By high school, and the Moon landing in July of 1969, I knew Mars was cold and inhospitable, but for some strange reason I still wanted to go there.  I still wanted to be a Martian.  I was so excited by Viking 1 and 2 landing on Mars in 1976, that I continued to dream that I might get to Mars someway, even though I was much too old to believe such bullshit.  Over the years NASA landed many spacecraft on Mars, each filling out the real details of the planet that so mesmerized me as a child.   Mars is very well explored.  It’s not a very nice place for humans.  It’s very cold, with plenty of radiation, and no real air to breathe.

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After the Apollo program in the 1970s I just assumed NASA would land men and women on Mars in my lifetime.  Boy was I wrong.  In 1996 Robert Zubrin came out with The Case for Mars that made a whole lot of sense about how to get to Mars.  His ideas are the basis of the Ares missions in The Martian.  I thought for sure such a brilliant, logical plan would lead to real missions.  But nothing has ever come of Zubrin’s dreams either.  The Mars Society is ever hopeful, but I don’t believe manned missions to Mars will happen before I die.

I no longer want to be a Martian.  That’s my main criticism of Andy Weir’s book—even though it’s a very realistic book, it never describes how harsh the Martian environment is, and how unpleasant it would be to try to live there.  Weir doesn’t convey the brutal cold or the relentless radiation, or the insidious regolith.  Only a mad geologist could love Mars.  The real Mars has no romance.  It’s definitely not an exotic destination of fictional adventure.  It’s a dead world, a world of rocks and more rocks.

I even wonder why astronauts would want to go there, or why thousands would sign up to be one-way colonists.

That’s the trouble with the romance of space travel, and the dreams of science fiction.  Every place were we could land that’s not Earth is just rocks.  Rocks and radiation, and freeze-in-an instant cold, or melt-the-flesh hot.  I guess I’ve just gotten old.  Old guys don’t like cold.

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I used to be a Martian.  I used to be a Martian when we knew nothing about Mars.  The older I get the more I realized that Earth is the only place that humans can live.  And dang if we aren’t hell bent on turning Earth into Venus.

JWH – 6/10/14

Nova by Samuel R. Delany–Reading Science Fiction in 1968 and 2014

Rereading a novel I loved reading almost a half-century ago is an interesting experience.  Nova by Samuel R. Delany was a novel that dazzled my teenage self in 1968, but has lost its sense of wonder for my older self in 2014.  I’d be awful curious to know how 17-year-olds today reading Nova feel about the book.  Is the magic being 17, or 1968?  Delany was only 25 when he completed Nova, so he was much closer to my age than than Robert A. Heinlein, my favorite science fiction writer at the time.   Heinlein was 44 years older than me, so Delany was an exciting young writer that spoke to my generation.  Delany was the same generation as The Beatles, the generation before the Baby Boomers, and the generation we grew up admiring, the one that made the 1960s.  Nova in 1968 was to science fiction what The Jefferson Airplane was to the Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland generation at the time.  It rocked.

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It’s very hard to separate my memories of Nova from the times when I first read it, the 1960s.  Nova came out around the time of The White Album by The Beatles, Crown of Creation by the Jefferson Airplane, Wheels on Fire by Cream and Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix.  So that music is what I listened to when I first read Nova.  This was also around the time I went to see Apollo 8 launch at Cape Kennedy in December of 1968.  I was in the 12th grade and I was very excited about the future, but worried about things like the Vietnam war, the generation gap, race relations and looming overpopulation.  Both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in 1968.  To make matters worse, the Chicago Democratic Convention happened that summer and society seemed to be in chaos. 

To say the country was divided is a vast understatement.  Even the world of science fiction was split into the Old Guard and New Wave, with lots of flaming rhetoric spewing between the two.

Set in the year 3172, the galaxy is divided into the Earth controlled Draco Federation, and the younger rebellious Pleiades Federation.  Nova is about a mad power quest by Lorq Von Ray of the Pleiades to control the market in Illyrion, a heavy element of Delany’s invention that powers space travel and intergalactic commerce.  It’s extremely rare.  Von Ray learns that Illyrion is produced in abundance in the heart of a star and gathers a motley crew to fly through a nova as it happens.  Von Ray and his rich family is hated by Prince Red and his sister Ruby, the heirs of an opposing wealthy family who also want to control the supply of Illyrion.

