To See Ourselves

October 10, 2015

When I was in elementary school, the Salem-Keizer school district used the Holt Basic Reading System textbooks.  In the earlier years, the curriculum seemed to include one or two science fiction stories per year.  In third grade, I read Asimov’s “The Fun They Had,” which I hated.  My father had been reading me science fiction novels written for adults since I was five or six, and I was not generally impressed with the unsophisticated stuff in the textbook.

In fifth and sixth grades, there were more science fiction stories, and each of the accompanying workbooks had a one-page exercise that was supposed to teach us about science fiction as a genre.  I remember completing it in fifth grade; I had to identify which elements typical of the genre were found in each of the three SF stories we had read that year in Riders on the Earth* (“A Visit to Mars,” the complete novel “The Forgotten Door,” and another story whose name I forgot long ago).  I was surprised to realize that all three stories involved metal telepathy; in fact, in the first and third stories, telepathy was the main topic of each narrative.  I was rather disgusted that they wouldn’t give us harder science fiction than that to read.

The next year, there were three more science fiction stories in the text, and as the school year was almost over, I looked at the workbook page devoted specifically to the science fiction genre that we had that year.  (Our teacher rarely actually assigned pages out of the published workbook, but I did this one on my own initiative.)  As I had been struck by the fact that all the stories we had read the previous year had been dumbed down and written specifically for child audiences, I realized that in sixth grade we had read “The Feeling of Power,” “To Serve Man,” and “All Summer in a Day.”  Those are all darkly ironic stories, penned by three of the leading figures of twentieth century science fiction:  Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, and Ray Bradbury, respectively.  (“The Feeling of Power” also taught me how, at a really fundamental level, the standard algorithm for multiplication actually worked.)  Finally, in a book aimed at middle school students, SF was being taken seriously.

This all came to mind again the other week, when my daughter asked me if I had read “All Summer in a Day.”  I told her I had, and I suggested that she ought to read the two other stories I remembered alongside it.  I think she appreciated the seriousness of the subject matter, although I don’t know if she was as affected by the last lines of Asimov’s story*** as I was:

Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don’t need a computer to tell me so. The computer is in my own head.

And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.

*The title of the textbook, as well as the one for the next year, To See Ourselves, came from “Riders on the Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold,” Archibald Macleish’s short essay on how the space program had changed our perceptions of humanity’s role in the cosmos.

** Apparently, these stories produced an outcry from a sizable number of conservative Christian loons.  It led to lawsuits and boycotts, and the textbook series was dropped by the publisher after only a few years in print.

*** “The Fun They Had” has a similar title drop at the end, but I thought its attempt at dramatic irony was basically unsuccessful.



The Devil in Iron

May 29, 2015

When I first read the original Conan the Barbarian stories, my favorite was “The Devil in Iron.”  It seems strange that I liked the tale so much at the time.  I reread it recently, after happening on a comment on the Web that suggested that it was one of Howard’s weakest Conan stories.  I don’t always agree with the conventional wisdom about such things.  (For example, while may readers consider “The People of the Black Circle” to be one of the best Conan stories, it is my least favorite of Howard’s original efforts.)

But I read “The Devil in Iron” again, and I agree.  It’s not a good story.  The plot requires two remarkable coincidences just to make sense.  Yet it’s no mystery why I particularly liked the story when I first read it.

There were two reasons, actually.  The first reason was that I like the cover art on the edition of Conan the Wanderer that I first read it in.

The Devil in Iron

I not usually much of a fan of Boris Vallejo, but I find this picture really evocative.  It’s not Conan I’m looking at here; the weird musculature of his back and the odd angle at which he’s holding his knife are rather off-putting, actually.  However, the scenery and especially the larger figure of Khosatral Khel are very creepy.  I can’t quite look away from that face.

The second reason I liked the story was in Howard’s prose itself.  This passage is just very powerful:

The tongue was Nemedian, but the voice was not human. There was a terrifying resonance about it, like a bell tolling at midnight.

“There was no life in the Abyss, save that which was incorporated in me,” it tolled. “Nor was there light, nor motion, nor any sound. Only the urge behind and beyond life guided and impelled me on my upward journey, blind, insensate, inexorable. Through ages upon ages, and the changeless strata of darkness I climbed—”

I like the idea that the demon-god was something entirely different before he emerged in this world.  It had to work its way up, through the physical and metaphysical bedrock, before it could take on a man-like body of impregnable iron.  I also like notion that its voice sounds like the tolling of a bell, because that enhances the feeling the story provides of Khosatral Khel’s metallic character.  When Conan inevitably defeats the monster, its corpse turns back into whatever it was before by the time it hits the ground.  It never says what Khosatral Khel’s true form was, but I believe it when the story says that it was horrible.

