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Worlds Without End Blog

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?

Is Oasis Science Fiction? Posted at 8:42 AM by James Wallace Harris

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Amazon has rolled out a pilot for a new science fiction series called Oasis, based on the novel The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. Unfortunately, I have not read the novel. The novel’s description barely sounds like what unfolded in the pilot. Readers compare the book to A Case of Conscience or A Canticle for Leibowitz, while I thought of Solaris while watching the TV show. Because we’ve only seen the 59-minute pilot, there’s no telling where the show will go, but I hope it incorporates more of the book – The Book of Strange New Things sounds fascinating.

As I watched the pilot, I felt I was seeing a series of iconic science fiction tropes that should appeal to the average science fiction fan looking for a new science fiction show. The only thing, the story didn’t feel very science fictional – at least not so far, and not to me. Peter Leigh (Richard Madden) is a pastor/chaplain whose wife has died and he’s mysteriously invited to travel to another planet because they claim to desperately need his skills. Peter arrives at the colony world only to find a miserable outpost where people suffer from menacing hallucinations. Three have died already. In the book, the preacher goes to another planet to teach the natives about Christianity. Now that could still happen in the television series, but the pilot didn’t introduce any native inhabitants on the colony world. It seems quite barren.

I ask, “Where’s the science fiction,” because of the nature of the story. It feels like a mystery. Why is a pastor needed to solve what might be a psychological or medical problem? Why are the people hallucinating? The same plot could be set on Earth today. Of course, this might reflect my jaded feelings toward science fiction. Spaceships and colony worlds don’t equal science fiction to me anymore. Conflicts built around off-world corporate shenanigans or galactic palace intrigue no longer means science fiction to me. I need something more.

All too often stories are called science fiction because of their costumes, sets, and scenery. A single-action .45 makes a western, a 9mm Glock makes a thriller, and a ray-gun makes a science fiction story if the plot is only about good guys vs. bad guys. That’s not good enough for me. I need science speculation in my science fiction.

Arrival had its audience thinking about communicating with aliens and how difficult that could be. I’d call that science fiction. The Martian and Gravity both dealt with problems unique to space exploration. Even Passengers which was nearly all Sci-Fi set redeemed itself with a uniquely ethical problem that would only come about because of long space missions using suspended animation.

So far Oasis seems completely cliché to me. I do hope it goes into production and explores new science fiction territory. The pilot had the feel of too many other science fiction series, but it hints at potential. The appearance of humans working in space is starting to develop a mundane sameness, which is a problem for many new SF shows. That’s why I loved the visuals of Gattaca – it made the future look different.

The Book of Strange New ThingsI fell in love with science fiction because of its ability to imagine things never imagined. Too often current science fiction works from templates. Every genre has to worry about running its tropes into the ground. And if you live long enough, it appears every genre does that.

Of course, getting older is my problem. The young people who create and consume science fiction today probably won’t see what I’m talking about. At least not until they get older. I still crave new science fiction. It’s hard for me to find it when everything new looks old. For example, I admire Humans. But even its ideas are old. Still, I love Humans for presenting ideas about robots, AI, and consciousness in a fresh way.

Oasis did not seem fresh to me, or even science fictional, but that could change. The trouble is, I compare all first episodes to the first episode of Breaking Bad, which is a ridiculously high standard. All my favorite series have had a gang-buster of a first episode. That has me worried about Oasis, but I’m trying to stay positive. I think I’ll go read The Book of Strange New Things while waiting to see if Oasis gets the green light.

A Distance Too Far Posted at 9:20 AM by James Wallace Harris

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In Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix propose colonizing Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and the second largest moon in the solar system. They reject constructing colonies on Mars and the Moon, claiming Titan offers the most resources for creating a permanent human settlement.

Even though I don’t buy their premise, Wohlforth and Hendrix have written a book that nicely sums up the current knowledge on human space travel. What’s damning and depressing is their long litany of obstacles we face living in space. Over the years I’ve read news reports about the various dangerous health effects of space travel, but reading them all in one place makes me wonder if science fiction is completely wrong about the future of humans in space.

Oddly enough, near the beginning of their story, Wohlforth and Hendrix report books on space colonization are never taken seriously by professionals in the space industry. Evidently, such wild ideas are a danger to the careers of real space scientists. Wohlforth and Hendrix say books about colonizing space give amateur space enthusiasts hope, but those folks lie on the fringe, closer to science fiction fans than scientists. I’m a space enthusiast and a science fiction fan, so Beyond Earth is my kind of book, but I couldn’t help taking this news as a slight.

