Cora Buhlert argued very convincingly this week that there are Three Fractions of Speculative Fiction. She identifies them as the Traditionalists, the Anti-Nostalgics, and the Character Driven1.
Traditionalist fans want sci fi that is heavy on the engineering and explosions and light on the characterization. Rightwing politics in space is all right, but they’d prefer the stories not focus on issues that matter to women, people of colour, or LGBT people. Literary fiction is right out.
Anti-Nostalgic fans want speculative fiction that is sophisticated, literary, and eschews old paradigms. They vehemently reject anything nostalgic. They think the only worthwhile stories are the ones which break new ground and redefine the genre. Many of them give lip service to wanting diversity, but they heap condescension on all non-white, non-male, non-straight writers except one or two favored tokens.
Character Driven fans want sf/f that is heavy on characterization. They aren’t opposed to Big Ideas, but emotional arcs, moral dilemmas, and the effects of technology on human lives should drive the plot, to the point that sci fi tropes can exist as mere set dressing. They are especially fond of protagonists and settings which have previously been neglected in classic sf (women, characters of color, LGBT characters, disabled characters, non-western european settings, non-Anglo cultures).
I think these are fairly good definitions of three of the big categories of science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts. Though there will be some overlap, and of course no classification system is going to neatly encompass everyone. For instance, I have emphatically argued that Babylon Five (which I loved) is not science fiction at all, but rather techno-fantasy. It is an epic fantasy which wraps itself in all of the trappings of space opera, but gets some extremely basic science that is fundamental to its main plot laughably and embarrassingly wrong. When I was in the heat of such an argument, I’m sure that I looked to all outside observers like a pure Traditionalist there. Whereas anyone who has read my fiction would likely place me in the Character Driven group.
I also agree with Buhlert that the struggle between the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics has been raging in various incarnations since at least the 1930s. Her examples are: the Campbellian SF versus Pulp Adventure SF, the exclusion of the Futurians from the ’39 WorldCon, the New Wave versus the Campbellians (which had become the old guard by then), the rise of and resistance to Cyberpunk. With each wave, elements that had been new and different and championed by the Anti-Nostalgics were co-opted by the Traditionalist (along with some of their fans), until some other upstarts came along.
There are at least two other fan wars that were primarily Traditionalist vs Anti-Nostalgics that I’d like to throw into the mix. In the early 70s fans who had subscribed to (and later contributed to) magazines for years looked with disdain on fans who never read the monthly ‘zines, and only read novels and anthologies (which were reprints of selected works from the ‘zines). In the later 70s, when comic book fans started coming to sci fi conventions, there was another backlash against these newbies and their “picture books.”2
But not all of the upstarts have been Anti-Nostalgics. When Star Trek fandom blossomed spontaneously, rather than from within existing sf/f fandom, there was a strong backlash, with elements of both the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics looking down on these Trekkies, who weren’t just newbies unfamiliar with classic sf and traditional fandom, but were far more likely to be women! Trek was just the first of many waves of Media Fans (new fans brought into the fold primarily by movies and television)—Doctor Who, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica3, anime, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight—that have each faced resistance and rejection from established fandom.
A lot of these Media Fans fall into the Character Driven category. And just like the Anti-Nostalgic waves before them, most of them have, after being resisted by Traditionalists, been at least been partially assimilated. To the point that the stereotypical attacker of a Fake Geek Girl is a guy who speaks Klingon, has a collection of Star Wars figurines, and will attempt to exclude the girl by asking super obscure comic book questions.
But even more than that, each new wave of the Media Fans tends to have more women, particularly young women and girls, more people of color, more queers, and other marginalized groups than the existing fandom as a whole. I believe the reasons for that is that movies, television, and hit young adult books4 are readily available to all demographic segments of society, and find enthusiasts from all of those walks of life. Established fandom isn’t very welcoming of the newbies, especially non-male, non-white, non-straight newbies. The subsets of the previous waves that have assimilated into existing fandom winds up skewing male, straight, and white. Which perpetuates the problem.
The queers, women, and people of color continue to be fans of sf/f, but more and more they find welcoming communities on the web and outside the established fandom, some times creating their own conventions and meet-ups.
And it’s not just because the existing fandom is all actively racist, misogynist, and homophobic. It’s a combination of lots of subtle things. When the vast majority of the staff of a convention is white, and you’re not, you don’t feel welcome. When the vast majority of existing fans keep telling you that you must read certain classics, which are full of straight white male protagonists, with plots that are full of misogynist and colonial subtext, you don’t feel that this fandom is for you. Heck, when the existing fans won’t talk about anything published less than thirty years ago, and you’re younger than the books they keep talking about, you don’t feel invited7.