All in all, “The Devil in Iron” is not a particularly good story.  But it still has a few passages that really move me, and I wonder if other readers will still react the same way.


Harlan Ellison is one of the most respected living authors of science fiction. However, I have not actually read that many of his stories. I decided to remedy this just a little last week, when I stumbled on one of his most famous works freely available on the World-Wide Web.

The short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” is quite famous, and it’s available here. (There are other versions online, but beware: some of them are missing a key piece of dialogue, as well as the graphical elements that Ellison inserted as scene break markers.) It’s quite a story—a vision of with some really unusual elements. If you haven’t read it yourself, have a look; it’s not very long.

The narrative tells of the last five survivors of the human race, who are imprisoned by a defense computer network that became sentient and wiped out everyone else. It keeps the final five alive, virtually immortal, to be subjected to every kind of torture that its machine brain can devise. In some ways, that makes it a rather conventional example of the “vision of hell” genre. However, there are a lot of unusually effective elements, and there is also quite a bit of subtext to the narrating character’s account.

One thing I immediately noticed was that the evil computer’s name is AM. To me, this seemed to be a deliberate references to the AC computer series from Asimov’s “The Last Question” (which I have previously discussed). The computers in both stories were seemingly godlike, although with practically opposite temperaments toward humanity. I’m not sure whether Ellison meant this as an homage toward the older story or a jab.

After reading the “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” a few times, I think it’s quite good, but it wasn’t quite the masterpiece I was expecting based on its reputation. Some of the scenes do not really work that effectively, in my opinion. Most jarring was context of the brief tale told by Gorrister, one of the five survivors, explaining AM’s origin. The way the history is laid out seems too brief; it doesn’t feel like a narrative that is repeated over and over again, becoming almost ritualistic. Ellison presents just enough information for the reader to understand the basics of what is going on, but on that account, it just feels too staged.

The story is also quite sexist. Or, at least, the narrator is quite sexist. To a certain extent, this is certainly intentional. One of the most important ways that AM tortures the five surviving humans is by making them become less than human, in a variety of ways. Their capacities for rationality and civility are impaired; the prisoners are made to hate each other, for the amusement of their even more hated captor. However, I cannot rationalize away the discomfort I have with the way the sexual relationships among the characters is portrayed. The one woman Ellen, whom the four male characters alternately protect and terrorize, has to satisfy them sexually through a hundred and nine years of captivity. There is a tacit assumption that this is the kind of setup the characters would fall into, when left to their base natures. (This is compounded by the fact that Ellison himself is not known for his appropriate behavior toward women.)

On the other hand, some of the tortures the characters endure are quite creative—unexpected. The captives are given filth to eat, and they eat to fill their stomachs. However, when AM prefers to keep them hungry, it can also keep them alive, even as the pangs gnaw at their innards. When AM gives them the opportunity to have some fresh meat, it comes in the form of a live roc—which AM has apparently created in its boredom, just to torment the last survivors of its creator race. The torment of hunger certainly worked on me as reader. (I once went for fifty hours without food; maybe that has something to do with it.) Maybe the other torments worked better on other readers. The opening scene, with a copy of Gorrister’s body hanging from the ceiling, did not seem that strong to me; changing the name of one of the survivors to the absurd-sounding “Nimdok” did not seem like a much to do to an otherwise ruined man.

Finally, the psychological questions raised by the story are somewhat interesting. Ted, the protagonist and ultimate hero of sorts, claims that he is the only one of the survivors who have not been subjected to neurological or behavioral modification. What seems very clear is that Ted is wrong about this—although whether that is because he also has been subjected to some kind of programming, or whether none of them have, is open to question. Ted’s paranoia is obvious, but he knows that he all-powerful entity that controls the Earth really is out to get him. He attributes Ellen’s promiscuity to a fundamental change in her character, but a reader might simply conclude that she had to deal with her situation as best she could.