Between what W&H report on the dangers of space travel and the politics of the space industry, it feels like they have damned their own hopes in Beyond Earth to oblivion. The upside of their story is the reporting on private space programs, like SpaceX. That news is very encouraging, if not inspirational.

However, I have a problem with colonizing Titan. It’s a distance too far. Earth’s moon is three days away, Mars is six months. Titan is seven years! Wohlforth and Hendrix do make a case for faster space travel, but even if Titan was only hours away, it’s still too far, too cold, too strange, and, too inhuman. Science fiction hasn’t prepared us for living on Titan like it has for the Moon and Mars.

For the past fifty years, I’ve heard many arguments for colonizing the Moon or Mars. The whites and the reds, you might say. We know those worlds well enough to feel they aren’t so strange. They are barren, not fit for man nor beast, but we have already psychologically imagined ourselves there nonetheless. Titan is too far in distance and conceptualization.

From all the medical studies that Wohlforth and Hendrix review, I’m not sure humans are meant to live in space at all. Maybe our science fictional dreams are flat-out impractical. No matter what hurdle Wohlforth and Hendrix report, they don’t get discouraged, always coming up with hopeful workarounds. I was discouraged. Is it time for science fiction to start speculating about futures where humans never leave Earth? When do we give up? I’m not ready yet, but I do believe we need to start contemplating the possibility.

After reading Beyond Earth I believe we should put all our manned space efforts into building bases on the Moon. We need to test humans living in low gravity for years. We’ve already discovered that living in microgravity for longer than six months causes permanent bodily damage. We’re learning that living in space will eventually cause permanent brain damage from galactic radiation. The safe time limit might be just 1-2 years, and there’s no practical shielding for spacecraft.

We should send robots to the Moon to construct an underground city safe from radiation. Those robots need to mine all the resources on the Moon that’s possible, so we fly the least weight from Earth. Robots should then fill the underground city with plants and test animals. When the robots have created a sustaining livable habitat, then send humans to stay for several years. Only then will we know what happens to our bodies living in less than 1 G. After we’ve gained knowledge from such an experiment, then we’ll know if we should travel greater distances. If we survive living on the Moon, then go to Mars or even Titan.

Wohlforth and Hendrix make a great case that we’re intentionally ignoring medical evidence. That we don’t want to believe that space is ultimately unhealthy. That our gung-ho nature makes us believe we can either use technology to overcome obstacles, or we can push our bodies further than the evidence suggests. I wonder if such optimism is just a way of fooling ourselves because we don’t want our science fictional dreams to come to an end.

I don’t know about you, but Titan is too far for me. What if Mars and the Moon are too far too? As Beyond Earth progresses it becomes more like science fiction than science fact. Anyone who writes science fiction might want to mine it for ideas. On the other hand, this book’s optimism makes me question the optimism of science fiction. Should we expect the future to give us everything we imagine?

Recommended Reading

 

When Did You Discover Time Travel? Posted at 1:46 PM by James Wallace Harris

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How old were you when you first encountered the concept of time travel? I used to believe it was when I first saw the George Pal version of The Time Machine which came out in 1960, and I didn’t see until 1962 or 1963 when I was ten or eleven. Memory is a highly unreliable resource, especially for dating. I vaguely remember that seeing the movie made me get the book from my school library the next day. What’s weird, is I don’t remember being blown away by the idea of a time machine at that time. And time travel is certainly a concept that was mind blowing. What I remember, was being blown away at the idea that humans could mutate into new species. Now that was something to think about.

My guess is I already knew about time travel. But when did I first encounter the idea?

In past decades I assumed all the great science fiction concepts like aliens, robots, time travel, interstellar travel, artificial intelligence came from reading science fiction. But in more recent years, as I wrote about my past, struggling to get the facts right, I realized that assumption was wrong. This line of thought started when I tried to remember when I first learned about dinosaurs. I wondered why little kids love dinosaurs, and if they understood dinosaurs existed millions of years ago and are now extinct. Those are heavy concepts too – vast times and extinction. I remember having dreams about dinosaurs when I was four or five, well before I could read, or attend school. And I don’t remember my parents telling me about dinosaurs. How did I learn about them?