The most recent fannish dust-up, the Affair of the Melancholy Canines, is mostly a subset of the Traditionalist reacting to the kind of fiction the Character Driven fans like starting to get more than token representation in certain awards short lists, as well as the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-straight writers and editors on those lists in more than small token numbers. The Melancholy Canines also claim that they’re pushing back against the sort of literary fiction the Anti-Nostalgics want, but the funny thing is that the Anti-Nostalgics hate all the same books and authors as the Canines. And if you read some of the posts that Buhlert links to, you’ll notice that they heap rather a lot of condescension on the writers who happen to be women or people of color.
I’m hopeful that this time, maybe, the section of fandom that welcomes (and is eager to both create and consume) sf/f that’s inclusive of all genders, gender identities, races, abilities, et cetera continues to grow and make inroads throughout fandom. It isn’t guaranteed. Previous waves haven’t been successful in changing the complexion of established fandom, after all.
But I’m not giving up. This queer fan is staying right here. I’m going to keep writing the kinds of characters and stories I like. I’m going to keep reading the good stuff I can find. I’m going to try to start doing a better job of promoting all of the interesting newer stuff I’m reading, as well.
“I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards. In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”
― Philip K. Dick
1. I am attempting to paraphrase Buhlert here, but my own perceptions may be skewing her point. If you don’t like anything I say here, blame me.
2. The current incarnation of the Anti-Nostalgics is very snobbish and literary, whereas the primary argument against both the non-magazine subscribers and the comic book fans were that they weren’t perceived as reading as broadly nor as seriously as the Traditional fans. Both sides have been snobbish in various ways. The comic fans argued that graphic stories (even though comics had been around for decades) were a new and more experimental art form than the unillustrated word on paper, for instance.
3. Original series. By the time the reboot series had happened, enough fans of the old series had been incorporated into the fandom community that the new series was embraced by many, and their fans tolerated by the rest.
4. It seems to me that Young Adult series have become the new gateway books. Back in the 50s and even still ins the 60s5, the Heinlein juveniles were the introduction to sf for many. Though certain older fogies6 still insisted on panels at conventions that Heinlein’s works are great gateways, the truth is most of his work (the juveniles in particular) have not aged well.
5. Which is when was a child finding Heinlein books in school libraries.
6. By which I mean, older than me.
7. I’ve published on this blog a series of “why I love sf/f” posts that focus on books, short stories, shows, writers, and magazines I read as a kid and teen-ager and how they influenced me as a fan (and a writer). So I’m not saying that nothing printed more then a decade ago is worth anyone’s time. I haven’t written about everything I read back then, because not all of it was good. Even for the works I really loved, sometimes had problems I didn’t recognize back then, which I’ve commented on (the children’s book that had two antisemitic scenes which flew right over my head as a child, and shocked the heck out of me when I rediscovered the book in my thirties, for instance). The issue is that when established members of the community tell you (explicitly or not) that only people who can love those particular books can be part of the community, well, when the young fan finds themselves cringing at the blatant homophobia, the racism, the misogyny (or at least total lack of any portrayal of many types of people who live in the real world), the message seems clear that we aren’t welcome in the community.
I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew that whenever damaged books showed up at the used book store, they were sold for a lot cheaper than the others.
If my first copy of The Stainless Steel Rat was a stripped copy, it is highly appropriate, because the star of the book (and its many sequel), was Slippery Jim DiGriz, the slickest conman and thief of the 346th Century.
DiGriz lived in an interstellar society with very high technology that made it nearly impossible for petty criminals to escape prison and “psycho surgery” for long. It took a special kind of criminal to thrive in that society. As the blurb on most of the paperback versions said:
“We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment.”
The book’s written from first person narrative, beginning while Jim is in the middle of yet another insanely daring robbery. Things start going wrong, of course, and it isn’t too many pages in before Jim realizes that the dreaded Special Corps is onto him. The Special Corps is a shadowy agency that was responsible for catching one of the greats, a thief DiGriz admired from affair, Inskipp the Uncatchable… so, of course, when Special Corps hauls DiGriz in to be interrogated by the head of operations, it turns out it’s Inskipp himself. And he has a deal for DiGriz, the same deal Inskipp was offered years ago when he was captured: join the Corps and help catch dangerous criminals, or have his brain altered…
DiGriz was chosen, just as Inskipp was, because DiGriz always planned his heists to very carefully avoid causing and physical harm to any people involved. A few of his previous operations he had even abandoned the heist when it became clear that complications had put people in danger. DiGiz’s first assignment (and the rest of the book) is to try to catch a serial killer.
But this isn’t like a gritty modern bloody serial killer story. The book is written as a light caper, with comedic bits. So the book was a romping adventure story, and far more concerned with the puzzle aspects. The character arcs and interaction are the focus, along with some humor.
It wasn’t just humor. The story explored issues of identity, free will, and what does it mean to be a member of a social species. Jim had always been careful not just to avoid hurting people, but he also always picked targets that were fully insured. He rationalized his existence as providing entertainment or spectacle. He kept security people and police on their toes and in practice. At least that’s what he told himself. Buried in that, along with his eventual confrontation with the killer, were also serious questions about privacy vs security, and control vs freedom.
