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Worlds Without End Blog

Reading the Pulps #3: Astounding Science Fiction Posted at 8:00 AM by James Wallace Harris

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You can read digital scans of old issues of Astounding here:

“Be careful what you wish,” is a wise adage worth heeding. Back in 1971, when I discovered pulp magazines, I wished I owned a complete run of Astounding Science Fiction. I didn’t have the money or space, but for a few years, I bought a few hundred pulp and digest magazines from the 1920s-1960s. Even then they were dry crumbling old magazines that weren’t going to last much longer. I sold them when I needed money in 1975.

I didn’t know I needed to cancel that wish.

A few weeks ago, I began a new reading project. I decided to read my way through the 25 volumes of The Great SF Stories (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I even started a discussion group for several of us who want to read through v. 1-25 together.

Of course, many of those stories came from the classic pulp magazines Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories, and I wanted to see what my favorite stories looked like with their original illustrations. I’m in a large group on Facebook called Space Opera Pulp where over eleven thousand members share pulp magazine art and illustrations. After posting one of the illustrations a member left a comment that he had bought the entire run of Astounding on discs from eBay.

To make a long story shorter, I ended up buying a 2-volume collection of the complete run of digital scans of Astounding Science Fiction (1930-1960). (Search eBay: “complete astounding science fiction DVD” – and be prepared to learn about CBR/CBZ readers if you buy the set.)

At first, I thought this might be a stupid impulse buy. There’s no way I’m going to read 359 issues of an old magazine. Besides, all those issues are free on the web if you know where to look. However, each issue runs 50-200 megabytes, with the complete set being 35.9 gigabytes. Buying them on discs saved me a lot of time.

I’ve used this archive every day since. Why I use it every day is the point of this essay. Why you’re reading this essay could be because you love science fiction from that era too.

I keep asking myself why am I so drawn to these old science fiction stories? Why mess with these old magazines when all the best stories and novels have been reprinted in book form since the 1950s? I even wrote an essay about why it’s better to collect the essential anthologies of science fiction than to wade through all the original pulps.

I was born in 1951, so why am I fascinated by the twelve years of science fiction published between 1939 and 1950? On the web I’m constantly meeting old science fiction fans like myself, folks from the Baby Boomer generation, who grew up in the 1960s and fell in love with science fiction they found in libraries that were first published in book format in the 1950s. Most of those stories had originally appeared in the pulp magazines during those years 1939-1950.

I think something psychological is going on. I feel like a biblical scholar who wants to know who wrote The Bible. I’ve gotten tired of modern science fiction. It’s just not the science fiction I grew up reading. I believe I keep returning to old science fiction because I imprinted on it when I was young like a duckling to its mother. It became my religion to explain reality. I know that sounds weird, but I think it’s true. I believe I’m now swimming home like a salmon to where it was first spawned.

If you are young you may never have heard the phrase, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” – specifically when referring to science fiction published between 1939-1950. And even if you have heard it, you might not know it mainly refers to one magazine and editor, Astounding Science-Fiction and John W. Campbell. Astounding still exists as the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Campbell changed its name in 1960 to make it more modern, and he had already changed its content significantly in the 1950s, which is why most people consider the Golden Age of Science Fiction to be Astounding in the 1940s. (The phrase, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” was later recast to mean age twelve when it was realized to be a more universal truth.)

When Astounding first appeared in January 1930, the magazine was called Astounding Stories of Super-Science and edited by Harry Bates. Bates wrote the famous story, “Farewell to the Master” that was made in the 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. It struggled to find stories, and few were science fiction. Its goal was to present adventure stories that the emerging science fiction fandom would buy. Just looking at the first cover at the top of this essay tells so much about 1930 science fiction.

Orlin Tremaine became editor in 1933 when the previous owner became bankrupted and Street & Smith bought out the magazine. Tremaine built up the magazine, bought better science fiction, and gathered a devoted audience. One of his big successes was getting E. E. “Doc” Smith to come over from Amazing Stories so Astounding would have the latest Skylark novel.

John W. Campbell was hired in 1937 to work under Tremaine. By 1938 Tremaine was let go. For a while, Campbell published stories Tremaine had bought. It wasn’t until late 1938 or 1939 that Campbell’s buying decisions changed the course of science fiction. Many of the famous science fiction writers of the 1950s were discovered and nurtured by Campbell in the 1940s.

The nature of science fiction changes almost by the decade.  With the arrival of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1949 and Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950, Astounding had significant competition for selling great science fiction. The 1950s were still a great decade for Campbell but his emphasis on ESP, crazy inventions, and crackpot religions got a little weird for some, so most fans consider 1950s Astounding different from the 1940s.

Baby boomers in the 1960s grew up reading the older 1940s and 1950s science fiction while the newer 1960s science fiction came out. Most didn’t know that their copy of The Foundation Trilogy they got when they joined the Science Fiction Book Club was written as a series of short stories for Astounding in the 1940s. A good percentage of famous science fiction “novels” they read in the 1960s were really fix-up novels of related short stories published earlier, such as Slan, More than Human, Pavane, The Martian Chronicles, City, A Case of Conscience, The Dying Earth, Voyage of the Space Beagle, and so on. And many of the actual SF novels published in book form first appeared as serials.

Slan More Than Human Pavane The Martian Chronicles

City A Case of Conscience The Dying Earth The Voyage of the Space Beagle

When I study digital scans of old golden age pulp magazines I read the stories the same way readers read them when it first came out. That’s a lot of fun. What’s even more fun is approaching them like a literary professor studying an era of literature. I’m starting to see trends emerge. I’m also seeing ideas that I thought were original in later stories emerge much earlier. Studying science fiction that emerged before NASA existed is quite revealing. Technological events surrounding the A-bomb, H-bomb, Sputnik, Vostok, Mercury, Ranger, Gemini, Mariner, Apollo all impacted the evolving genre.