Sexism in Fictional Worlds

February 13, 2013

One issue that I often wonder about is what to make of stories that posit substantive sexual differences in fictional characteristics. That problem sounds confusing, so let me give you an example. My favorite story by H. P. Lovecraft is “The Thing on the Doorstep,” which is certainly worth reading if you’re not already familiar with it. (Thinking about it, it’s actually rather odd that this should be my clear favorite from among all Lovecraft’s fiction. The story is a very traditional representative of the horror genre; it lacks most of the features characteristic of the “Cthulhu mythos” that I and others admire—aliens, indifferently evil gods, and an alternate world that exists in dreams. I don’t care for most of Lovecraft’s other straight horror pieces, but for some reason this one really works for me.)

A key point in the story is that a woman’s brain doesn’t have the same kind of magical potential as a man’s. This drives a great deal of witchcraft and body-hopping, leading up to a rather exciting finale. Yet every time I read this tale, I am unsettled by the notion that women should be so decidedly inferior in their psychic capabilities (or, at least, the particularly psychic capabilities of interest to Kamog) that the villain needs to go on a killing spree to acquire a male body.

I’ve discussed this story with a number of female acquaintances who have read it, and none of them seemed to be as disturbed by this aspect of the story as I am. So perhaps I am overreacting. How sexist is it, in a substantive way, to say that males are better at some fictional activity than females? There are certainly many settings in which it’s the females with superior (or at least more prevalent) magical powers, and different folk traditions slant different ways in this respect.

The Setting is Wrong

January 23, 2013

Do you ever feel like there’s something wrong with the setting of a story? Sometimes, when I’m reading a piece of fiction from a series I’m already familiar with, I’m brought up short by a feeling of incongruity. I get a sense that this narrative doesn’t fit with the established milieu. This effect can occur for a couple different reasons, two of which I want to illustrate with specific example.

The first example is the “Conan” story “The Blood-Stained God,” (almost full text available here, although the file is a mess). When I first read this story, I was struck by something. The descriptions of equipment, garb, and buildings seemed quite different from what I had previously seen in other Conan tales. To me, the story evoked an impression of Persia or Afghanistan, not the fictional Hyborean age. The vests are silken; the hats are turbans; the swords are scimitars. Men are described as “Iranistani” and wear cloaks of camel hair. It just didn’t fit. This nagged at me for a while, but I eventually attributed it to an attempt by Howard to place Conan in a more distant, more Asian-inspired part of his fantasy world. I got to the end of the story, was unimpressed, and moved on.

I was young when I read this and new to Conan. I had not yet adopted the strategy of ignoring the stories that weren’t penned solely by Robert E. Howard. I was simply reading the stories in the order they were presented, which was intended to be chronological. “The Blood-Stained God” was listed as being written by Howard and de Camp; later, seeing that byline would be a tip-off to skip past, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I didn’t think much about the story at all, in fact. I just moved on after the ho-hum ending.

Only later did I discover the true nature of “The Blood-Stained God.” L. Sprague de Camp had been responsible for editing a great deal of Howard’s fiction, something he was quite boastful about, which is ironic considering what it contributed to his reputation. When he stuck to his own fiction, de Camp was a decent, although not really impressive, fantasy author, but he was a lousy editor for Howard’s work. The tale of his editing is given by The Barbarian Keep site. In this case, de Camp took a story that Howard wrote but which had naught to do with Conan and slapped the barbarian’s name onto it. The setting reminded me of modern Afghanistan because it was modern Afghanistan. The story’s lone fantasy element, which seemed artificially tacked-on at the end, seemed that way because it was just tacked onto the end of Howard’s story. De Camp justified this by claiming that Howard’s heroes were all pretty much alike—men of action, resorting to violence whenever they were in a fix. He argued that this made the stories relatively timeless, so it was no matter to change a lesser-known hero into the more famous Conan—although he did usually feel obligated to add some fantastical elements as well, to keep with the general tone of Conan stories. And some people are obviously happy with this approach. There are reviews of this story online, written by people who know the history, that praise the universality of Howard’s writing for being transferable thousands of years in time and thousands of miles in space without making the story less enjoyable. I think this just shows these commentators have tin ears, since the setting was so jarring to me when I first read it.

There are many other stories that were mutilated in various ways by de Camp’s ham-handed editing. Sometimes he merely made unnecessary changes to the verbiage, to suit his personal preference. That is somewhat obnoxious, but hardly ruinous. In other tales, the edits are painful and obvious. There are segments that were obviously composed in order to fit the stories better into de Camp’s and Lin Carter’s preferred view of Conan’s world and history. There is an execrable section, in which the hero plots the conquest of Aquilonia, added near at the end of “The Black Stranger.” There is the recasting the Hyrkanian peoples as proto-Mongols. These grate on me when I read them, and they just cry out to me that they are wrong.

