Time Warp: 1974

The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4, edited by Terry CarrWelcome to 1974. In these Time Warp blog entries, I explore some of the best short fiction of yesteryear using key anthologies of the time (kind of like short fiction time capsules) to highlight what were perceived back then to be some of the best stories of the year. Our time capsules for this exploration will be Terry Carr’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4, and Stellar #1, edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey.


First up, let’s take a look at The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4, Terry Carr’s annual anthology.

We Purchased People — by Frederick Pohl:  This is a love story between two criminals, a man and a woman; for punishment, their bodies have been sold to aliens so that they can be used via a sort of interstellar telepresence. The two lovers thus only have hours, sometimes only minutes, to be together when their bodies aren’t being used by the aliens. It’s disturbing, and not for everybody, but I liked it. In its own twisted way, it’s an SF crime story.

Pale Roses — by Michael Moorcock:  It’s a far future story loosely associated with Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels. It’s a baroque SF fantasy about bored immortals who want to experience various aspects of “real life,” and a plan to allow one of these dilettantes to do so. It’s well done, but not my cup of tea at all. I like Moorcock’s work in general, but he’s quite capable of venturing into territory that doesn’t thrill me, as he does here.

The Hole Man — by Larry Niven:  This unique story combines murder, quantum black holes and Mars exploration. A crew of Mars explorers investigates a long-abandoned but still functional alien base, until a fractured team dynamic brings things to a logical, but disturbing, conclusion. It’s hard SF. It’s a crime story. It was the 1975 Hugo winner for Best Short Story. An excellent story.

Born With the Dead — by Robert Silverberg:  Jorge Klein has lost his wife, Sybille, at a young age. Her will specifies that she is to be “rekindled” after her funeral, which entails subjecting her body to a scientific process that brings her back to life as a “dead.” The rekindled are different after being brought to life, and live mostly sequestered with their own kind in “cold towns.” Jorge becomes obsessed with reuniting with Sybille despite her changed status. In the process, he reveals things about both himself and the rekindled, leading one to wonder what impact the rekindled may have on the future of mankind.

It’s engrossing, yet unsettling in diverse ways. It’s a story that’s hard to stop thinking about, which is a common feature of Silverberg’s best stories. It won the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novella, and was nominated for the 1975 Hugo for Best Novella.

The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics — by Ursula K. Le Guin:  I sometimes think of short stories (which are much shorter than novelettes and novellas) as being like gourmet jelly beans, which invoke a single, sometimes deceptively complicated, flavor. For short stories, the “flavor” might be a particular emotion, a nuanced characterization or a particular idea. This is an idea story, in which the author explores whether creatures and things not generally thought of as intelligent might have their own languages and limited thoughts, if only we could understand them.

It’s not my favorite story, but it does make you think. And that, in many ways, is the mark of a successful short story.

Dark Icarus — by Bob Shaw:  This story is a nifty SF crime drama. With the advent of the gravity belt, personal flight is now accessible to everyone, but the world still needs traffic cops. A solid story, followed up by a novel, Vertigo, featuring the same main character.

A Little Something for Us Tempunauts — by Philip K. Dick:  Dick is one of those revered writers who, for some reason, I’ve mostly missed. I believe I’ve only ever read one book by him (which I liked) and none of his shorter work. Unfortunately, as an introduction to his short fiction, this story didn’t work terribly well for me. Some time travelers sent to the future discover that 1) they will die in a time-machine-related explosion when they return to their own time, and 2) that one of their own has sabotaged the mission. Time travel stories are old hat nowadays — I need something more than a paradox. Sorry, but this story just did not connect with me.

On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi — by William Tenn  The First Interstellar Neozionist Conference is being held on Venus, attended by Jewish delegates from everywhere…including interstellar colonies. The trouble occurs when a group of giant, alien cockroaches from Rigel claim to be Jewish. On the one hand, the story includes some interesting views on religion, on humanity, and on what it means to be part of a community — all told in the first-person voice of a stereotypical, aging, cranky old man. But it seemed long to me, and voice of the protagonist grated after a while. Not Tenn’s strongest work.

The Engine at Heartspring’s Center — by Roger Zelazny:  A hero has come to a “euthanasia resort” to get in the right frame of mind to end his life. While there, he meets a woman who’s present for the same reason, but who wants to change her mind. I liked it, short as it was. It was nominated for the 1975 Best Novelette Nebula.