What fascinates me now is why people in the 1920s and 1930s took to early science fictional concepts. Those concepts were polished in the 1940s science fiction. Then in the 1950s, science fiction bled into the real world when rockets and space travel became real.

A nostalgia for 1940s science fiction began in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, Alva Rogers began writing a fan’s history of Astounding Science Fiction for the fanzine Viper that was published in 1964 as Requiem for Astounding by Advent. Rogers bought his first issue of Astounding at age eleven in 1934 that contained the first part of Skylark of Valeron by E. E. Smith. His book with introductions by the magazine’s first three editors, Harry Bates, F. Orlin Tremaine, and John W. Campbell was a loving history by a first-generation fan.

Another first-generation fan, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, wrote his memoir Astounding Days in 1989 by recalling how he grew up with the magazine.

Also, from 1989, Alexi and Cory Panshin came out with their Hugo and Locus award-winning The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. This large book covers more than just Astounding Science Fiction but spends a significant portion of its time on John W. Campbell and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. This book is currently in print, but just barely. It goes in and out of print. It really deserves more attention than it gets.

The Panshins wrote about science fiction in the way I’m now wanting to study it. But I’m not the only one fascinated with this era. All over the web, I see people my age writing about their love of this older science fiction. Fans have scanned most of the famous pulps from this era and put them on the internet. They work to find and scan all the lesser know pulps and are working back into the dime novel age.

In 2011, Jamie Todd Rubin ran a series on his blog called “Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction.” Later episodes can be found here. Each episode featured a monthly issue of Astounding. I wish Rubin had stuck with the project, but it appears he stopped after 29 issues. I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep up this project?

There’s also a book devoted to Astounding coming out this August. Alec Nevala-Lee has written, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Alec blogged about writing his book at Nevala-Lee’s blog.

I’m sure there are other books about Astounding, Campbell and the Golden Age, but these are the ones I know. I’d be interested in hearing about the others if you know any.

Now I want to write a book about the evolution of science fiction. I’m deeply appreciative that pulp magazine scanners are devoting great amounts of their time and money to preserve all the magazines from the pulp era. Their work is a kind of volunteer librarianship. Their labor of love to digitize the past is reflected in how they constantly work to make better scans. They master Photoshop to remove stains, rust marks, holes, tears, etc. and make those old brown pages look new again. Their efforts allow writers access to the primary documents of pulp magazine history.

I doubt many of you who read this essay will start reading and collecting old pulp magazines. But I am curious how many fans of Astounding still exist. I write this to describe the obsessed efforts of a very small subculture to remember a tiny sliver of American pop culture. If I did write a book, how many would want to read it?

It’s strange how a 1971 wish finally came true in 2018. I would never have imagined back then that computers would let me “own” a complete run of Astounding Science Fiction someday. Nor did I imagine being able to communicate so easily with other fans from around the world who also love those stories.

The internet is becoming the World-Wide Library.

JWH

Reading the Pulps #2: “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp Posted at 8:00 AM by James Wallace Harris

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Read it now: Astounding Science-Fiction February 1939 (from the Luminist League)

You might own “Living Fossil” already in one these anthologies:

Warning: This column contains spoilers.

Let’s imagine we’re a science fiction writer back in the late 1930s. We don’t make much money, so we probably live in a cheap tenement house. There’s no air conditioning, so the windows are open, and the street sounds are pouring in. We have no computer or smartphone, no internet or television. We carefully read the morning and afternoon newspapers, listen to the radio and subscribe to Astounding Science Fiction, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Popular Science, and Scientific American. We often walk to the library in the evening. This is our world of information in 1939.

We’re sitting at the typewriter, smoking a cigarette, planning a story we hope to sell to Astounding Science-Fiction. We want an idea that will wow them and get us the cover. We want to produce the thought variant story. We have a solid knowledge of science fiction published in the pulps back to 1926, and we know the classics like Verne and Wells. Plus, we like to think we’re scientific and visionary.

If you’ve read science fiction short stories from this era you know the variety of wild ideas pitched to science fiction editors. Coming up with something different was essential. Science fiction was mostly idea driven until after the New Wave of the 1960s. Science fiction writers were expected to be as original as research scientists testing a new hypothesis.

“Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp has not been reprinted very often, and I find that shocking. Anyone seeing the interior illustration above will exclaim, “Oh my god, that’s Planet of the Apes!” But it’s 1939, not 1963 when Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes first appeared in English. How did de Camp get that idea? Was it astoundingly original in 1939, or are there older versions of the same idea in pulps I haven’t read?

Anyone who has read The Time Machine (1995) by H. G. Wells already knows about possible evolutionary descendants of Homo Sapiens. That novella also gave us the meme that death will one day come to both to our species and the Earth. And if you’ve read the brilliant Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon then you’ve already entertained that 17 possible future species of humans could exist after us.

Is it so hard to imagine that L. Sprague de Camp asked himself, “What if humans became extinct, how long before another species would become intelligent?” This is one of my favorite science fiction themes: Who comes after us? Clifford Simak imagined intelligent dogs and robots in his lovely fix-up novel, City. Today we assume AI machines will replace us. But have you read the wonderful The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, or seen the television documentaries that were inspired by it? I wrote about them back in 2012. What if self-aware intelligence doesn’t rise up again?

Who comes after humans? “Living Fossil” speculates they could be capuchin monkeys from South America after 10 million years. The story opens with Nawputta, a zoologist and his guide Chujee riding their agoutis exploring northeast North America near Pittsburgh. Ten million years have made a lot of smaller species much larger in their world, and now the agoutis are as large as mules.