This is 1940s Planet Stories space opera, but with 1960s counter-culture swagger. Nova is colorful, epic and full of super-science sense of wonder in a New Age Science Fiction novel.  When I read Nova in 1968 it was tremendously exciting.   I wanted it to be a map of the future.  Like most of Delany’s stories from the 1960s, it features a young wanderer, The Mouse, who plays an exotic musical instrument, a sensory syrynx, and an intellectual vagabond Katin Crawford who is writing a novel.  Back then Delany often had characters writing novels and poetry inside a novel so he could comment on the meta-fiction nature of things, as well as explain the psychohistory on such things as Tarot cards.

The story has a good deal of backstory before getting down to the real mission of flying into a nova to set up the rivalry between the Von Rays and Reds, and explain the backgrounds of Mouse and Katin.  The trouble is the story has more color than plot, and the older me wasn’t as dazzled by the adventure.  All the characters are cyborgs that fly the ship by jacking into sensors that sail the starship on fictional interstellar energy currents.  The 17 year-old-me hoped we’d eventually discover such magical properties of outer space that would allow people like me to travel between the stars like we fly between cities now.  My 62 year-old-self knows all this is make-believe Santa Clausing.  The story is still readable, but it’s gone from an exciting science fiction tale to a colorful fantasy fiction.  My younger self should have known better, but I was awful hopeful about the Final Frontier in 1968.  And I was bedazzled by hippie dreams.

Interstellar space is so much more real to me now, with it’s extremes of temperatures, varieties of lethal radiations, and most importantly, its brutally vast distances.  Science fiction sorely needs to rethink how we’re going to explore the galaxy.  Nova’s kind of scientific speculation is as practical as building giant canons to send people to the Moon.  I don’t blame Delany for how things have changed, because Nova makes an exemplary example of 1960s science fiction.  The science of Nova is quickly becoming as quaint as the science of The Skylark of Space, so such stories reflect how we used to dream of living in a very different universe.

JWH – 6/3/14

Forgotten Science Fiction: All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

I’m not sure how many young science fiction readers know about Clifford Simak.  When I was growing up, he wasn’t a top tier SF writer, but a legendary author of City and Way Station.  He was loved well enough for the Science Fiction Writers of America to select Simak as their third SFWA Grand Master.  If you look at his list of novels, there’s not many famous ones besides City and Way Station.  He won a Hugo for Way Station, and Hugos for the novelette “The Big Front Yard” and his short story, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” which also won a Nebula.  I remember seeing Simak at a science fiction convention when he was pretty old, and was surprised by how little attention he got from the younger fans.  I thought he was great.

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Clifford Simak wrote a different kind of science fiction.  A kinder, gentler science fiction.  His characters were adults, ordinary people from the mid-west, and his stories often had the feel of small any town America.  City, a fix-up novels of  eight short stories written from 1944-1951, was a hauntingly beautiful series of tales told by intelligent dogs and robots about the legends of long gone humans.  You just don’t get more sense of wonder than that.

I read several of his “other” novels from the SFBC in the 1960s, but I’ve forgotten those.  Then in recent years I’ve read The Visitors (1980) and Cosmic Engineers (1939) for the Classic Science Fiction online book club.  I really liked The Visitors for its unique take on an alien invasion.  So for this month, we’re reading All Flesh is Grass from 1965.  It’s one of Simak’s many novels that don’t even have an entry in Wikipedia.

all-flesh-is-grass-1978

That’s too bad, because All Flesh is Grass is pretty good, and it has an interesting distinction – it’s about a small town that wakes up to find itself enclosed in a dome—yeah, like the Stephen King novel and TV series, Under The Dome, from 2009.   King had started his novel in 1972 and tried again in 1982.  I have no idea if King knew about the Simak book, but they have similar themes too—being cut off from the world makes people act different, and of course, there’s the mystery of who put the dome over the town and why?

I’ve always been fascinated by authors who think up similar ideas separately and then to see how they execute them.  Often the idea itself dictates much of the story.  If you were going to write a story about a group of humans enclosed in a dome,  wouldn’t you pick a small town?  Wouldn’t you use ordinary people, but involve the local politician, police and doctor?  Wouldn’t everyone be wondering why, and be upset because of the disruption in their lives?  Wouldn’t there be scenes of outsiders and insiders talking to each other at the wall?  I did search the internet to find an essay on dome stories, but didn’t find one.  I did find several forums where people mentioned other dome stories.  It’s a growing micro-sub-genre.