If the Stars Are Gods — by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford:  Aliens have arrived at Earth and they have (gasp) more advanced technologies than we do. Authorities want to gain insights into that technology, but the aliens only want to talk about the Sun, starting with the aging astronaut turned astronomer that knows the most about the subject. You see, the aliens believe the sun is alive, and can deliberately influence the real world. It’s engaging and thought-provoking. It won the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novelette (and was later expanded into a novel).

Frankly, this wasn’t one of Terry Carr’s better “Best of…” anthologies. To me, the stand-outs were Robert Silverberg’s “Born With the Dead” and Larry Niven’s “The Hole Man.” Bob Shaw’s “Dark Icarus” also resonated with me because I’m partial to SF crime stories, as did “We Purchased People” to a lesser degree.


Stellar #1, edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey1974 also saw the arrival of Stellar #1, the inaugural issue of an original anthology edited by Judy Lynn del Rey, with a bit more focus on adventure stories than the typical “Best of” anthology.

The Birch Clump Cylinder — by Clifford D. Simak:  Simak provides an intriguing take on a time travel story. Charlie Spencer has returned to Coon Creek Institute, the unobtrusive and unorthodox college where he was educated, to help them investigate what they believe is an out-of-control time machine that has landed in a birch clump on their grounds. Simak brings a sense of humanity and emotional resonance to what, in other hands, might have been simply an ordinary time travel story.

I liked the story a lot. It’s bittersweet in a way, though, because Simak’s work seems to be gradually disappearing from view. Ask a newer SF fan about him, and they’ve probably never heard of him. He was never a flamboyant writer, but it’ll be a shame if his work just keeps fading away.

Fusion — by Milton A. Rothman:  This is a fairly minor work, but is still entertaining. An aging physicist wants to achieve controlled fusion for just one second before he retires, which will accomplish something worthwhile for humanity, as well as putting him in the history books. The story does a good job of capturing both the fellowship and competitiveness of the scientific community — your fellow scientists may be your rivals, but they are also the ones who can best understand your achievements. A solid story.

A Miracle of Small Fishes — by Alan Dean Foster:  Alan Dean Foster is known mostly for his novels, but he provided a novelette called “A Miracle of Small Fishes” for this anthology. Josefa Flores is a young girl growing up in San Quintin, a former fishing town on the coast, but now the fish are all being caught each year by the big factory ships further up the coast. Her grandfather is a laughingstock because he still goes out fishing every day. When she finds out that he’s sick, and probably dying, she goes to the local church and spends all day praying for him to find one last great catch. OK, everybody knows where this story is going. It’s eminently predictable. On the other hand, it seriously manages to pull your heart strings. A solid, emotionally resonant story, albeit not an innovative one.

The Whirligig of Time — by Vernor Vinge:  Vinge is another author more known for his novel-length work. He provides “The Whirligig of Time,” which has become his most successful and widely anthologized short story. In the future, the Emperor rules Earth; all opposition was totally crushed long ago. What if you could change everything? What would you do? It’s a classic story.

Schwartz Between the Galaxies — by Robert Silverberg:  Schwartz is an anthropologist who travels around the world speaking about how to add diversity back into Earth’s totally homogenized, global culture while becoming ever more disenchanted with the dreary sameness of society everywhere. In his mind, he fantasizes about being an anthropologist in the distant future, traveling on a space-liner with aliens on whom he can actually exercise his anthropological talents. It’s an interesting idea, but the conclusion doesn’t really resonate with me.

Mr. Hamadryad — by R. A. Lafferty:  This seems to be a sort of fantasy about the changing ages of the world. It’s hard to summarize, but it brings in fancy drinks, levitation, invisible creatures, and Easter Island all into a single mash-up…that doesn’t work for me at all.

Singularities Make Me Nervous — by Larry Niven:  This is what happens when Niven mixes a black hole and time travel together into a crime story. George Cox is a space explorer who secretly arrives back on Earth before he left due to an errant brush with a singularity. He resolves to use his advance knowledge of the future to play the stock market while ensuring that his younger self goes off on the mission that will take him to the singularity. Naturally, things don’t go as planned. A solid outing from Niven.

The Logical Life — by Hal Clement:  Hal Clement is one of the few authors who regularly sets his stories on non-oxygen worlds. In this story, a would-be human explorer goes sailing on a cold ammonia ocean to learn more about an alien world, accompanied only by a native sailor. Of course, they find more than they bargained for. Although not particularly ground-breaking, it’s a good adventure story.