This is a pleasing idea, at least to me. I love to think if humans go extinct life on Earth will go on. De Camp even has his Jmu (the capuchin word equal to human) complain that humans used up all the metals and other resources. As Nawputta and Chujee cross the country looking for new specimens for their museum back home, they speculate about the dead civilization of man. After finding what remains of a large stone with a partial inscription on it, they start speculating:

Notice the part where they wish they could meet a live human? Well, that comes true, but not for a couple days. First, they meet another one of their kind by a campfire, Nguchoy tus Chaw, and he’s none too friendly. This part of the story reminds me of James Fenimore Cooper and his tales about the French and English using the Native Americas. Like Cooper’s stories, there’s all kind of dishonest shenanigans going on by ambitious colonists wanting to exploit the wilderness.

Nguchoy is a timber scout who is doing something shady. Our guys get suspicious of him. After he leaves they head further into the unknown country. Eventually, they find three dead humans, not fossils, with bullet holes in them. They figured Nguchoy shot them. For some reason, the zoologist decides he wants to find and kill a fresh human for a specimen. My friend Mike thought this ruined the story because earlier they had been wishing to find a human to talk to. I assumed they meant city dwelling humans, not humans who had to devolve back to living in caves. Here’s what happens:

This is where de Camp differs from Pierre Boulle. For the rest of the story, which is mainly an adventure narrative about Nawputta and Chujee fleeing for their lives in a territory of hostiles humans who weren’t afraid of their guns. Our sympathy is with the Capuchins. De Camp portrays the humans like Native Americans in old westerns. They are fearless, ferocious, and treacherous. I don’t know if this is ironic or straight. I don’t know if de Camp was being satirical by having monkeys colonize the new world and then treat humans the same way Europeans treated the Native Americans. Or, if the story was to parallel how Cro Magnon killed off the Neanderthal. Or both. In either case, it’s accepted within this story for the monkeys to kill the humans.

In the Planet of the Apes, our perspective is on the side of the humans, and we want them to fight their way back to the top of the evolutionary heap. Boulle plays to our vanity so we want his humans to outwit the evolved apes. In “Living Fossil” de Camp doesn’t take sides but assumes a kind of naturalism where an intellectually advanced species will overcome a less advanced species.

But I have yet another theory. Maybe de Camp wanted to say humans aren’t the divinely chosen, the crown of God’s creation. Science, evolution, and the Enlightenment offer a view of reality where God isn’t needed or wanted. Readers who feel humans are special will object to this story. In fact, the faithful shouldn’t like this story at all, because it says humans aren’t the center of existence, won’t live forever, and are no different from the other animal species. In that sense, I think de Camp is sticking it to our collective egos.

That’s what I love about these old pulp magazine stories. An ordinary writer could have big ideas and get paid a 1/2 cent a word by the top science fiction magazine of the day. Science fiction allows anyone the chance to defy the common belief, the accepted orthodoxy, or even speculate beyond proven scientific knowledge.

Science fiction allowed every writer to become a Darwin, explaining reality in fiction by using their own observations, speculations, and extrapolations. Sure, most science fiction writers came up with craptastic ideas, but so what, some of them were brilliantly imaginative, and often inspired a sense of wonder, at least in adolescent geeky boys of the times.

How would you answer this question today: “Who comes after humans?” Has science fiction already explored all the obvious possibilities? Already, science fiction has suggested endless variations on Superman and mutations. We’ve imagined countless evolved animals and machines taking over. We’ve imagined aliens moving in and kicking us out. But I’m positive, if I keep reading these old pulp magazines, I will find stories that will surprise me.

[I’m surprised “Living Fossil” didn’t get the cover for February 1940.]

JWH

 

Reading the Pulps #1: “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne Posted at 11:48 AM by James Wallace Harris

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Original Source: Astounding Science-Fiction September 1940 (link to Luminist.org where you can find old issues of Astounding Science Fiction)

In Anthologies you might own:

WARNING: This column contains spoilers

I don’t remember reading any Ross Rocklynne before I started reading The Great SF Stories edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. From the 1940 volume, I read “Into the Darkness,” Rocklynne’s impressive science fiction philosophical fairy tale that felt inspired by the writings of Olaf Stapledon. I probably read “Quietus” before in my youth because I loved the Adventures in Time and Space anthology, but I’ve totally forgotten it.

I’m undergoing a reading renaissance in science fiction in my retirement years that is as exciting as when I first discovered science fiction at age twelve. But it’s for a different reason. This time around, I’m thrilled by the history of science fiction and how its ideas, themes, and concepts evolved. And because many pulp magazines from that era are available online I can study them. I love trying to imagine how readers back then (whatever the date on the magazine) felt about the story with their then current knowledge. Our culture is so filled with science, and our pop culture so filled with science fiction, it’s hard to comprehend when their science fictional ideas were fresh and original.

“Quietus” begins with “The creatures from Alcon saw from the first that Earth, as a planet, was practically dead; dead in the sense that it had given birth to life, and was responsible, indirectly, for its almost complete extinction.”

Tark and Vascar, two intelligent beings evolved from birds on the planet Alcon, are on an exploration trip. Tark is male, Vascar is female. On their way home, they spot Earth. It appears that an asteroid has hit our world and only a small patch of green is left on the globe. This 1940 story grabbed my attention right away, reminding me of an avian version of Star Trek.

The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 2, 1940The action next cuts to a naked young man on Earth killing and eating a rabbit raw. We quickly learn that Tommy survived the asteroid apocalypse as a child, becoming a feral kid living alone. He is now a young adult and his language skills are limited to that of childhood. Tommy has a crow companion named Blacky that parrots his words, and often saying phrases before Tommy, anticipating his reactions.

Tommy is driven by two kinds of hunger. One he knows for food, but the second he doesn’t understand until he finds the trail of a young woman. At this point, I worried that Rocklynne was going to give us one of those cliché Adam and Eve endings that used to show up in science fiction.