All Flesh Is Grass is a difficult book to describe.  Note the covers.  The top one is from the first edition hardback.  The second is the 1978 paperback edition I read.  But look at the cover from this British edition.  They obviously want to promote the book as science fiction, but it’s not your typical SyFy adventure story, so the publishers tacked on a cover that visually translate science fiction to the contemporary mind.

all-flesh-is-grass-spaceship

There are no space ships in All Flesh is Grass.  It’s about a failed real estate agent, Brad Carter, who lives in a small town, Millville,  that gets caught up in a mystery one day when he’s driving out of town and his car hits an invisible barrier.  Like The Visitors, All Flesh Is Grass is about a different kind of alien invasion, and if you look at the first two covers you will get hints as to what the invaders are like.  But they don’t invade Earth in spaceships.  Simak’s story feels more like one Ray Bradbury would have written in the 1950s, with a touch of Philip K. Dick.  It’s a kind of science fiction that has disappeared—as far as I know.

When I was growing up and reading science fiction in the 1960s as a teen, certain books had a quaintness to them.   Authors like E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Cummings wrote stories that seemed very old.  They wrote pulp stories from the 1930s.  Their style of writing, common phrases, wording, slang, etc. was just old enough to feel out-of-date old fashioned.  1965 Simak reads that way now.   Not like 1930s, because the story has a definite 1950s feel.  And the ending is painfully hokey.  Yet, All Flesh Is Grass was a pleasure to read, at least for me.  I’m just curious if anyone born after 1980 would find it fun.

Science fiction seems to change every decade like society.  Pop culture is always evolving and mutating.  Reading Simak’s science fiction feels so quaint, like looking at an Amish town, or characters out of a 1940s black and white movie.  But All Flesh is Grass is still about the awe of making first contact, still about encountering something that’s very alien.  Still imagining unimagined possibilities.  Simak’s mind goes way beyond little green men in flying saucers.

Ultimately, All Flesh is Grass is slight.  A 254 page paperback that was quickly written and quickly read.  That’s the problem with most science fiction, even today—it’s churned out.  King’s Under the Dome is 1088 pages.  Modern science fiction readers want long stories, either big books, or at least trilogies.  Today we remember authors by the series they write.  The novels I’ve been writing about as Forgotten Science Fiction were stand alone stories, that were short, quickly written for a few bucks.  They were consumed and forgotten.

Yet, I remember these old SF books from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and so do a few others, like my blogging friend Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.  They are a unique art form.  The ones I like, and I think my friends at the book club like too, are the ones that use science fiction as a way to think about certain kinds of ideas.  The stories are more like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits than Star Wars or modern science fiction.  I have to admit they aren’t great literature, and maybe their appeal is only nostalgic, yet, they wonder about reality in the same way I did growing up.

JWH – 5/14/14

The Two Faces of Science Fiction

Science fiction has always had two different faces that confounds efforts to define it in a distinct manner.  Science fiction first evolved as a literary branch of philosophical speculation which produced stories, often crudely told, about possible inventions, speculation about distant worlds and their inhabitants, and extrapolation about the future.  Speculative science fiction is pretty much based on “What if?”  Writers could imagine the impact of change, or wonder about unexplored areas of reality.  Eventually, some of this speculative science fiction produced concepts that became popular, generating global memes, and then other writers wrote adventure science fiction using these concepts as if they were religious icons.  Often adventure science fiction based on original speculative ideas have no new speculation on their own.  A spaceship is just a spaceship, and alien is just an alien.

Think of H. G. Wells two most famous stories, The Time Machine, and War of the Worlds.  In the late Victorian age they were both highly philosophical speculations.  Then Edgar Rice Burroughs comes along and turns Mars into a romantic adventure destination that had no relation to reality.  A modern comparison is to The War of the Worlds and the film Independence Day, which has little or no speculation.  It’s all adventurous fun.

war_of_the_worlds_battleship_w1
area51-independence-day-attack

Another good example is Star Trek and Star Wars.  All fiction needs some action, so Star Trek was given a wagon train to the stars framework, but many episodes were built around various kinds of speculation.  Star Wars on the other hand plays homage to the galactic empire of The Foundation series, while cherishing the fun of Saturday afternoon serials inspired by Planet Stories types of adventures.  As hard as I try, I can’t think of one bit of speculative science fiction in all of Star Wars.  That’s not a criticism, but a way of defining Star Wars as the ultimate example of adventure science fiction.