Twig — by Gordon R. Dickson:  A young, orphaned girl is raised by a plant-based consciousness on an alien world after her colonist parents succumbed to fever. Eventually, the “slash-and-burn” farming tactics of other colonists bring her and the plant consciousness into conflict with the other colonists. It’s a solid coming-of-age story from a master craftsman. Note that it’s central concept also pre-dates James Cameron’s film, Avatar, by 35 years.

This year, I actually liked Stellar #1 better than Terry Carr’s anthology. Stand-outs for me were Vernor Vinge’s “The Whirligig of Time,” and Clifford D. Simak’s “The Birch Clump Cylinder.” Just about everything else is worth reading, though.


On another note, Harlan Ellison’s SF screenplay about a generation starship, “Phoenix Without Ashes,” also surfaced in 1974, winning the 1974 Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay. For more information about this story, see my Classic Corner blog entry.

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Cloud Atlas: My Initial Reaction

Cloud Atlas, with a David Keener review

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Time Warp: 1971

Best Science Fiction of the Year, edited by Terry CarrThe year is 1971. Our mission: To explore the top short fiction of the year and discover which stories have held up well enough that they’re still relevant and worth reading today. Our mission parameters were outlined in Time Warp, the inaugural blog entry in this series.

Our time capsule for this exploration is Terry Carr’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1, the first of his annual reprint anthologies, published in 1972 but collecting some of the best stories from the previous year — 1971.

Occam’s Scalpel — by Theodore Sturgeon:  Sturgeon is considered to be a great writer but, like a lot of people nowadays, I’ve never had much exposure to his work. This is a thought-provoking story about the successor to the world’s top industrialist, and a pair of brothers who attempt to guide him into a less destructive path than the one they see him heading down. With its concern about pollution and ecological damage, the story is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was first published. A solid story from a classic writer.

The Queen of Air and Darkness — by Poul Anderson:  On the planet Beowulf, a woman on a scientific expedition loses her child to, she believes, the native aliens that nobody else really believes in. She commissions a detective to investigate and help her get her child back. What ensues is a fantastic battle of magic and illusion versus science, with the future of mankind’s colony hanging in the balance. It’s a classic story that has appeared in many collections; most recently featured as a chapter in Poul Anderson’s Starfarers. This was also the 1972 Hugo Award and Nebula Award winner for Best Novella.

In Entropy’s Jaws — by Robert Silverberg:  This story was a mixed bag for me. John Skein is a former Communicator, a man who once used his unique mental capabilities to bring together compatible intellects to solve problems. Can’t solve a thorny business problem? Bring two geniuses with the requisite skills together into a gestalt that lets them solve the problem. Unfortunately, part of Skein’s mind was damaged when he lost control during one of these sessions.

Now, Skein travels the starways, spending all of his money going from planet to planet trying to find a way to cure himself. Because of the damage, he periodically enters fugue states that see his mind uncontrollably shuttling between his past and his future.

The story probably seemed more ground-breaking back then with its kaleidoscopic changes in perspective, but it doesn’t seem as fresh to me now. It’s still an interesting story, but it’s not up there with Silverberg’s best.

The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World — by Philip Jose Farmer:  This story provides us with Farmer’s very interesting take on overpopulation. In this story, the world is so crowded that people spend six out of every seven days in a stasis booth, and only get to come out one day a week. It’s full of details like…fall only lasts for eight days, because that’s all you get to experience personally. The story is about an unhappy man who lives on Tuesday, but becomes obsessed with a beautiful girl from Wednesday that he sees in a stasis booth one day.

It’s a fun story. The consequences of living only one day a week are well thought out. The story of obsession seems almost like an afterthought to the originality of Farmer’s improbable solution to overpopulation. Clever, cute and still relevant, but not an award winner. He did go on to revisit this premise in his three Dayworld novels.

A Meeting With Medusa — by Arthur C. Clarke:  Howard Falcon has been turned into a cyborg due to an airship accident that left him badly injured. However, as a cyborg with airship experience, he’s an ideal candidate to explore Jupiter using an experimental hydrogen airship. During the expedition, Falcon learns a lot more about Jupiter than he ever bargained on.

Folks, this is a classic story, and one of Arthur C. Clarke’s best novellas. It was nominated for a Hugo award in 1972, but lost out to Poul Anderson. It won the 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novella (the two awards apparently had slightly different eligibility requirements based on publication date).