Finally, I assumed I was introduced to all the far out ideas of science fiction via television, even though I grew up in the 1950s when television was primitive. That’s why I’ve felt I’ve always known about outer space, robots and traveling through time. Hell, I might have been exposed to time travel before I could tell time.

Evidently, childhood was a phase when my mind was a mass of proto-concepts gathered from television – like Pangaea before splitting into distinguishable continents. Reading science fiction shaped those vague impressions into precise concepts. Although reading Time Travel by James Gleick made me realize that time travel is a tremendously complex subject that we continue to refine.

Now here’s the thing I really want to talk about. In this age of alternate facts, should we be raising kids by stuffing them with fantasy and fantastic beliefs before they understand the nature of reality? We believe that make-believe is perfect for young minds, but is that true? Can you imagine a different way, where we taught kids facts first, and then later introduced them to fantasy?

Can you imagine growing up only seeing science shows that carefully explained what we know and how we know it? How would that change society? Would a fact-based early childhood education make us more realistic about reality? Is fiction the driving force that makes us constantly reshape reality with alternative facts? Does fantasy consumption encourage fantasy viewpoints? What an idea for a science fiction/fantasy novel! Imagine our world without science fiction and fantasy.

Let’s consider one more thing. What if we raised kids without fiction — at what age would they invent time travel on their own? When would they imagine building robots that could think like people, or traveling to Mars? Do we cheat our kids by telling them about all the far out ideas before they could invent them on their own?

Science fiction is a technology for transmitting speculative ideas, ones that writers have predigested for us, sort of like when Neo in The Matrix is taught martial arts with a program injected into his brain. I’m just wondering if we’d have more grit if we acquired our concepts through working out ideas ourselves.

Recommended Recent Reads:

Science Fiction–Old and New Posted at 9:55 AM by James Wallace Harris

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vintage-sf-badgeAt The Little Red Reviewer, they are having Vintage Science Fiction Month where readers post reviews of older science fiction books they’ve recently read. I read The Stars Are Ours! and it’s sequel Star Born by Andre Norton, and The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. I reviewed the process at my blog. But since then I’ve been thinking about why we read vintage science fiction, and if the why changes because of our age. Does someone who is twelve today, perceive The Stars Are Ours! different than I did when I was twelve in 1963?

I assume the main appeal of vintage science fiction is nostalgia, and most of us who read it are older. In other words, we’ve lived long enough for some books to age. Do they age like fine wine or a stack of old newspapers? What is the essence of vintage?

That we notice a difference implies books written in the 1950s are different from books written in the 2010s. From my perspective, that’s true. Science fiction written in the 1920s has a distinctive style than science fiction written in any of the decades since. For proof of my point, check out The Pulp Magazine Archive. This site has scans of pulp magazines that you can read online, including early issues of Amazing Stories. I’m going to assume you’ll agree with me that the stories change. Now the question: Do we change?

If I could send a copy of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu back to my teenage self to read and write a review, how would it be different from the review I would write today? Even President Obama was impressed with this book. Do all of us experience the same wow or is that impact different if the reader is young or old? Or if readers back in the 1960s could read The Three-Body Problem would they perceive it as something very different? Could they sense that it was written in the future like my younger self could sense reading The Skylark of Space by E. E. Smith was very old, written in the past?

Maybe another way to approach my query is to ask: Does an older reader today feel The Drowned World is vintage science fiction in the same way a young reader would? Our feeling of “vintage” might be a sense of nostalgia, while a young person might define it as feeling old-fashioned and quaint. But what if the young reader hadn’t read much science fiction? Would an unsophisticated 12-year-old reader of 2017 be that different from one in 1967? It could be possible they’d react to the story in many of the same ways.

When I first read Foundation by Isaac Asimov in the 1960s, I was reading stories written in the 1940s, and it didn’t seem old or vintage. Could a kid today get an ebook copy of Star Flight by Andre Norton that reprints The Stars Are Ours! and Star Born, not noticed the 1954 and 1957 copyright dates, read these books and think they were written today? Or would they sense their vintage quality?