While in the first example, the incongruity is a result of a later editor trying to cram a story into a setting where it doesn’t belong, this can also occur where only a single hand is involved. This is the case in my second example, Fred Saberhagen’s novel Berserker Fury. I don’t know how many of my readers have read this. It was written quite late in Saberhagen’s career; it’s one the last books he wrote about the city-sized, life-eradicating robot-ships called Berserkers that plague his vision of the future.

The core of Berserker Fury is a fictionalized version of the Battle of Midway, one of the most important naval engagements in history. Saberhagen had done similar things before, most notably in “Stone Place,” which is based on the Battle of Lepanto. However, the strength of “Stone Place” comes from the way Saberhagen produced alternate versions of the Lepanto’s most famous participants, the commander John of Austria and Miguel de Cervantes, along with the feuding between Venusian Venetians and the other members of the human alliance.

Reading Berserker Fury, I didn’t realize that the story duplicated Midway’s (although I am quite familiar with the facts surrounding the real battle). What I did notice was that all the military matters seemed totally wrong for the story. In “Stone Place,” the Berserker fleet is defeated by ramming and boarding tactics, mirroring the use of war galleys at Lepanto. Hundreds or thousands of years have passed by the time of Berserker Fury, but the elements of code breaking and carrier-based fighter wings just didn’t seem to fit. The story didn’t feel like it was describing a space battle; it felt like twentieth-century warfare at sea. This really took me out of the story.

In addition, the book has other problems. The action skips around a lot, both in position and time, making the thrust of the story hard to follow. A lot of time is spent on a subplot involving Berserker worshippers, but these worshippers are not the insane death-seekers of “In the Temple of Mars” or the tyrannical Norse cultists from Berserker’s Planet. They’re more like peace-loving flower children, who seem totally out of place, both for the time the story was written and the time it takes place. In fact, the whole book feels like a temporal mish-mosh, with Templars singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Saberhagen goes so far as to integrate some of his non-Berserker science fiction into his Berserker universe; this was a setup for his subsequent crossover novel between the Berserkers and The Veils of Azlaroc, Berserker Prime.

The Adventurer

July 24, 2011

What could you do, if the solar system were ruled by two dynasties of murderous autocratic dictators? That is, in part, the question posed by C. M. Kornbluth’s The Adventurer.”  The answer is neither what you might expect, nor does it work out quite as planned.

This is a well written story.  My father admires Kornbluth for his humor, and the author’s writing certainly can be funny.  However, it usually tends toward a wry, ironic humor.  In “The Adventurer,” Kornbluth’s wit almost completely ceases to be humorous; the levity is replaced by dark ironies, which recur throughout the story.

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The Last Question

July 18, 2011

Many people think “The Last Question” was Isasc Asimov’s greatest short story, and I would probably agree. That is, I would agree if I thought had read enough of Asimov’s work to feel comfortable evaluating it as a whole. However, I have not actually read that much Asimov, particularly not that much of his short fiction. The reason is that a lot of what I have read seemed quite dated. There are often some really innovative ideas, but his notions about what would be possible in the far future sometimes seem hopelessly skewed.

For example, the whole of the Foundation series—amazing as some of its episodes are, even if they do involve people who regress to using coal-powered faster-than-light starships—is undone by an understanding of chaotic systems. That was not something Asimov could have known when he started writing. “The Encyclopedists” was published in 1942, while Edward Lorenz‘s meteorological work leading to the discovery of strange attractors and the “butterfly effect” wasn’t done until around 1960. (Lorenz, by the way, was one of the nicest scientists I have ever met, and always seemed interested in talking to students, even lowly undergraduates like me who were just working in the Green Building for the summer.) I remember as a kid hearing about how Asimov stayed on top of real science so well, and he incorporated it into his writing. In fact, I’m sure I saw (but did not read) some true science books he wrote for children. When I actually read more of his novels staring as a teenager, I was disappointed, however. Clearly, the man tried to get reasonable science into his fiction, and I give him credit for that; but I almost wish he hadn’t made the attempt. It’s easier for me to accept a SF premise that’s obviously fantastical that one that is put forward as if it might really reflect how the universe works.

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