The Frayed String on the Stretched Forefinger of Time — by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.:  In the future, a brilliant scientist named Christopher Stamitz wants to murder the ruthless businessman who, quite legally, ruined him and stole all of his inventions. Inspector-Commander J. Harwell Graham wants to stop him from committing the murder. It’s a battle of wits, with some ethical questions. I’ve always liked SF crime stories, and this one works nicely.

How Can We Sink When We Can Fly? — by Alexei Panshin:  This next one is an odd one. It’s partially auto-biographical. You see, Alexei Panshin had been invited by Isaac Asimov to contribute to an anthology…but he was having a problem coming to terms with the theme of the anthology. So he wrote a story about himself having trouble coming to terms with the theme, plus the story he wrote based on the theme, which may tie into the auto-biographical part of his story depending on how you look at it.

Confused? I like the chutzpah of writing a story about writing a story. I’m less enamored with the end result. On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot more time wrestling with how I feel about this one story than all of the other stories combined. Is this good? I have no idea.

No Direction Home — by Norman Spinrad:  This story is about the widespread use of psychedelic drugs to program everyday behavior. If the last story was confusing, this one wasn’t. I disliked it. Intensely. Maybe it was a product of its time. There were no characters that I liked. And the idea of a specialist in pediatric psychedelics didn’t thrill me either. Next, please.

Vaster Than Empires and More Slow — by Ursula K. Le Guin:  This is a first contact story, loosely connected to her Hainish stories/novels. A somewhat dysfunctional survey crew finds more than they bargained for on what looks like an uninhabited world. To me, it’s an interesting story but not a great one. It was nominated for the 1972 Hugo for Best Short Story, but lost out to another story, “Inconstant Moon,” by Larry Niven.

All the Last Wars at Once — by George Alec Effinger:  The premise is that two unknown men, one white and one black. meet and declare a racial war for 30 days, a story that is picked up by the media. The world responds immediately with racial conflict, but then other minorities also declare war simultaneously. Interesting, but it doesn’t really come to a cohesive ending. Not a bad story, but certainly not a stand-out for me.

The Fourth Profession — by Larry Niven:  This story was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novella. A bartender gets an alien trader drunk, and the trader gives him several key “education” pills. Each pill gives an individual the knowledge of an entire profession. So now the bartender is the most knowledgeable man in the world about the alien traders, with intimate knowledge of their language and motives. It’s a breezy, funny story with a bit of a kick to it. It’s an excellent story.

So, that’s 1971. Three classic novellas, from Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven, respectively. A crop of good stories, a couple of more marginal stories and one that I intensely disliked.

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LaShunda Rundles

LaShunda Rundles was the winner of the 2008 Toastmasters International Speech Contest, a world-spanning competition that winnowed 30,000 competitors down to a single winner. She was the first African-American woman to ever win the competition, and the first woman since 1986 to do so. She was also featured in the acclaimed indie documentary, “Speak,” which coincidentally followed the finalists in the 2008 competition.

My Toastmasters district held a screening of “Speak” today. My friend Edmond Joe was there with his camera, and captured this stunning black-and-white shot of the crowd watching LaShunda Rundles’ speech.

LaShunda Rundles, World Champion Speaker - 2008

LaShunda Rundles’ speech was about her battle with lupus, and how she wanted her words to leave a mark on history by helping other lupus sufferers. She lost her life to lupus this past August.

To me, there’s something eerie and powerful about this shot, with its gray colors and an anonymous, silhouetted audience watching LaShunda speaking words that have, indeed, outlived her, all projected on two screens behind an empty podium.

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Time Warp: Exploring the Short Fiction of Yesteryear

One thing that this year’s Hugo Voting Packet (a downloadable collection of all the works nominated for the 2012 Hugo Awards) brought home to me was the extent of high-quality SF that’s only available in short fiction forms such as short stories, novelettes and novellas. Many of these stories often appear only in magazines and anthologies that quickly go out-of-print.

My goal is to highlight some of the best stories of yesteryear that are still worth reading today.While I’ve read a fair bit of short fiction over the years, I’ve never really focused on it. Realizing that I may have missed out on some excellent short fiction over time, I decided to actively explore the shorter works of past years…and blog about my findings. My goal is to highlight some of the best stories of yesteryear that are still worth reading today.

What I’m envisioning is a series of blog entries, where each entry focuses on a particular year. I’d love to do the years in order, but I probably can’t due to the necessity of tracking down the major stories for each year. My hope is for these entries to evolve into an enjoyable and useful survey of older short fiction. To this end, I must also recommend Jo Walton’s excellent retrospective of the Hugo Awards (1953 – 2000) for Tor.com, which was an inspiration for this series.