So it made me think about many things. At different times in the narrative, I found myself agreeing with Jim more than I thought I would. And as I read the book again and again (because it was yet another one that I re-read many times), I found my sympathies seesawing back and forth as I considered the questions. The Special Corps protecting people from sometimes quite serious threats, but they operated in almost complete secrecy, and apparently answered only to themselves.
On the other hand, they had a number of agents like Slippery Jim, who broke ranks from time to time, and demonstrated a willingness to take down the agency if it went too far. Was that enough of to balance things out? In a real world, probably not. And it’s the kind of question still very relevant today.
In my later teens I found the sequels, and after I enthused about them to friends, someone bought me a shiny new copy of the first book for my birthday. The first few sequels cover the next several years in the life of Special Corps (occasionally rogue) Agent DiGriz… and his wife, and their eventual children. Then in 80s Harrison wrote some prequels, showing us events in the life of young Slippery Jim, how he learned his craft and became a legendary thief.
Harrison returned to the older DiGriz for the rest of the series, writing 12 Stainless Steel Rat books total before his death (the last one published posthumously). The Stainless Steel Rat wasn’t the only multibook series the Harrison wrote, but Slippery Jim was the first of his books that I remember reading, and the likable, extremely smart, and capably rogue is a character type that I became very fond of.
The book gave me another way to wrestle with the idea of my own identity. Harrison argued colorfully but persuasively for the idea that the law and customs aren’t always right. Morality and ethics have to come from a sense of empathy and a willingness to do right by people. And those were notions that gave me some more hope, as a closeted queer kid growing up among fundamentalists.
Similarly, I’ve seen people argue that The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages isn’t really science fiction because it’s a historical novel set in 1943 telling a coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in Los Alamos where her father works on the secret project to build an atomic bomb. Whereas I think the nerdiness of a girl in the 1940s who is building her own radio from parts salvaged at the junk yard, combined with the way the novel explores how the government’s pursuit of this new technological advantage uproots children and disrupts their lives (exploring how new technologies impact society and people in nonmaterial ways has long been a significant part of sf), more than qualifies it.
But the granddaddy of all sf/f novels that people don’t realize is science fiction has got to be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
I can hear you protesting, “But the Scarlet Letter is a Gothic morality tale about Puritan scandal and consequences and forgiveness set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that they made us read in school. It can’t possibly be science fiction!” That just means you aren’t looking at it from the perspective on 1850, when it was written. Your argument that it isn’t sci fi is similar to someone saying, “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea isn’t sci fi because supermarines are real!” Submarines didn’t exist when Verne wrote his story of Captain Nemo and his fantastic undersea ship powered by a mysterious electric force.
Similarly, in the Scarlet Letter the character of Chillingsworth (who is secretly the long lost husband of poor Hester Prynne who is saddled with the shame of having had a baby born too long after the presumed death of her husband to be legitimate) is a great example of a science fictional mad scientist. His methods of subtle torture as he secretly experiments on Reverent Dimmesdale (while pretending to be trying to cure his illness) was very science fictional. There are no herbs known that will “corrupt the soul” as the text colorfully describes it. Certainly nothing that would force a man’s greatest fears and secrets to manifest as physical scars that spell out his greatest sins on his flesh!
When described that way, people think of Chillingsworth’s “dark medicine” as some kind of magic, like B-movie depictions of voodoo or the like (complete with colonial cultural misappropriation, but I’ll get to that). But when Hawthorne wrote it, he meant it as what we would today call science fiction. He and many other educated people at the time believed that the sorts of effects he described could be accomplished by the proper application of chemistry and biology, we just didn’t know how, yet!
Just as many scholars refer to Mary Shelley as the either the mother or grandmother of science fiction (never forget: the author of Frankenstein was a teen-age girl who wrote a story which invented sci fi on a dare in 1818), they also sometimes refer to Hawthorne as the grandfather of sci fi. Hawthorne’s more obviously sci fi type stories, such as “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” or “Dr Heidegger’s Experiment” usually featured a mad scientist type character, rushing in to the dark corners of the universe where angels and sensible people hesitate to tread. But his more famous bits of gothic tragedy also have these elements. The House of Seven Gables has a hypnotist and posits a notion of inherited sin—that committing particularly heinous acts will warp you in ways that will somehow be passed on to your children. If science had known of the mechanism of DNA at the time when Hawthorne wrote, he surely would have had some learnéd person in the narrative talk about the theory of corrupted chromosomes, for instance.
Which brings us back to The Scarlet Letter, and the medical experiments that Chillingsworth secretly subjects Dimmesdale to as part of a plan to exact revenge on the man.
The Scarlet Letter was unusual in Hawthorne’s time for feature a female protagonist. And even more, for portraying the fallen woman as a sympathetic character, more worthy of the reader’s love and respect than any of those who stand judgment over her (and her child). Especially more worthy that her long missing husband, who instead of proclaiming his identity upon returning, forgiving his wife Hester for doing what she had to do to survive while he was off studying herbs and potions with vaguely described Native Americans, and raising Pearl as his own child, embarked on a truly mad plan to exact revenge on the father of Hester’s child.