The story switches back to Tark and Vascar who spot Tommy and his quest with their viewer. They argue about what to do. Vascar wants to assume the crow is the intelligent species because it rides on Tommy’s shoulders and speaks commands to him. Tark wants to keep an open mind, assuming either could be the dominant species. There’s some nice speculation about what happened to the Earth, determining its future, and the proper approach to make when contacting the intelligent species of the planet. Tark is like Mr. Spock, analytical. Vascar is more like Kirk, impulsive.

The story jumps back and forth from Tommy’s point of view to those of the Alconians.

Eventually, Tommy gets closer to the elusive female. We start to feel for him and want them to meet and mate. Whenever he gets close, she panics at the sight of the crow and takes off again. At one point, Tommy gets mad at Blacky and starts to throw stones at him, when:

“It’s all your fault, Blacky!” Tommy raged. He picked up a rock the size of his fist. He started to throw it, but did not. A tiny, sharp sound bit through the air. Tommy pitched forward. He did not make the slightest twitching motion to show that he had bridged the gap between life and death.”

WTF!?! This is cold.

Rocklynne just killed our sympathetic character. That shocked me. I had already had two assumptions about where the story might go. First, I thought Tommy and the girl would mate and the Alconians would discover the humans were the intelligent species. Then they would think about how to protect the last pair of humans surviving on Earth. Or, I thought Tark and Vascar might take them away as a breeding pair to their planet. I wasn’t expecting them to do something we’d do.

Tark was furious at Vascar for killing the human. He says, “You have killed their species.” They eventually check out the crow, but it eludes them, and they begin to assume it’s not intelligent. Eventually, they return to their ship and head home to Alcon. For us, this is a story about the end of humanity.

After a bit of contemplation, I decide I really like this ending, even though it shocked me. I admired Rocklynne for having the guts to go against convention. This story is cold like “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (Astounding Science Fiction, 1954).

Which brings me to concepts and themes. Besides interstellar travel, alien cultures, and space exploration teams, the story combines post-apocalyptic survival with the last men on Earth themes. Two of my favorites. Generally, science fiction offers hope we’ll survive, but occasionally, it writes our ending. Somehow science fiction has claimed stories about the first and last men as its territory. Two stories I recently read from 1939 were about Neanderthals. And “Quietus” is at least the second story I read in the last couple weeks about our end. The other was “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp.

But there’s another theme here that’s quieter. I’m guessing between 1926-1946 science fiction was ahead of the game when it came to promoting space travel ideas, but I’m not sure. As I read pulp fiction stories I’m paying attention to ideas and trends. I’m pretty sure the concept of spacesuits were developed in science fiction before they were theorized by scientists. But what about the ideas of space navigation, orbiting planets, escape velocity, airlocks, landings, interplanetary and interstellar travel, etc. We’ve grown up knowing all kinds of things about space travel, but I’m guessing those ideas didn’t exist before a certain point in time, and maybe science fiction introduced them to the public before scientists.

At one-point Rocklynne said, “The ship made a slow circuit of Earth” and I wondered when science and science fiction would start saying “going into orbit” or “achieving orbit” or some other common phrase we use today? That got me to thinking. This is 1940, way before Americans heard about V-1s and V-2s, but Robert Goddard had been working with rockets since the 1910s. On 1/12/20 The New York Times ran a front-page story, “Believes Rocket Can Reach Moon” about Goddard’s work. In 1924 Goddard published an article in Popular Science “How My Speed Rocket Can Propel Itself in Vacuum.” Goddard’s rockets didn’t look like rockets then.

Wikipedia says Goddard was often misunderstood and mocked. Goddard didn’t achieve liquid fuel flights until 1926. Lindbergh got interested in Goddard, and then the public started noticing him more in 1929 and 1930. Throughout the 1930s Goddard continued to develop rockets that began to look like modern rockets (cylinder with fins). Goddard’s work was probably well known by this 1940 story.  Here’s a 1924 article about rocketry in Popular Science that mentions Goddard and other rocket pioneers.

It’s hard to comprehend the public’s mindset of the past. Their science fiction came down to us, but not their popular science books. Yesterday I discovered I could read old issues of Popular Science online. These old issues are very revealing. In fact, they can be more fun than reading the old pulps.

My plan for this column is to discuss the stories I read and try to figure out how science fiction and science fictional ideas evolved in the popular conscience of the day.

JWH

 

 

 

Should Science Fiction Be Rational? Posted at 8:00 AM by James Wallace Harris

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In the book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen catalogs countless ways in which America is irrational. Andersen is an admirer of Philip K. Dick, and quotes/mentions him more than once, including one very long passage where Andersen says he couldn’t explain things better than PKD. However, Andersen connects science fiction several times to irrational thinking, and sometimes I get the feeling he thinks science fiction is a catch-phrase for nutty ideas.

Here’s one quote, “Like so much pseudoscience, mesmerism was faulty science fiction, a fantasy inspired by a misunderstood bit of reality” – is Andersen defining science fiction as fantasy literature that misunderstands reality?

The last science fiction novel I read was Chocky by John Wyndham. Its premise is telepathy exists and works instantaneously across the vast distances of space. Wyndham in his story proposes that matter is limited to the speed of light but not mind, and thought has no speed limit. Chocky is a far distant alien that possesses a 12-year-old British boy. Of course, this idea is descended from Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. I consider alien mind travel a fun meme for fantasy stories, but the philosophical disciples of Shirley MacLaine would testify under oath that’s how reality actually works.

Here’s another quote, where he talks about L. Ron Hubbard:

“Hubbard had a brazen indifference to the line between nonfiction and fiction—specifically science fiction, and not just e-meters. Scientology’s theological backstory is staggeringly ridiculous sci-fi, 2001 meets Star Trek meets Star Wars meets The Matrix meets Prometheus. In short, each of us contains a thetan, one of the ethereal beings who created the universe but each of whom, after being shipped to Earth and hit with nuclear bombs by the evil dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, was brainwashed to forget its godlike origins and believe in the false reality most people consider real.”