DataTNG
C3P0

Think of how many episodes of ST:TNG where the plot was written around speculation about Data’s body, mind and abilities.  In Star Wars, C-3P0 is a very interesting character, with lots of personality traits, but there’s no speculation about his scientific origins – he’s just a colorful character in an adventure story.  Star Wars offers no lessons in artificial intelligence.  For the most part, Data is mainly used as a stock character for adventures too, but sometimes Star Trek did speculate.  In Isaac Asimov’s early robot stories he spent more time speculating, in his later ones, especially the novels, he spent more time using robots as characters having adventures.

Modern science fiction tends to be mostly adventure based.  When H. G. Wells started writing, few writers had explored many science fictional concepts, so Wells appeared to be a genius inventing science fictional idea after another.  Up until the 1960s, science fiction writers churned out speculative science fiction because there was plenty of undiscovered ideas to imagine.  Now that’s getting harder.  Since the 1960s, science has become an extremely popular entertainment genre, so most writers just take old SF memes, give them a new paint job, maybe even go all Baroque in styling, and create adventure science fiction.

We still get new speculative science fiction, in both books and movies.  My two favorite recent examples are The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and the film Gattaca.  Life on Earth is always evolving and changing, so there’s always new content to speculate about, plus science is always advancing, giving new ideas for extrapolation.

Science fiction has always suffered from a schizophrenic approach to reality though.  Why are post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories so popular with kids today?  They present horrible worlds where the characters have big adventures.  Isn’t that odd?  In the 19th and early 20th century, such novels were warnings about the future and fears about paths society might take.  Now such scenarios are escapist fun!  WTF!?  Science fiction is often like the comedy-tragedy masks, or the Janus god head.  No kid would daydream of living in the world of Nineteen Eight-Four, but I bet a lot of kids picture themselves inside the world of The Hunger Games.

comedy-tragedyjanus1

Serious speculative science fiction tends to illustrate worlds that few would fantasize about living in.  Who would want to live inside The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  But what about Dune by Frank Herbert or Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, or even Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card?  Yet, how many adventure books have been written that take worlds similar to the ones these books describe and make them into fun adventure stories?  Like the contrast between education and entertainment, some writers aim for edutainment, but most just give us escapism.

Heinlein was speculating about serious ideas, but most military SF since then have been theme park rides.

Here’s the dilemma for writers.  True speculative science fiction isn’t escapist fun, whereas adventure science fiction is.  So if you want to sell lots of books, and maybe get your story made into a blockbuster movie, you’ll aim for adventure science fiction – but if you want literary recognition, and the chance of creating a classic the survives, you’re better off writing speculative science fiction.  They teach Frankenstein, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four in schools, but not adventure science fiction.  Which sold more movie tickets, Spiderman 2 or Transcendence?

When I go to the bookstore, or flip through Locus Magazine, or read about new books at SF Signal, I’m enticed by myriads of thrilling stories, ones that promise epic adventures, with colorful sexy characters, involved in addictive complicated plots, the kind of books that are escapist fun to the hilt.  And I’m not against reading these kinds of books.  But what I miss, are the speculative science fiction books.  They seem few and far between nowadays.  Is that because they don’t sell, or are a bummer to write, or what few people want to read?  To me, speculative science fiction is the real science fiction, and all the other stuff is fantasy fun.

I’m working on a new edition of The Classics of Science Fiction and I’ve always used a statistical method to create the list before.  But this time, I’m thinking about creating it as a history of speculative science fiction.  Yesterday I discovered  Radium Age Science Fiction at HiLo Books, and essays on Pre-Golden Age Science Fiction by Joshua Glenn at io9.com.  Most of these books are now forgotten, but they were at the time, attempts to write serious speculative science fiction.  I wonder if I can create a Classics of Speculative Science Fiction in chronological order starting with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or even earlier books if I can discover ones that fit my concept, and then move towards the present showing an evolution of speculative science fiction?

Instead of creating another list of the most popular books of science fiction, I want to create one that showcases books that introduced the best science fictional ideas.  I think as kids, when we first discover science fiction, we’re hooked on the far out ideas, but later on, we become addicted to the escapism.  When we’re thinking about ideas, we’re exploring reality.  We want to know how reality works, and how we can adapt it to our own needs and desire.  Later on, we read science fiction to escape reality, because we’re disappointed with its limitations.