I saw movie adaptations of The Scarlet Letter before I read the book. A copy of the book was part of a set of classics that a relative had given me for a Christmas present, but I didn’t try to read it until after watching one of the movies on TV. When I did, I found a lot of the contents had been glossed over in the movie. The movie made Chillingsworth’s actions seem more like just some slow acting poison, whereas the book made it clear Chillingsworth was doing something far more subtle and medically revolutionary.
Meanwhile, Hester refused to give in to the public shaming, but to sew her own scarlet letter A on her clothing and support herself by sewing. She also tends to the sick and destitute in the community, so much so that many begin to say that the A she wears doesn’t stand for Adulterer, but Angel and Able. That was a revolutionary idea: that a woman could take her destiny in her own hands and assert her independence. It was radical in 1850 when Hawthorne wrote it, and it would have been even more revolutionary in the mid-seventeenth century when the action of the novel is set.
The Scarlet Letter painted a portrait of how someone shunned and ostracized by their community–even someone condemned by the religious leaders–could be a noble and good person, contributing to society and ultimately rising above the false morality of that community. That was an important lesson for this queer kid growing up among Baptists and rednecks.
I still had a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, thanks to my grandparents, and each time a new issue arrived in the mail, I would retreat to my room with it and stay up way past my bedtime devouring every page. These were the circumstances under which I first read the short story, “My Boat” by Joanna Russ… Read More…
None of which I knew when I read Bayley’s story. I was an American high school student whose exposure to sci fi had been dictated by what was available in libraries of various small towns and the pages of U.S. magazines such as Galaxy or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
“The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” is a novella about a man living in a future where many technologies we would think of as impossible are commonplace. He is flying a personal craft at the velocity of c raised to the 186th power while fiddling with an invention of his own which he hopes will lead to the solution to a problem his society hasn’t yet tackled. He is accompanied by a sort of hitchhiker named Watson-Smythe who is trying to find an artist named Corngold.
Naylor’s invention is a thespitron: a device that constructs stories from all of the possible elements of fiction. Not just stories, it creates virtual worlds inhabited by beings that may be independently intelligent. The problem Naylor is hoping to solve with his experiments is navigation. In Naylor’s time it has been discovered that reality is far bigger than believed in the 20th century: the width of what we think of as the entire universe is simply a unit of measure for this reality. With those distances, the speeds at which advanced civilizations can move, and the fact that reality itself is expanding and changing while they’re zipping around at these impossible speeds means that no form of navigation is reliable. The very fabric of space changes between one’s origin and destination, so from time to time ships become lost.
Naylor has a theory that reality isn’t defined by matter, but by abstract concepts and relationships. He’s convinced if he can truly understand the nature of identity, how objects and beings relate to each other, such as in the structure of stories, that he can create a formula or algorithm to reliable rediscover any unique object one has observed before.
Which is all very cerebral and surreal compared to Watson-Smythe’s quest to find the artist. They do find the artist, his ship seemingly stranded on the edge of a vast stretch of unreality they call a matterless lake. At which point it’s revealed that Watson-Smythe is a government agent out to arrest Corngold, and that Corngold’s model is actually a victim of rape and kidnapping.
What happens next is in some ways far too predictable. When I first read it as a teen-ager I was rather angry that I saw what was going to go horribly wrong before it did, and couldn’t believe an interstellar spy would be stupid enough to fall for it. Even the dippy overly philosophical inventor, Naylor, should have seen it coming, I felt. I was also confused as to why the model/kidnap victim/rape victim seemed completely passive and apparently too afraid, even when essentially a cop arrives ready to rescue her, to do anything against her captor.
Re-reading it more recently, I was even more irritated when I realize that the author gives literally zero lines of dialog to the only woman in the story. Even while she is being abused in front of the officer who supposedly is there to arrest her assailant, the author tells us what she does, but doesn’t let her speak. It’s not that the author says she’s mute. No, the author says that she “responds noncommitally.”
Despite being frustrated with the story, I found a lot of it fascinating. The far future technology, which includes the ability to synthesize any matter one can name from a sort of quantum blob and back again when no longer needed, reminded me a lot of the Culture series by Iain Banks. So when I was reading up on Barrington J. Bayley, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Banks was one of the younger authors who listed Bayley as an influence on his work.
I was also not terribly surprised to find Bayley’s work described as gloomy and downbeat, which this story certainly was. While looking through the list of novels and short stories Bayley had published during his life, I was a bit surprised at how few titles I recognized. I think that this story is the only one of his that I’ve ever read.
While it isn’t a very satisfying read, I can’t say that it’s a bad story. It kept my attention and made me keep turning pages wondering how it would end. Admittedly, part of that was trying to figure out how the author would pull an interesting ending out of this mix of weird characterization and convoluted philosophy and mess of a plot. The story made me want answers, and it made me think about what clues I might have missed.