You have to admit that Scientology is whacked, but then so are the ideas in those TV shows and movies. We think of them as fun. Andersen claims 2/3rds of our society think of them as gospel.

Fantasyland is a book everyone should read because it defines our times better than any book I’ve read in the 21st-century. However, as science fiction fans we need to ask ourselves some very serious questions. Andersen makes an overwhelming case that America has become irrational with about two-thirds of its citizens rejecting science and rational thought. How much has science fiction contributed to the emerging paradigm of believing anything is possible because believing is what powers our reality?

If you don’t think this is true, then I plead for you to read Fantasyland. It is the Future Shock of this generation. To show I’m not holier than thou, I wrote “22 Dumb Fantasies I’ve Tried to Believe” at my blog. I’ve since realized I could have easily doubled or tripled that number.

Science fiction is as tainted as New Age philosophies when it comes to pseudo-science. Cleaning up the genre will be just as hard as convincing society at large to think scientifically. I doubt it’s even possible. But shouldn’t we try? Should science fiction take a position in the current war of the irrational on the rational? If you think that last sentence is hyperbole, then read Fantasyland.

 

Expanded Universe by Robert A. Heinlein Narrated Bronson Pinchot Posted at 8:27 AM by James Wallace Harris

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Bronson Pinchot does such a fantastic job narrating Heinlein’s old book Expanded Universe (now reprinted in two volumes) that I picture Heinlein sounding like Pinchot. On one hand, I recommend Heinlein fans buying these audiobooks because the narrator brings these old stories into a fresh light, but on the other hand, I also recommend everyone NOT buy these books as a protest against how they are being sold. Encouraging publishers to reprint single-volume books as two volumes makes a terrible precedent!

I hate that the Blackstone Audio has followed Phoenix Pick, the current publishers of the ebook/paperback editions of Expanded Universe, by selling Expanded Universe as two audiobooks. This is an absolute rip-off! I didn’t buy it on Audible because I didn’t want to waste two credits on one book. It is worth one credit to fans who want to complete their Heinlein on audio, but not two.

I refused to buy these two-volumes until I saw them on sale at Downpour for $4.95 each. In a weak moment, I crossed my own picket line. So I guess I recommend buying the two-volume audiobook edition if you can get them in a 2-for-1 deal. Even then that galled me! It’s annoying to have one book broken into two parts in my library.

If you just want to read Expanded Universe, I recommend getting the original single volume used at ABEbooks. There are many copies available for less than $4 including shipping.

Can you imagine if it became standard to sell old books in two parts so the publisher can charge twice as much? Expanded Universe isn’t even a large book. On audio, the two volumes run just over 18 hours. Many new science fiction novels run longer. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson is 22 hours and 34 minutes long. Hell, one credit at Audible can get me The Complete Sherlock Holmes (58 hours) or The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (65 hours). To expect fans to use two audiobook credits for a medium size audiobook that’s essentially the dregs of Heinlein’s trunk stories is not fair at all.

Expanded Universe has always been a kind of publishing rip-off. Expanded Universe reprints a small Ace Book from 1966 called The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein which I already owned. The first book contained four of Heinlein’s older stories along with one new story, “Free Men” that had been written in 1947 but never published. Sort of like buying an album of older so-so songs with one unpublished out-take as a sales come-on.

In 1980 Ace expanded this little book as The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein Expanded Universe. That was an honest enough title, expanding those original five stories to twenty-seven, with introductions. It’s a nice collection of Heinlein’s rejects, forgotten works, and a few famous early stories that would appeal to his hardcore fans. Still, it’s yet another repackaging of Heinlein for his ardent fans. The best of these stories were already in the classic Past Through Tomorrow collection.

Before now, I never really like Expanded Universe or The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein though. The less famous stories always seemed dated and slight, and few famous stories were in multiple other collections. That is until I heard Bronson Pinchot read them. Most of the stories are from the 1940s and feel moldy. But when listening to Pinchot read them I realized what Heinlein had been trying to do back then, and it’s far more impressive than I ever gave him credit. For example, some of the stories were written before we dropped the A-bomb on Japan, or just after, and they are now eerily relevant again because of Kim Jong-un.

Many of these forgotten stories reveal better characterization and writing than Heinlein gave his readers after 1965. But they also reveal the seeds of his later obsessions. Expanded Universe is a must for people studying Robert A. Heinlein.

Other stories are minor delights for Heinlein fans who enjoy observing how Heinlein progressed as a writer. For example, “They Do It With Mirrors” is Heinlein’s attempt at writing a mystery story, even including his pet fetish for nudism. Because many of the stories have introductions you get a bit of biography with this book too.

I divide Heinlein’s writing into four periods – the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, and everything after 1970. Heinlein thought his best work was Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) and wanted to be remembered for those three books. I thought he peaked with Have Space Suit-Will Travel in 1958, feeling his best books were those published in the 1950s. In my opinion, Heinlein’s storytelling abilities began to decline in the 1960s. Stranger and Mistress still revealed decent storytelling chops, but those skills beginning to be overrun by soap-boxing philosophy, and his books after Mistress are painful for me to read now. I thought his work from the 1940s was good, but not up to his 1950s standards. In the 1960s Heinlein started emulating Ayn Rand, and I think that totally ruined him as science fiction writer.

Hearing these 1940s short stories and essays showcased them in the best possible light, and have changed my mind about Heinlein’s 1940s work. Pinchot dramatizes the stories very effectively, bringing out everything I believe Heinlein intended. Because these stories were never my favorites I never put much effort into reading them properly. Pinchot has done that for me now, and I’m seeing Heinlein with new eyes, (or ears).