Why Do You Love the Science Fiction You Love? Posted at 2:38 PM by James Wallace Harris

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keepcalmandlovescifiScience fiction has always been more than adventure stories for me. Science fiction is my Aristotle and Augustine, giving meaning to our meaningless reality. When you recall the science fiction tales that meant the most to you, were they thrill rides? Or maps of speculation? I use science to statistically explain how reality works, but I use science fiction to speculate how we can manipulate reality. That was when I was young. Now that I’m older, I use science fiction to imagine how things might play out on Earth after I leave.

I’ve often wondered why science fiction is my chosen literature. Why do we pick the things we love? Is it free will, or some kind of adaptation or instinct? If a super-AI studied my habits like human scientists study chimps, what would it make of my choices in literature? Do aspects of my personality explain why I was drawn to science fiction?

Over at the Classic Science Fiction book club, we’ve been discussing our personal top ten favorite science fiction stories. What surprised me was the diversity of titles we embraced. Many of the stories are not on my Classics of Science Fiction, a list of the statistically most remembered science fiction books. You can see what stories members picked listed here. This made me wonder why we love the science fiction stories we do. The picks are as individualistic as fingerprints. There’s been some discussion at the group about all of this, but it inspired me to write this essay. Are we attracted to objectively great books, or do we seek books that mirror our subjective selves?

Sometimes I feel there’s no such thing as a great book, at least not in a measurable sense. The books we think are great are merely the ones that reflect our strongest desires. They don’t need to be well written, brilliant, or literary. They just need to trigger emotions. With me it might be accidental that they are science fiction. Or, are science fiction fans the kind of people drawn to the fantastic? Is mundane reality too tame for our ordinary lives?

Here are the ten titles I sent the book club. The list might be different on another day, or maybe not. These are the books I reread. These are the books I keep writing about. (Title links in the list go to WWEnd pages, title links in the essay are to older essays.)

  1. Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein (1958)
  2. The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany (1967)
  3. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (1955)
  4. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)
  5. Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein (1956)
  6. Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany (1966)
  7. Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick (1959)
  8. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  9. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (1895)
  10. The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein (1957)

My favorite science fiction is 50 years or older, and written by men. Is this list a Rorschach test for my personality? I do love modern science fiction, and often think it better written and more sophisticated than my favorites here. And I do prefer the diversity of modern SF. Yet, these are the stories burned in my memory. I read most of these stories before I turned 20. It might be our life-time favorites are the books we read in youth. First impressions are often the lasting impressions.

I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel during the 1964-65 school year, at the dawn of Project Gemini. I was in the 8th grade and dying to blast off into space – just like Kip, the main character. I wished I was like Kip in many ways, but I wasn’t. I wanted to work hard in school, have my own science workshop, and live in a stable happy family located in a small town. None of those were true for me. I’ve read Have Space Suit-Will Travel six or eight times. It is the definitive science fiction novel for me. Back then it was my road map of the future, now it’s the tintype of my nostalgic past. For some baby boomers growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the Heinlein juveniles were our substitute for religion. Those twelve books gave us faith, not in a sacred heaven, but in a secular outer space.

The Star Pit” is also about the relentless desire to go into space, but ultimately deals with the limitations that hold us back. I first read this story in 1968, when I was slightly older and knew I wasn’t going into space. “The Star Pit” is tattooed on my heart, and whenever I reread it, the story squeezes tears out of my eyes, like beautiful songs of heartbreak. It might be the most mature of the ten stories I list here, even though it was written by the youngest writer at the time. The main character and my father were alcoholics who always had the restless urge to run away. I was Ratlit, and I wished my father had been the older Vyme. This story could easily have been a mainstream literary work without science fictional elements. I imagine its based on Delany’s own experiences, and he knew he wasn’t going into space too.

I read Tunnel in the Sky and Time for the Stars during the same school year as Have Space Suit-Will Travel. Both were about boys who left their families to be on their own. My parents’ marriage was a train wreck, and I wished I could have divorced them. I grew up loving stranded on deserted island stories, and Tunnel was a science fiction version of one. I believe the reason I was so attracted to the Heinlein juveniles is because their teen heroes always found ways to leave their parents.

Earth Abides also belongs to one of my favorite kinds of stories – last man on Earth stories. There is a side of me that wishes I was the last man on Earth. I love the idea of starting civilization over with a few other people or even being the last person watching nature reclaim the planet. I’ve always been kind of a loner even though I’ve been married for 38 years and have many friends. My childhood would have crushed most children, but I survived by dreaming, especially science fiction dreams.