Is Bayley intentionally making the characters do stupid, and predictable things, to make a point about the reality of Naylor’s world and the unreality of his invention’s constructed worlds? I’m not sure. The intentions of the New Wave writers were to experiment by breaking the established rules of writing and try to find a new way to tell and experience stories. I do have to agree with Donald Wolheim’s comment in the introduction of this story in the anthology: this story crams more science fiction concepts and ideas into it’s novella length than many whole series of novels contain.
And maybe that piling up of ideas without a clear cut answer to any of the questions the central character raises is the point. Sci fi is supposed to be the genre of ideas, after all. And this tales serves up a whole lot!
Make no mistake, George isn’t saying that Roddenberry didn’t want queer people in the future. George has spoken before about the conversations he had in the sixties with Roddenberry about addressing sexual orientation in the story. Roddenberry thought it would be a bridge too far for the networks. Roddenberry had already fought tooth and nail to get an African-American woman and a Japanese-American man on the regular cast in prominent roles—and he felt he was already skating on thin ice. Also, if you look at some of the writing Roddenberry did in the notes to other writers working on the series and on the first motion picture, you’ll find references to Kirk, at least, having had affairs with men at least at one point in his past. So it isn’t that George thinks Roddenberry and the original vision of Star Trek without queers, it’s that George thinks that Sulu was obviously straight in the original, and that a better option would be to introduce a new character.
There are more than a few problems with this line of reasoning. The most important is simply this: if the first unambiguously queer character introduced into the Star Trek universe is a minor character that no one has ever heard of before, that leads to automatic tokenism. The audience will, regardless of their own feelings about queer people in real life, naturally see this new character as the gay crewman. He won’t be seen as an integral part of the universe who just happens to be gay, he’ll be seen as the character being added for no other purpose than to check off a list. If, on the other hand, a character who is clearly integral to the story is revealed to have been queer all along, that his or her colleagues have known about the same sex spouse all along and none thought anything was odd or remarkable about it, that shows that Star Trek is the future Roddenberry envisioned: where people are accepted on the merits of their character above all else.
The less philosophical problem with George’s argument is the assertion that this is a radical re-imagining of the character of Sulu that throws out everything we already knew about him. I’m sorry, George, I love you, but there is nothing in the way that you played Mr. Sulu in the original series, nor in the scenes, dialog, and actions that we ever saw on-screen, that precludes him being queer. Sure, that’s that one deleted scene from Star Trek: the Motion Picture where Sulu tried to awkwardly come on to Lieutenant Ilia—but first, it’s a deleted scene, so isn’t really canon, and second, a bisexual or pansexual Sulu is still a queer Sulu who might well end up falling in love with a man and deciding to settle down.
I’m not trying to knock George Takei’s acting skills, here. I’m just saying that queer people and straight people often don’t act any differently in the vast majority of day-to-day situations. There are many reasons that a metric ton of Chekov/Sulu fanfic was written long before the motion pictures or the reboot movies existed, for instance.
Finally, if you think that Roddenberry’s original vision is the only way the story of the Star Trek universe should move forward, we should circle back to those odd notes of Roddenberry’s about Kirk’s sexual past. Roddenberry was an adherent of a belief that was prevalent among some liberal thinkers in the sixties that sexual orientation was merely a social construct. That every human was really, deep down, bisexual or pansexual, and any proclivities otherwise were merely the result of social conditioning. That view isn’t accepted any longer; medical science indicates something those of us who have grown up queer in a homophobic society have been saying for a long time, the sexual orientation is an innate quality. Some people are innately hetero, some innately bisexual or pansexual, et cetera.
But if we must rigorously adhere to Roddenberry’s original vision, then having Sulu in one timeline prefer men, and in another be ambiguous is perfectly fine.
Ultimately, I think that Simon Pegg and the current producers are right: the original series is silent on Sulu’s orientation. This isn’t a change or contradiction of anything we knew about the character before. And having a major character who is already part of the canon revealed to have a same sex spouse is the better way for Star Trek to embody a bit of Vulcan philosophy: that the universe is made up of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
In the very first sentence Del Rey establishes that we are on a starship and that the viewpoint character, the captain, is not human—since he is looking through a set of trinoculars toward a small blue planet. The ship was on a cargo run to a colony world when they encountered a cloud of antimatter moving through deep space. In the course of mapping the cloud, the discovered radio signals coming for a star system they thought uninhabited.
It’s obvious that they are approaching Earth, which has an inhabited space station in orbit around it, so the story was meant to be set a short distance in our future. They establish contact with the strange two-eyed beings who call this world home, and in a few days the two species have managed to figure out how to communicate.
Del Rey gives some explanations for why this is so. The aliens have much larger and more complicated brains than humans. Because they evolved a way to delay signals from the third eye, they perceive time differently than we do. Their language expert is amazed to realize that humans only have a language of few tens of thousand words, since the most uneducated of the aliens has a vocabulary of several million.