Listening to these stories allowed me to grok Heinlein’s writing goals and ambitions in a way I hadn’t before. For example, I’ve always thought “Life-Line” a stupid story for its main idea of scientifically predicting when people will die. This time around I realized that Heinlein was writing a story that attacked how people accept or reject new ideas. Pinchot made its characterization come alive, and I felt like I was watching a 1940s black and white movie full of colorful little character actors like an old Frank Capra flick.

If you want to hear what Pinchot sound like listen to samples at YouTube. Here’s about four minutes of the introduction for the voice of Heinlein, and about five minutes from “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” for how Pinchot does character voices.

Normally, I’d hate taking the time to listen to a writer’s lesser works, but Expanded Universe became something I looked forward to listening to every morning during breakfast. If you only have one credit at Audible to invest in hearing Heinlein’s short stories, I’d recommend one of these collections: The Menace From Earth, The Green Hills of Earth, The Man Who Sold the Moon, or Assignment in Eternity. It would be wonderful if someone would hire Bronson Pinchot to read The Past Through Tomorrow which collects many of the stories from these four collections along with the novel Methuselah’s Children.

If you want everything by Heinlein you have to get Expanded Universe. How you rationalize paying double is up to you.

 

Seeing the Future Posted at 8:30 AM by James Wallace Harris

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I’ve been having a lot of fun collecting digital scans of old pulp magazine covers. It’s great killing time on the Facebook group, Space Opera Pulp, where several thousand other fans of pulp magazines hang out. I save images to a folder called “SF Covers” and use a program, John’s Background Switcher to randomly display them on my computer’s desktop background. (It’s a free program for Windows and Mac computers.)

Then, when I want to take a break I’ll watch a slideshow of science fiction art. Sometimes I listen to a podcast or audio books while watching. I tell JBS to switch images every 15 seconds. It’s pleasantly meditative.

However, this activity is also proving educational. Not only am I seeing a visual history of the science fiction genre, but I’m learning how people saw the future over time. For example, the cover from Amazing Stories, November 1928 shows a rather steampunky spaceship landing on one of the moons of Jupiter. Remember, real rockets had yet to be invented.

Spaceships got very weird, and very long, in the 1930s. And they also imagined some very strange machines. It’s always funny to see current-day technology adapted to look futuristic.

Now take a look Cosmic Science Fiction, July 1941. How many people understood the concept of weightlessness back then? I’m quite impressed with the artist here. I’m not sure if I ever read an old story that conveyed so much in words as what’s drawn here in pen and ink.

Planet Stories, with its notoriously lurid covers, gives another vision of the future. Atomic Blondes have been around a lot longer than that current film in the theater. This artist isn’t imagining our real future, but the future of comic books and Star Wars.

My friend Mike tells me the art in Planet Stories is corny now, but I think it captures a forgotten era. Take a look at “Galaxy Babes: The Gaudy, Brazen Cover Art Of Planet Stories” to get a better sense of its style. I get the feeling these covers convinced a good many adolescent boys in the 1940s to read science fiction. Another popular magazine was Captain Future because it had a similar artistic style on its covers.

One thing I love about the old pulp art is the cover often told a story by itself. There are folks who collect 1950s paperback books because of their visually gripping covers and I think it’s for that same reason artists were so important to the pulps. I’m not sure people would collect them if they didn’t have the cover art they did. The illustrators captured a moment of action and it makes you want to buy the book/magazine to find out what happens next. Modern covers don’t do that. I wonder if 21st-century books and magazines would sell better if their covers showed in-the-moment action?

Just look at the covers below – don’t they make you want to read the stories?

JWH

Big Headed Humans With Telepathy Posted at 11:17 AM by James Wallace Harris

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Our online science fiction book club is reading Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov and discussing one story a week. The first story is “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton, first appeared in the April 1931 issue of Wonder Stories. The story is very old fashioned, about a mad scientist, Dr. John Pollard, inviting two friends to observe an experiment. The narrator, Arthur Wright, describes what he and Hugh Dutton see when Pollard subjects himself to distilled cosmic rays.

Wikipedia has a nice summary. You can read the story online in a scan of April 1931 Wonder Stories. Also, here’s a “Retro Review” that’s rather nice.

The setting is like something out of Frankenstein. Pollard has built a machine that gathers cosmic rays, which he believes is the agent of evolution. Each 15-minute exposure will alter his body as if had evolved for 50 million years. Wright and Dutton watch Pollard transform six times, each time his brain grows larger and his body becomes smaller. Pollard acquires telepathy and vast knowledge. Of course, all this is ridiculously unscientific. However, Hamilton is using the story to imagine what will happen to humans in the future. Hamilton is mining the same motherload as Olaf Stapledon, H. G. Wells, and many other early science fiction writers when they thought about the future of our species.

I love reading old science fiction stories like this because they give perspective on the nature of science fiction. You must ask yourself when you read such a tale, “What other science fiction stories have explored the same theme?” Right off the bat I thought of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, First and Last Men by Olaf Stapledon, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, and Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – and of course “The Sixth Finger” from the old TV show, The Outer Limits, which featured a plot that Hamilton should have sued them over.

What all these stories boil down to is this: What will Humans 2.0 be like? Time and time again science fiction predicts people with ESP abilities. 1950s science fiction was full of such stories. And quite often, they predicted people with larger heads. Star Trek often featured many big headed aliens – the first pilot which became the episode “The Menagerie” featured big-headed aliens with telepathy.

I don’t think humans will ever evolve to have ESP powers. But we will create a species of intelligent machines that will have telepathy with radio waves and networking.

I am rather bothered by the constant desire to see humans have telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition and other wild talents. Aren’t they the same talents we assigned in the past to God and gods – prayer, the invisible hand of God, and prophecy? The reason why this country is so politically divided today is most citizens reject science for magic. They can’t accept evolution or global warming because it means giving up on an immortal soul and heaven.