This provides two faces of our own psychology.  Now that I’m old, I wonder if I sold out sometime in the last fifty years.  That I sold my sense of wonder for a sense of illusion.

JWH – 5/6/14

How the Top Ten Classic Science Fiction Books Have Changed Over the Years

I’m fascinated by how books get remembered.  Most writers hope their books will be good enough to pass through a series of milestones:

  • Good enough to sell to a publisher
  • Good enough to get printed and widely distributed
  • Good enough to get positive reviews
  • Good enough to become best sellers
  • Good enough to be remembered on best of the year lists
  • Good enough to win awards
  • Good enough to stay in print
  • Good enough to get on fan polls of all time favorite books
  • Good enough to be recognized as a classic

dune

Most novels that are written are never published.  Of those published, only a tiny percent, sell enough to earn royalties over the author’s advance, or get reprinted.  And then even a smaller number to go on to become even moderately successful.  The odds of writing a best seller is like those of winning a million dollar lottery.  Writing a classic is like the odds of winning one of those hundred million dollar lotto games.  Millions of books get published ever year, but few are remembered.

Eventually, most all books will be forgotten.  How many 19th century novels can you list from memory in ten minutes?  Every book has a lifetime, and I find it fascinating to think about why a book is remembered, and then why it is forgotten.  And it’s particularly interesting to think about the history of science fiction stories and novels, because they present ideas about the future that all too often become dated.

I thought it would be enlightening to see if I can find a series of fan polls that asked readers to vote for their favorite SF books, and see how those popular books change over time.  To save myself a lot of typing, I’m just going to use the Top Ten books from each list.

For the first five lists I’m grateful to The SF Book of Lists by Maxim Jakubowski and Malcolm Edwards.  I wish someone would update this wonderful 1983 book.  I will use bullets when there are ties – but I will type them in the order listed.  Votes, if available with be in parenthesis.  Ties might bring the list to more than 10.

1949 – August Derleth polled twelve writers, editors and critics

  • Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells (9)
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (7)
  • Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon (7)
  • Adventures in Time and Space – Healy and McComas (6)
  • Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (6)
  • Short Stories of H. G. Wells – H. G. Wells (6)
  • Strange Ports of Call – August Derleth (5)
  • The World Below – S. Fowler Wright (5)
  • The Lost World – A. Conan Doyle (4)
  • To Walk the Night – William F. Sloane (4)
  • Sirius – Olaf Stapledon (4)
  • Gladiator – Philip Wylie (4)

1952 – Reader Survey Astounding Science Fiction

  1. Adventures in Space and Time – Healy and McComas editors
  2. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt
  3. Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells
  4. The Man Who Sold the Moon – Robert A. Heinlein
  5. Who Goes There? – John W. Campbell
  6. The Best of Science Fiction – Groff Conklin editor
  7. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
  8. The Green Hills of Earth – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. The Science Fiction Omnibus – Bleiler and Dikty editors
  10. The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

Already we see a number of books and authors drop from the list.  Science fiction was seldom published in book form before the 1950s, and in the early 1950s, most science fiction, much of what we considered classics of the era were published by small specialty publishers.  It’s also interesting that by 1952 Heinlein and Bradbury have emerged as favorite writers.

1956 – Reader Survey Astounding Science Fiction

  • Adventures in Space and Time – Healy and McComas editors (51)
  • City – Clifford Simak (50)
  • The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (48)
  • More than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (48)
  • Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (44)
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon – Robert A. Heinlein (40)
  • The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (39)
  • Astounding Science Fiction Anthology – John W. Campbell editor (37)
  • Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (35)
  • 1984 – George Orwell (35)
  • The World of Null A – A. E. Van Vogt (35)

Some of the books from the 1952 list stayed on the 1956 list, but fell lower, like Who Goes There? and The Green Hills of Earth.  It’s interesting that Slan and Adventures in Time and Space are on all three lists.  So did Seven Famous Novels, but it fell out of the top ten.

1966 – Reader Survey Analog Science Fiction & Fact

  1. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (67.4%)
  2. Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells (59.4%)
  3. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (50.5%)
  4. The Rest of the Robots – Isaac Asimov (45.7%)
  5. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (44.2%)
  6. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (42.2%)
  7. The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke (40.6%)
  8. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (38.9%)
  9. City – Clifford Simak (38.6%)
  10. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (38.1%)

Slan is hanging in there.  It’s hard to compare overlap because new books are coming out after each list.  So where’s Heinlein?  If he was the most popular writer of the times why isn’t he on the list.  He had five books lower down on this list.  Heinlein always competed with himself in these polls, so often his books didn’t make it to the top of the list.  This 1966 list was the first that covers times I remember, and I probably read it in the magazine when it came out.  These are the great books of my childhood.