All of this learning is just window dressing for the main problem of the tale. That cloud of anti-matter is moving toward the solar system, and when it arrives bad things will happen. Live on Earth will likely be wiped out by the gamma radiation caused by the light smattering that will his the Earth’s atmosphere, but then things will be much worse when the bulk of the antimatter cloud hits the sun.
The aliens came to warn them, but can’t really offer any help. Their ship is too small to carry more than a handful of humans, and it took them many years to get to Earth as it was, no other ships will be able to reach them before disaster hits.
The captain agrees to leave the humans all of the science books he can, even though he explains that his civilization’s technology couldn’t possibly be used to evacuate billions of people. Then the aliens goes on their way.
Fifteen years later, the captain and the cargo ship return to their home world, and are shocked when a high ranking government official is sent up to greet them. And with the government official is a human, the first person they met, the woman who was the Administrator of the space station.
The revelation at the end of the story is that humans figured out that the alien’s natural way of perceiving variable time had limited their ability to understand all of the implications of their warp drive technology. Thus in a few years, the humans had built engines and ships much more powerful than anything the aliens have, and have managed to save themselves.
This particular story didn’t wow me. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too many stories where the twist is that the obviously inferior humans turn out to be more clever than the superior aliens. Legendary editor John W. Campbell, Jr, used to insist that no story published in his ‘zine could ever show humans to be inferior. They always had to be better than the aliens one way or another.
The difference between this one and a typical Campbell-approved tale is that the aliens aren’t malevolent. The aliens want to save the humans, they just don’t believe it is possible to do more than warn them.
Besides the predictability (which might be more my fault because of the types of sci fi I had read during the years before), the other problem is there isn’t really any conflict in the story. Because it is from the point of view of the aliens who don’t believe they can do anything and who go about their business after the warning, all of the drama of a human population finding out impending doom, scientists and engineers struggling to master another race’s physics and engineering, et cetera, happens off screen. It’s all, “Poor monkeys. They seem nice enough, but they’re doomed because they aren’t advanced enough to have already colonized the stars.” Followed by, “Surprise! We’re more clever than you thought!”
That sort of “twist!” story is entertaining the first few times you encounter it, but after you’ve seen a dozen or more, the story needs to do a bit more to really stand out. The most interesting aspect of the story, as it is, is the notion that have a third eye would change the way a species perceives and understand time and temporal relationships. One of the almost throw away lines in the early part of the tale involves the language expert being flabbergasted that human languages only have a few tenses, and even then only the verbs!
That made me stop for a few minutes to think about how adjectives and nouns could work differently in English if we had different versions of the words for past, present, future, and so forth.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, not every story has to be a masterpiece. And even if the story is merely not bad, but it makes you think, that’s a good thing.
I think that I read it for the first time in the fall of 1976, shortly after my mother, oldest sister, and I had moved to southwest Washington some months after my parents’ divorce was finalized. My subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had lapsed not long before we moved, but I had been happy to discover that the public library in our new home town subscribed to the magazine. A couple times a month I spent a couple hours at the library reading the magazine, and I am fairly certain I read the October issue, which contained “The Hertford Manuscript” on one of those visits.
I definitely read the story a subsequent time when I bought the paperback of Donald Wolheim’s anothology, The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF a couple years later at the used bookstore. And since I re-read stories in that collection off and on over the next seven or eight years, I probably read it again several times.
Each time I’ve read the story, I began to suspect that the story was going to be a Lovecraftian tale, even with the hints in a completely different direction. And then each time there’s a point where I say to my self, “Oh! I think I remember this story…” Including when I re-read it this week.
The tale starts slow. Our narrator, Francis Decressie, tells of us of his eccentric Great Aunt Victoria, whose husband died in World War I, leaving her to run a rare books business, which she excelled at for many years. She occasionally told slightly scandalous stories of her youth when she was acquainted with H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. When his Great Aunt dies, her will bequeaths on him a 17th Century Registry—specifically a list of the admissions, discharges, and deaths of patients at a Franciscan Charity Hostel/Hospital in London.
In addition to the ordinary 17th century pages covered with small columns of very compact writing, are a number of pages that don’t match the others. The paper is just as old, but it is clearly manufactured using more modern methods, and the handwriting is very different than the rest of the register. And it appears to be a journal.
The narrator then reproduces the journal, and we find ourselves following Dr Robert Pensley, an acquaintance of H.G. Wells, as he recounts how, having completed his journey into the far future, meeting the Eloi and escaping the Morlocks to return to his own time and recount his findings to some friends, had undertaken a journey into the distant past. Except one of the quartz crystals in the mechanism of the machine breaks (he attributes this to damage inflicted by the Morlocks), trapping Pensley in 1665 England—right when the Plague is ravaging the land.
Pensley must find a jeweler or lens maker to create a replacement crystal, and has to deal with all of the problems of a nation in panic over an illness they do not understand. There are increasingly amusing attempts by Pensley to convince various authorities that the illness is spread by fleas on the rats. The lens-maker has difficulty tracking down a large enough piece of quartz, and various other things go wrong over the course of the tale.