Why can’t science fiction imagine evolution creating non-magical abilities for us? I consider science fiction failing if all it can come up with for our future evolution is reprocessed abilities from myths and religions. The insights of The Enlightenment are evolutionary. Compassion is evolutionary. Technology is evolutionary. Global cooperation is evolutionary. Computers and networking are evolutionary.

What natural abilities could we expect for biological evolution to give us in the future? I think the epitome of gifts would be a better understanding of reality without the desire for magic. If you watch the nightly news what we need is better bullshit detectors rather than telepathy. Personally, I’d like a better memory or a body that’s less prone to disease and decay. I wish I could synthesize more information and model bigger concepts in my head. I admit that telepathy could be useful, but I just can’t see any way that nature would give us built in radios. However, I can imagine us becoming more empathetic. Could that lead to being able to read each other’s moods or feelings?

One lesson I’ve learned from writing is my thoughts are not very coherent. It takes a lot of writing and editing to make them gel into something understandable. I’m not sure telepathy would be very effective. Writing takes work and time, and even then, it’s very hard to make a coherent message that others will read and interpret in the same way it was intended.

Let’s say you are Edmond Hamilton in 1931 and want to convey the ideas of “The Man Who Evolved” to friends. Would telepathy have worked better than Wonder Stories?

I think science fiction needs to get out of the rut of big headed humans with ESP.

What’s Your Science Fiction Fantasy? Posted at 11:07 AM by James Wallace Harris

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Have you ever wanted to write a science fiction novel? Do you picture yourself as the hero? Be honest – do you have what it takes to be a great protagonist? And just what kind of adventure would you want to have?

Novels, unlike real life, and especially for science fiction, can be about anything. But let’s get really far out. Let’s imagine you have died, and you regain consciousness. You’re in an empty room with another being. Let’s not be so pedestrian as to call it God. Let’s just say it’s a very advanced being with great powers. The being tells you how reincarnation works. You can now be sent anywhere in the multiverse to live again. Just pick. The multiverse is so infinite anything you can imagine exists somewhere. Just think what you want. Or you can volunteer to be randomly placed.

Do you have a favorite book or movie you’d like to live? Have you been refining a personal fantasy for years you want to try out? Think hard and long, because like a Genie with three wishes, your decision can come back to bite you in the ass. Do you want to stay on Earth, or venture out into the solar system, or beyond? Do you want to be rich? Have lots of sex? Travel far and wide? Invent wonderful machines? Do great deeds? Be a great leader? Spend a lifetime being compassionate?

Think about your favorite novels. Good ones usually involve much adversity and danger. Have you ever read Replay by Ken Grimwood? Jeff Winston, the novel’s protagonist dies at 43 and wakes up back in 1963, in his 18-year-old body to live his life again. He remembers his first life, so he tries to make his second life better. It doesn’t work out like he plans. (Do plans ever work out like planned?) Jeff dies again and gets yet another chance. Thus the title. This 1986 novel came out well before Groundhog Day in 1993. This is one of my favorite fantasies.

When I was younger, I would have picked being a colonist on Mars. Either like Heinlein’s Red Planet or Robinson’s Red Mars. Or maybe a person using suspended animation to see the future like Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer. Of course, having a time machine like the traveler in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine would be fantastic. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than going up and down the timeline of Earth to see what happens in both the past and the future.

However, I’d still pick the Ken Grimwood type of adventure. I’d like to reincarnate into my 12-year-old self and try this life again, starting in 1963. (Strange that Grimwood and I both picked 1963.) That was the year my family moved from Miami to South Carolina. I’ve always wondered if I could have convinced my folks to let me stay with my grandmother instead. She lived alone and managed an apartment building for old people. I even met a woman there who had been on the Titanic. My grandmother could have used the help, and I could have made a much better life knowing what I know now – if I had tried harder. It would be rewarding to live another life doing everything differently.

Hinduism invented the idea of reincarnation to improve the soul. It’s a rather elegant idea once you think about it. Especially, if you could reincarnate into your own life for a second try. It’s taken me almost seven decades to figure out how things work. Would knowing what I know now at puberty make much of a difference? It would be fascinating to find out.

Science fiction is really a literature of imagining alternate lives using all of time and space. Most of the time we explore wishes gone bad. I think that’s why I’ve always loved the twelve Heinlein juvenile novels the most of any science fiction stories. Those stories published from 1947-1958 had a lot of bad things happen to the characters, but the sense-of-wonder adventures made up for any of the sufferings.

If you have the time, leave a comment about the choice you’d make.

Are You Nostalgic for Old SF Art? Posted at 1:34 PM by James Wallace Harris

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I recently joined two groups on Facebook devoted to science fiction art: Raypunk and Space Opera Pulp. It makes me wonder: How many people love science fiction art? Over the years I’ve encountered a number of blogs devoted to SF art like Joachim Boaz’s Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations and 70s Sci-Fi Art. And more databases of covers from science fiction magazines are showing up, like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from Phil Stephensen-Payne’s giant website. Even the Internet Science Fiction Database has become much more cover oriented. If you search Pinterest for “science fiction art” you’ll get countless collections.

Raypunk features more modern SF artwork but does include some older stuff. Space Opera Pulp is exactly what it says, and more to my nostalgic tastes. I would love to include samples of art these sites provide but I’m not sure about the rules of copyright violations.

It would be a wonderful blogging project to show the evolution of science fiction art as it parallels written science fiction. But I’m not sure how when it comes to getting permissions to use artwork. For now, I’m showing screenshots to these sites as a colorful enticement to try them. Here are some of the covers from F&SF. If you go to the site and click on a thumbnail it will show the large view. However, if you love a particular cover search for it on Google using the image view. Often larger higher resolution images are available.