Empire Star fits me philosophically. I read it maybe in 1967. Delany was closer to my age, and his work felt radically different from all the older science fiction writers I was discovering. Heinlein was like a father figure, but Delany was like a brother. Empire Star has wise advice for young people going out on their own for the first time. Delany’s insight into simplex, complex and multiplex was the best concept I ever learned from science fiction. I completely identified with both Comet Jo and Ni Ty.

I love Confessions of a Crap Artist because it’s how I remember the 1950s. My uncles were crap artists. I think all science fiction fans have a bit of crap artist in them. I love this novel because it shows we’re all crazy in unique ways. I believe this is PKD’s best book. Confessions is somewhat autobiographical, and one of Dick’s attempts to write literary. I love The Man in the High Castle because it’s about a little guy trying to survive in a very strange reality and make sense of it. How universal is that? PKD was great at writing about powerless people. His wife at the time he wrote these novels, Anne R. Dick, has written a memoir of those years, The Search for Philip K. Dick. To become a Dickhead means falling down the rabbit hole of trying to decipher PKD. I keep rereading his literary novels and his biographies to figure out why he wrote all those bizarrely wonderful novels that resonate with me.

I love The Time Machine because I consider it the archetype of science fiction. The time machine was cool, but not the point. Wells’ speculative explorations were epic. That’s how I define science fiction – as speculation. I love The Time Machine in the same way I love Olaf Stapledon’s majestic speculations. This is what I want from science fiction – to think really big thoughts.

I fell in love with The Door into Summer for two reasons. First, it’s about inventing robots in a home workshop. I always wanted to build robots. Second, Daniel Boone Davis slept his way into the future, and I would love to do that. I wish I could take 50-year naps to see how history progresses.

There are many other science fiction books I love, but for the moment, these are the ten I picked to share with the book club members. Picking ten books is just something fun we did this week, but I think our choices are revealing. Certainly more telling than exchanging astrological signs, maybe with as much validity as a Briggs-Myers test.

If you want to be revealing, list the ten science fiction stories you love most in the comments below.

Falling Off the Classics of Science Fiction List Posted at 3:04 PM by James Wallace Harris

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list_classicsofsfWe’ve recently updated the Classics of Science Fiction list from version 3 to 4. Because of this, some books that were on version 3 have fallen off the latest list. My main reason for producing the classics list is to track how books are remembered and forgotten. Most books are forgotten soon after they are printed, so to get on our list and stay on it for years means a huge number of readers are remembering those books. When books fall of the list, it doesn’t mean those books are unworthy of reading anymore, but that readers are forgetting them. Sometimes books are rediscovered, especially if they get new editions, produced as audio books, or made into films or television shows. Generally, books slide into obscurity. Old readers die off, and new readers never find the better older books.

Many of the titles that dropped off the list were books published before 1950. For version 3, we used several lists for library collection development, or critical histories of science fiction. For version 4, we had more fan polls. Version 3 had many short stories collections and anthologies that didn’t make it to version 4. Plus, many classic titles from 1950-1975 fell off. I assume newer readers aren’t discovering older books.

I also think version 4 is a better list than version 3. Most of the second half of version 3 didn’t make it to version 4. Which makes me wonder if the bottom half of version 4 will disappear when we create version 5 in ten years.

Here are the titles that fell of the list this time. The ones in red are books I’ve reread in the recent years and think still deserve to be read. There are plenty of books on the list below I still plan to reread.