The story ends with a few pages of the narrator explaining how he tried to prove that the pages were a hoax, but experts all agree the book has not be taken apart and restitched since the late 1600s, and he does find various bits and pieces of obscure historical evidence to back up some of the minor details the journal recounts.
And that’s it. The story ends with a philosophical observation about tragedy by the narrator.
The tale told in the enclosed journal was very engaging. The descriptions of the time traveler’s experiences in the mid-1600s pull you right into the tale. Cowper’s attention to historical detail is something that is seen in many of his other works, and serves him quite well here. The framing story is written in the style of a 19th century novel, evoking Dickens and Anthony Trollope and even a bit of Bram Stoker. Which is a little out of place given that the narrator is living in the late 20th Century, but is a nice homage to Wells.
As a kind of sequel to The Time Machine the story works well enough. The framing sequence is not quite as good as the time traveler’s journal. Especially the ending, which I found a little flat. I wanted more. I’m not sure how, exactly, but rather than leaving me wondering what happened next, it felt like he left out something.
So it was enjoyable, but not a mind-boggling revelation. Still, each time I read it, I recognize certain minor details that stuck with me, and have resonated with some of the ideas I’ve tried my hand at in my own stories. Every story we read doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Sometimes merely good is good enough.
I should pause here, in case you don’t know what the Locus Awards are. Locus (The Magazine of The Science Fiction & Fantasy Field) was founded back in 1968 as a fan produced news magazine and to promote a WorldCon bid. The ‘zine has continued for decades since, printing news about fannish and pro activities in the SF/F realm. In 1971 Charles N. Brown, the founding editor, decided to have the readership nominate and vote on deserving works in the field, in order to help the Hugo awards. Think of it as an organized recommendation list. Readers and contributors to the zine recommended books and stories and editors and so forth, and voted on them. The Locus awards has different categories than the Hugos, and since you don’t have to have a membership at WorldCon to participate, in theory the awards may draw on a more diverse crowd.
What I like about them is that they have multiple novel categories. While the Hugos just have Best Novel of the Year, the Locus Awards separate Science Fiction novels from Fantasy, and also have a separate category for Young Adult novels and first novels. Anyway, the recommendation list that is generated in the process alone is a wonderful resource for finding good things you would have otherwise not heard of.
Even though I have been reading the list of winners every year for a long time, it somehow never occurred to me that there was an award banquet, and even more important on a personal level, I didn’t know that the banquet has, at least for the last several years, been happening right here in Seattle. I found out because a woman mentioned it at a panel at NorWesCon, and handed out fliers.
The event is like a miniature sci fi con. There are a couple of Readings by pros the night before the banquet, followed by a party, then on Saturday morning there are a couple of panel discussions. There is an autograph session and a bookseller is there ready to sell you books by the authors who are signing, and there is the banquet. In addition to the awards, there’s several silly activities that have grown up as traditions around the event, such as a Hawaiian shirt contest (Charles Brown, Locus’ founding editor, was famous for his fondness of loud Hawaiian shirts).
We both have been having worse than usual hay fever lately, so neither of us have been sleeping well, and we both wound up taking naps Friday afternoon after work that lasted late enough that we skipped the Friday evening activities. Saturday, we made it to the event and had a great time.
First, no one told me that there would be free books. Apparently the publishers of books that make the shortlist often send boxes of the books to the event. So those (and other books) are set out in little piles on each banquet table. And a bunch more are on a give-away table in the back. We brought home free books whose retail prices definitely exceeded the cost of tickets to the event!
It was also just a fun event. There were a lot of familiar faces there (since I’ve been attending Northwest sci fi conventions for nearly three decades), but it was a smaller crowd, and a much higher percentage of the attendees were pros.
The event also overlaps with the first week of the Clarion West six-week summer writing workshop, and we wound up sharing our table with three of the students from the workshop. They were really nice, and were a diverse group: one guy was from Chicago, a woman was from Wales, and another guy was from India.
I knew our new acquaintances were “my kinda folks” when the young woman from Wales picked up one of the books in the free pile and said, “I should not pick up a new book that is this thick when I have no free time for the next several weeks” then, a second later she gasped and said excitedly, “It has a map!” and the other two immediately stopped their banter to add comments about how books with maps are temptations one can never resist.
I had been about to make a similar observation. Having written about it before: “Some of my favorite books have maps…”.
Whenever I go to a con, I come back feeling excited in new ways about my writing. Some of it is from hearing authors at panels talk about their own troubles and triumphs writing. Some of it is from learning new things or finding new stories that inspire me. Some of it is because I almost always wind up sitting in a corner somewhere with my laptop or iPad or a paper journal working on one of my stories in progress, and being out of my usual routine makes me look at the plotholes and so forth differently.
But a big part of it is simply the joy that comes from meeting other people who love the same kinds of books I do. Shared joy multiples. Chatting with another person who loves something you love, explaining to each other which bits made you squee and so on, increases that wellspring of delight inside you.