For my personal use, I just right-click on images, select “Save image as…” and then put them into my SF Art folder. I search for the best scan at the highest resolution, and use my computer’s desktop background as an art gallery, using John’s Background Switcher to change images. It’s available for free and works on Windows and Mac. For Linux, I use Variety Wallpaper Changer. These programs automatically switch desktop background images at set time intervals. Here’s what my current desktop looks like:

One idea for a visual essay would be to take a single topic, say Mars, and show how fiction and illustrations have changed over time. Go year-by-year describing stories, quoting them, and showing the illustrations. Of course, that’s just another project to put on my pile of projects-to-do, but it would be fun. If anyone knows about the copyright laws that would apply to such a project, leave a comment, please.

Another project would be to pick one artist, say Richard Powers, and show how their work changed with the science fiction times. ISFDB makes that easy. They list books by cover artist. I assume showing whole book covers are kosher when it comes to copyright.

That should allow a project showing all the covers for a particular book. Here’s the ISFDB page for Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It goes on and on.

But really, how many fans of SF art are out there? Is it in the hundreds, the thousands? I can’t imagine it in the tens of thousands, but maybe. Wouldn’t it be funny to find out if 167 people keep all those SF art websites going? I think they must come in two kinds. The folks that love the current work, and the folks that are nostalgic like me.

I think that because I believe that’s how people read science fiction. When you’re young you read new science fiction to imagine the future. When you’re old you read the old science fiction you loved when young and think about the past.

Here’s the desktop image as I finished this essay.

Cuteness in Science Fiction Posted at 1:30 PM by James Wallace Harris

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I recently reread Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper and realized it’s success was probably due to cuteness. Cuteness is hard to define but generally deals with little creatures like kittens, puppies, babies, and toddlers. In the case of science fiction, cuteness comes in the form of little aliens or small robots.

Little Fuzzy was a read for my science fiction book club and most of the members enjoyed a story about cute critters being discovered by a gem miner on a distant planet. Piper’s plot examined what makes a being sentient, which is a serious, non-cute subject. However, because of the enduring popularity of fuzzy stories, we could also say Piper explored the concept of cuteness in science fiction. If you want to know more about the series read “The Fuzzy Story.”

I always pictured fuzzies sort of like Gizmo from Gremlins. Big eyes, small, furry – all the elements of cuteness. Big eyes seem to be a major element of anime. And, furry leads to furry fandom. I wonder if furries were inspired by Piper’s fuzzies? I’m not a fan of anime or furry so I’m not sure how they emerged, but I have to assume some form of cuteness was at the heart of their inspiration. Science fiction has always appealed to the young, and young at heart, so such subgenres of cute F&SF have their fans. I’m not one, but I do see cuteness as a hook for writers.

John Scalzi wrote a remake called Fuzzy Nation that has sales-appeal because of the cuteness of fuzzies.
Science fiction is seldom about cute – but when science fiction does get cute, those stories are often fondly remembered. Just think of “Trouble with Tribbles,” David Gerrold’s classic Star Trek episode. Of course, I thought Tribbles were a rip off of Flat Cats from The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein, which had its cuteness appeal. And I have to assume the idea of cute critters that multiply quickly wasn’t original with Heinlein. One of the flat cats was named Fuzzy Britches. So fuzzies might have also come from flat cats.

Cuteness is often linked to humor, like a cousin to comic relief. If the fuzzies hadn’t been cute, would Piper’s story had been as successful? Some stories can be improved with a dash of cuteness, but too much can be cloying. Most of the humor in “Trouble With Tribbles” seems strained today. It was saved by the cuteness of tribbles. I tend to think the cute fuzzies saved Piper’s story. It was reasonably well written for its time and market but it wasn’t that original. Piper was a solid genre writer back then, but isn’t well remembered today, except for creating fuzzies.

Pixar and Disney depend on a certain amount of cuteness to drive their genre and non-genre films. If there’s too much cuteness their stories will only appeal to children. Blockbuster animated films depend on attracting audiences of all ages.

My first encounter with cuteness in science fiction came from Willis, the Martian “bouncer” in Heinlein’s Red Planet. Willis was fuzzy and round like a medicine ball. Willis could protrude eye stalks or other appendages. He whistled. Which reminds me of R2D2. That’s another area of cuteness in science fiction, small robots like R2D2, WALL-E, and the little robots in Silent Running, Huey, Dewey, and Louie (for those people who remember really old science fiction).

So cute isn’t always fuzzy, it can be metallic, if small. The Heinlein juveniles had a number of strange alien creatures, but most of them were not cute. Often, cuteness in science fiction is repackaged puppies and kittens, reshaped, with a bit of mischievous intelligence. Hardly original, but it does tap into our fondness for cuteness.

One of the ironic aspects of Little Fuzzy was the main characters wanted to prove fuzzies were sentient, yet they also wanted to own them, treating them like pets. In some science fiction stories, humans have been pets to advanced aliens and we think that evil. Why is it okay when we do it?

Cute brings out our maternal and paternal instincts, which is a driving force in the pet industry. However, we’ve cruelly enslaved many species that aren’t suited to domestication. I haven’t read the sequels to Little Fuzzy, but I have to wonder if Piper explored fuzzy exploitation. Cuteness isn’t a great trait for many animals because we’ll cage them for our idle moments when we feel the need to be amused by something small and cute. We also tend to want our kids not to grow up and leave their cute stage, which is unfair. And doesn’t anime and furry fandom encourage arrested development?

We might not see a lot of cuteness in science fiction because it’s something we should limit. Our reality isn’t cute. Maybe I’m an old curmudgeon because I thought the best parts of Little Fuzzy were its serious aspects, and the cute aspects were misguided. Shouldn’t the humans have left the fuzzies alone, and just observed them? Shouldn’t the Prime Directive apply to cute critters too?