  • 334 (1972) by Thomas Disch
  • The Absolute at Large (1927) by Karel Čapek
  • Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg
  • Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) edited by Harlan Ellison
  • Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell
  • Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1952) edited by John W. Campbell
  • Back to Methuselah (1921) by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Battle of Dorking (1871) by Sir George Chesney
  • Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov
  • Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock
  • The Best of C. L. Moore (1975) by C. L. Moore
  • The Best of C. M. Kornbluth by C. M. Kornbluth
  • The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975) by Henry Kuttner
  • The Best of Science Fiction (1946) edited by Groff Conklin
  • Beyond Apollo (1972) by Barry N. Malzberg
  • The Big Time (1961) by Fritz Leiber
  • The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle
  • Brain Wave (1954) by Poul Anderson
  • Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Casey Agonistes (1973) by Richard McKenna
  • Chronopolis and Other Stories (1971) by J. G. Ballard
  • The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham
  • The Clockwork Man (1923) by E. V. Odle
  • The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer Lytton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher
  • Deathbird Stories (1975) by Harlan Ellison
  • Deathworld (1960) by Harry Harrison
  • Deluge (1927) by S. Fowler Wright
  • The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (1971) by Roger Zelazny
  • Dorsai (1976) by Gordon Dickson
  • Downward to the Earth (1970) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • The Dying Earth (1950) by Jack Vance
  • E Pluribus Unicorn (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Embedding (1973) by Ian Watson
  • Engine Summer (1979) by John Crowley
  • Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler
  • Final Blackout (1948) L. Ron Hubbard
  • The Girl in the Golden Atom (1922) by Ray Cummings
  • Gray Lensman (1951) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift
  • The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) by J. D. Beresford
  • Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad
  • Islands in the Net (1988) by Bruce Sterling
  • The Lensman Series (1948) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn
  • The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett
  • Looking Backward (1880) by Edward Bellamy
  • The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Lovers (1961) by Philip José Farmer
  • The Machine Stops and Other Stories (1909) by E. M. Forster
  • Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Man Plus (1976) by Frederik Pohl
  • A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1975) by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) by John Wyndham
  • A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Norstrillia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith
  • Nova (1968) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Of All Possible Worlds (1955) by William Tenn
  • On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute
  • On the Wings of Song (1979) by Thomas Disch
  • The Past Through Tomorrow (1967) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Perelandra (1943) by C. S. Lewis
  • The Persistence of Vision (1978) by John Varley
  • Play Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1976) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Science Fiction of Jack London (1975) by Jack London
  • She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard
  • The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner
  • The Short Stories of H. G. Wells (1927) by H. G. Wells
  • Sirius (1944) by Olaf Stapledon
  • The Skylark of Space (1946) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Lewis Stevenson
  • That Hideous Strength (1945) by C. S. Lewis
  • To-Morrow’s Yesterday (1932) by John Gloag
  • Under Pressure (1956) by Frank Herbert
  • Untouched by Human Hands (1954) by Robert Sheckley
  • A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • War of the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
  • The Weigher of Souls (1931) by Andrew Maurois
  • Who Goes There? (1948) by John W. Campbell
  • The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) Marge Piercy
  • The World Below (1930) by S. Fowler Wright

Editor’s note:  WWEnd has recently updated our Classics of Science Fiction list from version 3 to match Jim and Michael’s new version 4.

Used Book Sellers – Please Put Your Barcodes on the Back Cover Posted at 12:51 PM by James Wallace Harris

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I buy lots of used books from ABEbooks.com and Amazon.com. And it appears that selling used books online is big business. And when businesses get big, they automate. Most of the used books I buy online now come with barcode stickers. I’m sure such automation is needed to keep prices down, and handling to a minimum. What I hate, though, is when they put the barcode sticker on the front of the book, or the spine.

Barcodes on book spines

Don’t they know that some of us are book collectors? Don’t they know that used book buyers love the cover art? I sometimes decide on buying the paperback or hardback by their cover art. And the best thing about science fiction paperback books from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are their covers. I sometimes pass on a cheap ebook just to get an old paperback with a great cover.

It drives me nuts to get a book with a beautiful cover and a damn barcode sticker is right in the middle of the art.

Most of these barcode stickers aren’t easy to remove, or damage the cover when removing. It would be different if they peeled off easily leaving no mark. But that’s not the case.

And I can understand the urge to put the barcode on the spine of the book, because that makes shelving and finding books easier. But if the sticker doesn’t peel off, I have to look at them on my book shelves, and they’re ugly.

If you have to put a barcode sticker on a book, use the back cover. And don’t cover up the book’s original barcode. Goodreads users, as well as many other book database programs, use the ISBN barcode to scan in with a smartphone. When that barcode is covered, I have to type it in by hand.

I understand booksellers make their money by selling in volume. I don’t buy $300 first editions. When I buy from ABEbooks, which orders their default searches by lowest total cost, I’m getting an out-of-print book shipped to me from across the country for just a few dollars. So I can’t expect much. But the condition of the book, and its cover is important to me.

Some of these books are fifty years old, and their cover art takes me back to my childhood. They are a dwindling resource, and damaging them reduces their collector value.