1975 – Locus Poll – full list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (104)
  2. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (97)
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (90)
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein (63)
  5. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (57)
  6. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (53)
  7. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (50)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein (41)
  9. More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (40)
  10. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny (35)

Already it’s possible to see how time affects the memory of books.  Newer books push out older books.  By 1975 Slan falls from memory after being so well remembered.  1976 also marks the first time a woman writer shows up, at all, not just for the top of the list.  1975 also represents an interesting switch.  Fans did pick The Demolished Man by Bester, but from now on they pick The Stars My Destination.

1987 – Locus Poll Best All-Time Novelfull list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
  3. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  5. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  7. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  8. Gateway – Frederik Pohl
  9. Ringworld – Larry Niven
  10. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester

It seems Dune is becoming the Citizen Kane of the science fiction book world.

1998 – Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time (before 1990)full list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
  4. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  5. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
  7. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  8. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  9. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  10. Hyperion – Dan Simmons

Each list is now switching out a couple of new titles but is pretty much keeping the usual suspects.

2011 – NPR Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Booksfull list here

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  • The Dune Chronicles – Frank Herbert
  • 1984 – George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

I filtered out the fantasy novels.  For example, The Lord of the Rings came in number one.  More than 5,000 books were nominated, and over 60,000 people voted.  This is a huge poll.  Many of the novels from the earlier lists are on it.  It’s a poll from outside of the genre, yet it remains consistent.

2012 – Locus All-Time Novel Resultssee full list

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (256)
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (154)
  3. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (143)
  4. Hyperion – Dan Simmons (131)
  5. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (120)
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (113)
  7. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (105)
  8. Neuromancer – William Gibson (100)
  9. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (91)
  10. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (91)

2014 – Worlds Without End – Most Readsee full list

  1. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  4. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  5. The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
  6. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  7. Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Again, I filtered out the fantasy.  This was not a poll, but the books that were most read in the WWEnd database.  It’s interesting to see how commonly read books are consistent with books showing up on the fan polls.

2014 – Sci-Fi Lists Top 100 Sci-Fi Bookssee full list

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  3. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  5. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  6. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  8. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  9. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke
  10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Sci-Fi Lists is an online poll that is constantly updated.  These two lists overlap almost perfectly, with 8 books on both lists, and they share 6 books with the 2012 poll, and 7 with the 2011 poll.  Also, all of these books are fairly old, at least 30 years.  It finally seems certain long term favorites are emerging.

What’s sad is only one woman writer appears on all these lists, and for the same book, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Read the wonderful blog Mistressworks, or Ian Sales compilation list to see what these fans are missing.  Now, some of these books by women are making the polls and lists, but lower down from the top ten.

If you look at cross tabulated lists like Worlds Without End and The Classics of Science Fiction, you’ll see more women on the complete lists, but it’s so disappointing not to see more.  I think if SF fans would read more books like those reviewed on the Mistressworks site this would change.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of all-time great science fiction book lists, but they are often compiled by one person, or a group of editors.  I’ve picked popular polls that had the goal of finding the best all-time favorite SF books, and not just current ones.  I’ve also ignored some British lists because they only confuse the issue at hand.

Even though we’re seeing a good deal of consistent favorites in recent years, I believe if we could jump ahead 25 years, many of those books will be forgotten.  Dune really is entrenched, and I think we’ll see it in 25 years.  But I don’t know about Stranger in a Strange Land, that’s from the same era as Dune.  I doubt Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would be remembered at all if it wasn’t for Blade Runner.  One good movie adaptation and a book’s memory is boosted for decades.  I’ve recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is a true masterpiece.

There are lots of sentimental favorites from my childhood that I wish would make a comeback, like City by Clifford Simak, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein never makes these lists at all.  I guess some books die when all their fans die.