My starting point for my explorations are some of the relatively widely available “Best of…” anthologies that have been published in mass-market form. The older editions of these anthologies are out-of-print, but most are available in the second-hand market. Some of these anthologies are listed below:

  • The Year’s Best SF (1956 – 1967), edited by Judith Merril
  • World’s Best Science Fiction (1965 – 1971), edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr
  • Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 – #17 (1972 – 1987), edited by Terry Carr
  • The (1972 – 1990) Annual World’s Best SF, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Arthur W. Saha
  • Stellar #1 – #7, (1974 – 1981), Stellar Short Novels (1976) edited by Judy-Lynn Del Rey
  • Year’s Best SF #1 – #16 (1996 – 2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

Stellar, edited by the late Judy-Lynn del Rey, may be a bit of an outlier here. The others are reprint anthologies, while Stellar was an original anthology, meaning that it solicited authors to contribute original stories to the anthology.

As far as I know, Stellar isn’t considered to be one of those truly ground-breaking anthologies. It has one distinguishing characteristic, though. I loved them when I first encountered them, so much so that I collected all of them. I’m kind of looking forward to reading them again after all these years.

You may also note that there’s a gap, from 1991 to 1995, that isn’t covered by these anthologies. This is because Terry Carr died in 1987 and Donald Wollheim died in 1990, thus ending each of their anthology series. The gap wasn’t filled until David Hartwell began publishing his more comprehensive anthology series in 1996. I’ll be looking to fill that gap as well — suggestions are welcome.


Here are my retrospectives of the short fiction of yesteryear, with more coming soon (it takes time to read all of the stories).

1971 — (2012/10/21)
1974 — (2012/10/28)
1978 — (2012/11/16)
1979 — (2012/12/28)

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How About Those Trojans?

Asteroid BeltNasa released some interesting news about the Trojan asteroids today, which occupy leading and trailing positions in Jupiter’s orbit surrounding the L4 and L5 Lagrange points, respectively. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) has been generating some interesting results, which NASA released at the 44th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nevado. This research information will also be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Here’s a mind-boggling quote from NASA:

Before WISE, the main uncertainty defining the population of Jupiter Trojans was just how many individual chunks were in these clouds of space rock and ice leading Jupiter, and how many were trailing. It is believed that there are as many objects in these two swarms leading and trailing Jupiter as there are in the entirety of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

For science fiction fans, it looks like one of SF’s favorite character types, the space prospector, or asteroid miner, should be hanging out with the Trojans, maybe not in the main asteroid belt.

And there’s also news about the types of asteroids in the Trojans. According to Tommy Grav, a WISE scientist from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, the asteroids are mostly type D, with some Type C and Type P asteroids. The Trojans and the Greeks all seem to be similar to each other. However, they’re not like the other asteroids in the main asteroid belt or in the Kuiper belt, leading some to speculate that they may consist of leftover primordial material from the creation of the solar system — some of the oldest rocks in the entire solar system.

For more information see Nasa’s article about the WISE findings.

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The Man Who Bridged the Mist

The Man Who Bridged the Mist - by Kij Johnson
The Man Who Bridged the Mist - by Kij Johnson

One of the stories that was nominated for, and won, the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novella was Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist.” It’s a simply incredible story, full of everything that makes me a science fiction fan, and destined, I think, to be an enduring classic.

In the story, there is a continent-spanning Empire, with a problem. One major river system in the center of the continent provides the opportunity for a mysterious poisonous mist full of potentially deadly mist “fish” to flow downhill to the ocean atop the system’s rivers and streams. This major river divides the Empire in half, and is forded only by those brave enough to ferry boats across the mist. Until Kit Meinem of Atyar comes to town to build a suspension bridge across the mist.

The story’s about Kit, the people he inspires in order to build his suspension bridge, the brave ferry folk who ferry supplies/people across the mist river even though the bridge will destroy their livelihood, and bridge-building. It’s got engineering, romance, danger, tragedy, adventure and a sense of wonder — all packed into about 40 pages.

Currently, the story, which was published by Asimov’s Magazine, is available on the web for free in PDF form, so hurry up and check out the story while it’s still available. There are several ways for you to get hold of the story. You can buy the October/November 2011 issue of Asimov’s Magazine in which the story was first published. You may purchase it from Amazon in electronic or paperback form. It has also been published in several of the 2012 Best of anthologies. The story may only be about 40 pages long, but it’s well worth your time.