That remembered elation can help carry you over the rough spots in your next round of revision.
The third story in that anthology, “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” by Michael G. Coney did not wow me on the first reading. Honestly, the thing that I found most interesting in the first paragraph was the revelation that it was apparently set in Western Washington state. The story is told by a first person narrator, who is taking a ferry to go to a port to meet a shipment of some sort of alien creature. We never learn much about them, other than that he raises them for their pelts, which he can sell for a profit. Though the way he describes his farm, he is mostly just getting by in this endeavor.
Most of the first two pages of the stories consists of the character describing his ferry trip in such a way that we learn that Earth is part of some kind of Galactic society, that only recently have they replaced rockets with antigrav for vessels that move from ground to orbit, and so on. The hook of the first paragraph is him noticing on his “newspocket” that all the old shuttles at the abandoned Pacific Northwest spaceport are to be scrapped, finally.
He arrives at his destination early, finding himself with five or six hours to kill, and decides to drive up to the old space port. During the drive he rambles some more, dropping hints about what his life was life before, and telling us more about how things have changed since then. It isn’t until halfway through the fifth page that he gets to what appears to be the meat of the story, as he flashes back to junior high school, when he and his best friend used to sneak onto the grounds of the spaceport to watch shuttles land and take off.
The narrator, as a young man, loved everything about the shuttles: the roar of the engines, the sleek shapes of the ships themselves, et cetera. His friends was obsessed with identifying and checking off the shuttles from a book he had of every registers craft that ever landed on Earth. There are a few anecdotes about the mild misadventures the narrator, his friend, and a few other people who liked to sneak onto the grounds of the space port had watching the shuttles land and take off.
Then everything is ruined when his friend gets a crush on a girl. Who just happens to be the same girl that the narrator once got into an altercation with in grade school and of course they hate each other. To say the friendship is strained is an understatement. Then there is a disaster involving the girl’s pet, with is a cat-like animal imported from across the galaxy, which happens to be telepathic, but only with members of its own species.
After the disaster, we flash back to the present, and then the narrator—who has lamented about five dozen times so far in the story how much he misses his old friend, and how astonished his middle-school-aged self would be to know that he doesn’t even know where the friend lives any longer—sees said old friend. The friend, it turns out, owns the wrecking company that is going to tear down the spaceport. But the narrator, of course, doesn’t say hello. He skulks away.
There are a lot of things not to like about this tale. The rambling expository lumps. The lack of characterization. The clichéd use of flashback to tell most of the story. The extremely dated boy vs girl dynamic of the tale. The ludicrous ways that chauvinism pops up and is even defended at one point.
Then in the category of merely cringeworthy, there is the fact that the only female characters who appear in the story all dress and act as if they are characters out of the 1950s. Remember, this was written in 1975—women’s lib had been a thing for many years by then! Even in 1978, when I read this story, that section seemed terribly dated!
I read the story one more time, when I found it in another anthology years later. I didn’t recognize the title, or I might not have read it. The second time I didn’t remember the story until fairly late into it, just about the time of the disaster near the end of the tale. I read it to the end, hoping to have a bit more insight, but still wasn’t impressed.
When I re-read it again last week, I was having the same reaction as before all the way until the end. And then I finally had an epiphany about what the author may have been trying to do. It had never occurred to me during my earlier readings that the narrator was unreliable. The section early on where he defends men’s only clubs and no girls allowed spaces as not being sexist at all should have tipped me off. It was too over the top. And there were several other hints throughout the story where our narrator is being very defensive in describing the events.
That’s when I realized that the ending, where he decides he doesn’t have anything in common with the old friend anymore is supposed to be tragic or ironic (depending). The narrator drives many hours out of his way and spends the entire tale wallowing in a nostalgic lament for the good old days. He goes into inordinate details on fairly minor stuff, is very defensive of himself and goes to pains to describe every other character in the narrative as betraying him or at least not treating him right. He had these great dreams and aspirations, which have all come to naught because the world is just not fair to nice guys like him.
Meanwhile his old friend is now a successful businessman, and is literally in the business of tearing down the obsolete relics of the past so that something new can be built.
Now, finally, the story makes sense when I think of it as a critique of nostalgia and clinging so hard to the past that you can’t move forward. And those expository ramblings sound an awful lot like an old bad way that some sci fi stories in the 30s, 40s, and 50s would do their world building: by having two characters say such unnatural things (while riding a subway or something), “Thank goodness for modern convenience! Can you believe that our ancestors used to have to connect their appliances to receptacles in ways with physical cables to draw power! What a primitive nightmare!”
As an indictment of nostalgia, “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” isn’t quite so bad. I’m not sure I agree with Wolheim that it was one of the best story published that year, but it did make me think, even before my epiphany. Struggling with a story is good mental exercise.
And I have to admit that the descriptions of the shuttles taking off and landing and the sense of wonder the narrator had as a child was pretty good.