JWH – 5/1/14

How To Build The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0 List?

the classics of science fiction

About a quarter of a century ago I developed a concept to identify the classic books of science fiction.  The current version, the one I call 3.0, is here.  For a long time now I’ve wanted to update my site to a 4.0 version, but I’ve been put off by the amount of work involved, and intimidated by newer and fancier sites that attempted to do what I have done.  Worlds Without End is beautiful, also covers fantasy and horror, and allows users to track their reading.  SFFMeta took a completely different approach to the problem of finding great SF books to read, and I love different approaches, but their site appears not to have been updated for a year.  Top Science Fiction takes a poll approach, so it reflects change over time.  GoodReads has several lists that help identify popular science fiction by themes.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the gross old saying goes.  There’s two issues here.  Finding great books to read, and identify books as potential classics of the genre.

If I’m going to take the trouble to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0, then I want to produce a much better product.  I need to update my old system and offer new features.  This will be tricky, because essentially I’m just making another list of books.  I have no desire to get into building a fancy web site.  I want to update my list and make it better indicator of classic science fiction, that’s all.  But, better how?

Back in the 1980s I wrote what I now call, The Classics of Science Fiction 1.0, as an article for the fanzine, Lan’s Lantern, and it’s interesting how it came about.  My friend Mike asked me what were the best science fiction books to read knowing I had been a life-long science fiction bookworm.  I told him I could tell him the ones I loved, but I doubted that one person’s opinion counted for much because tastes vary so greatly.  We then began an ongoing discussion about how books are judged to be classics, and how to systematically identify them.  Over the years, this has remained a fascinating subject for me.

I have lived long enough to see books that were once very popular, and ones I loved, disappear from the pop culture consciousness.  My favorite writer growing up in the 1960s was Robert A. Heinlein.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the big three of science fiction writers were Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  I doubt many young science fiction readers today would pick any of them as their favorite writer, and older readers like me are dying off, so the fan base for Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov is shrinking.  Will any of their books survive the test of time and be deemed classics?  I’ve already written about Heinlein’s declining status.

Of course, young people today are discovering books that came out in the 1990s and 2000s that they think will be the classics of the future.  Just because we love a book doesn’t mean it’s destined to be remembered.  The qualities of a contemporary page turner are obviously different from a timeless classic, although some of the qualities are shared by both.

Thus the term “classic novel” is quite slippery.  Many people feel when they read a book they absolutely adore that it must become a classic.  When I was young.  Books by E. E. “Doc” Smith were considered classic science fiction, but his work is almost unreadable today.  In the literary world at large, a classic novel is one that endures, is often taught in school, quite often is filmed or serialized on TV, like Masterpiece Theater, and has achieved a reputation of being great.  Think Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina.

Another quality of a classic is they tend to define an era – for example, The Great Gatsby defines America in the 1920s.  Because science fiction is usually about the future, it misses out on this specific quality, but classic science fiction novels do evoke a sense of time of when they were written.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune are science fiction novels that represents the 1960s science fiction.

No one person has thoroughly read everything making it hard to accept any individual as an authority on classic novels.  Popular culture changes over time, so no novel ever becomes a permanent classic.  The classic novel is a moving target, which is why I want to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0.   My system is based on The Wisdom of Crowds.  I collect fan polls, recommendation lists by book critics and academics, and other means for identifying popular books.  I call each a citation list.  I ignore, and the system inherently ignores, any recent book.  I compile all the citation lists into a database and create a cutoff of a minimum number of citations.  From this I create a resultant final list that I call The Classics of Science Fiction that contains all the books that got the minimum number  of citations or more.

For the Lan’s Lantern article, which I consider The Classics of Science Fiction version 1.0, I used 8 lists, with a cutoff of 3, producing 69 titles on the final list.  I no longer have a copy of that list.

When the web came out I created The Classics of Science Fiction 2.0, and it was based on 13 citation lists, with a cutoff of 3. and it produced 169 titles.  An old copy is here.

Version 3.0, which is live on the web now, and has been around for many years, has 193 titles, using 28 citation lists, and a cutoff of 7 citations.  The newest books it recognizes is from 1992.

What I’d like to do is rebuild the database with more citation lists, and hopefully identify books that came out through 2004.  I still want to use a 10 year DMZ so as not to let a wildly popular new book get on the list.  Often avid readers, especially young ones, think the book they are reading at the moment is the best book they’ve ever read.  I think we need time to identify classics.  Even 2008’s The Hunger Games is an obvious choice to many, but will it be in the future?  A few years ago His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman was being touted as second only to The Harry Potter books as a great contemporary fantasy series, but is it today?  All too often we are thrilled by new and novel stories only to quickly forget them.

What I need now is to assemble a large group of citation lists.  I used, with the help of Anthony Bernardo, 28 lists for the 3.0 list.  I think for 4.0, I need at least 40 citations, and the cutoff needs to be raised to 10.  Just think, any book that is on 10 or more fan polls, academic and critic lists, awards list, and other forms of recognition is at least well remembered and well regarded.  It doesn’t mean the book is an actual classic, but my system produces a list that’s not based on my opinion.

I use fan polls to get the idea what readers remember.  I use recommended reading lists from writers, critics and academics to balance the judgment of the readers.  I use a combine list of award winners to acknowledge another kind of recognition.  If a book was made into a movie or television series, I considered it another form of validation.  I’ve considered making citation lists based on being in print, having an audio edition, or having many print editions.  I wished I had the tools to see how many languages a book has been translated into as another indicator.  I could make a citation for any book that’s in the database that has a print, ebook and audio book currently for sale.

First, I need to find as many critic/academic lists as I can, and as many large fan polls as I can.  For example, last time I used Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels 1949-1984 by David Pringle as one citation.  You can see a list of his picks here.  Luckily, Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo wrote a book updating Pringle’s book called, Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010.  You can see their list here.  That will give me one extra citation.  In the subsequent years, many large fan polls have been created, so that will add the citation number.

I’ve been revving up my noggin all day trying to think of new ways to identify a science fiction book as a potential classic.  I’ve thought of two so far.  One is to make a list of all science fiction books that were on polls/lists of all time great books that didn’t focus on science fiction.  The world outside the genre seldom thinks of science fiction, but when it does, it’s notable.  The second idea is to search the web for syllabi for books taught in high schools and colleges and see which science fiction books stand out, if any.  I have an English teacher friend who likes to teach Ender’s Game.

Another idea is to use sets like American Science Fiction:  Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s as endorsed and published by The Library of America.  I compared their list to my list and it was quite different.

I am open to ideas about how to create new kinds of citation lists, so let me know if you have a good idea.

When I look at my current list, I see many books with 7, 8 or 9 citations, and they might not make it to the new list if it requires 10 citations if they aren’t on newer citation lists.  This happened when compiling earlier lists.  I’ve always considered 193 books to be too many to actually identify the real classics.  Many on my list were historical classics that only critics loved and were never on any fan poll.  I should also point out that 116 books made it to the 3.0 list with 10 citations, so they would automatically be guaranteed a spot on the new list if 10 was the cutoff.  I might need to make the cutoff 12 if the list gets to long.

Harry Harrison had two books on the 3.0 list, each with 7 citations each, the minimum required.  Will Deathworld or Make Room! Make Room! carry forward?  What about Nova by Samuel R. Delany?  We just read Nova at the Classic Science Fiction Book Club, with mixed results.  It only had 7 citations.  I loved that book when I read it in the 1960s, but I’m not sure if it’s a classic in the 2010s.  Will 3-5 more citations show up to support it?  But if I was to make a list of the best SF of the 1960s, Nova seems like one of the defining books of the era.  But here are the 1960s SF books I considered essential on my review of 1960s SF – is Nova up to their level?

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

That short list already leaves off A Clockwork Orange, A Wrinkle in Time, Way Station, Babel-17, This ImmortalLord of Light, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Right of Passage, Bug Jack Barron and Ubik, among many other well remembered books.

Ultimately, the goal is the same as I had back in the 1980s, to help people find a list of essential science fiction books to read.  Any list of true classics should be short, and dependable.  Novice readers should be able to buy a book from the list, read it, and have a strong statistical chance of being suitably impressed.  The whole idea of a classic is to be impressive, even heavy.  Coming up with any kind of quantitative method to identify those books is hard, but I think my system is the best I can imagine at the moment.

If you look at the top 19 books on the 3.0 list, all of which were on 20 or more citation lists, these books I think have the best chance of any science fiction book at consistently evoking the sense of wonder that defines great science fiction.

20-citations

Yet, I’m worried that several of them are already fading classics.

I have a feeling that many people will consider this a pointless endeavor.  They will feel that chance will introduce them to the great SF books of the past, and time will kill off the unworthy books.  That’s true.  That’s how it’s always worked.  I just consider my project a way of guessing what might happen ahead of time.

JWH 4/30/14

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

transfig

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

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