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The Finest Legacy: Part 2

 

The video for my trophy-winning talk, “The Finest Legacy,” is now available on YouTube. It won 2nd place at the Toastmasters Area 45/46 Spring Contest on March 3, 2012. Many thanks to Anthony DiPalma for taping the talk for me. The speech is also embedded above, so feel free to watch it. I’d love to hear what everybody thinks about it.

For a transcript of the talk, see Part 1.

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The Finest Legacy

On March 3, 2012, I had the opportunity to participate in the Area 45 Speech Contest for Toastmasters District 29. This speech took the 2nd-place trophy in the competition. I was fortunate enough to have Anthony DiPalma videotaping the talk for me. Since both of us lead very busy lives, it wasn’t until a few days ago that I received the video, and I’m currently in the process of getting it online. A transcript of the award-winning talk appears below.

Editorial Note: The video is now online. See Part 2 for the video.


The Finest Legacy

I’ve been a science fiction fan for almost as long as I can remember. And when I tell people I’m a science fiction fan, I usually get reactions like:

“Really?”

“Why?”

“What do you see in science fiction?”

And it’s kind of disturbed me over time that people kind of look down on something that I love so much.

So what I’ve decided to do today is share with you how I became a science fiction fan, and maybe along the way, show you a few things that I find really fascinating about this field of literature.

I was infected by my Dad.

As a little kid, my Dad used to carry these science fiction books around all the time. Usually in his back pocket. And they had such interesting book covers.

I can remember a picture of a hero flying around on dragon-back through the skies of some other world. I can remember another one that had a military commander that looked like he had the weight of the universe on his shoulders. And he was standing there looking out this floor-length window as vast space fleets clashed in the darkness beyond Orion.

As a little kid looking at these book covers, how could you not read these books?

So I found myself going through my Dad’s book collection, reading everything that could possibly look like it would be of interest to somebody my age.

Of course, I ran into my first problem with that. Which was…my Dad was not one of those real organized people. And so, we had books everywhere.

They were stacked up in closets. They were piled up in the basement. They were pushed under the bed.

And so…I think I was age 11…I decided one day that things needed to be organized.

So, if you can imagine an 11-year-old spending the next twelve hours or so organizing my Dad’s book collection. Thousands of books.

I grabbed some scrap lumber. I built some book shelves in the basement. I grabbed every book that I could find in the entire household. At least, all the science fiction ones. I didn’t care about those romances my mother was reading.

And I alphabetized them, like the burgeoning Type-A personality that I was.

When my Dad came home that night, I proudly told him that I was the curator of his science fiction collection, and that we now had rules for how books should be treated.

He was no longer to carry books in the back pocket because sometimes he would sit on them and break the spines. And also, point number two, he was no longer allowed to fold back the corners of pages to use as impromptu bookmarks.

Now, my Dad kind of looked at me, strange little child that I was, and kind of went with it because, while I might have been an annoying little kid, I had actually organized his collection. And it was a lot easier for him to find his books as well.

And now that things were organized, it was a lot easier for me to find the books I really wanted to find. The next book by that great author. Or the second book in a series. So I really started to go through that collection at a high rate of speed.

And I began to notice things about science fiction.

One of the things I noticed is that the books that resonated with me the most seemed to follow certain rules.

So, it goes kind of like this. In science, you propose a theory, and then you conduct experiments to test that theory, and to prove it or disprove it. In science fiction, the way it works, an author asks you to give him certain assumptions that are required in order to make his story possible. Once you’ve given him those prerequisites, everything in a science fiction story should flow directly and consistently from those initial prerequisites.

Jurassic Park - by Michael CrichtonLet me give you an example. How many people here have seen the movie, Jurassic Park? Or read the book?

The only assumption that is required in order to make that story possible is for it to be possible to retrieve dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber 65 million years ago.

If you have dinosaur DNA, it’s conceivable that you can take that DNA and clone a dinosaur. If you can clone a dinosaur, then you can populate a park with them. And if you can do that, they can escape and eat people.

And you have a story.

So, science fiction follows rules.

And then I noticed other things about science fiction. For example, take somebody like Jules Verne. In 1865, he wrote a pair of novels popularizing space travel. “From the Eath to the Moon” and the sequel called “Around the Moon.” In these stories, a group of explorers go to Florida and they launch a spaceship into orbit using a giant cannon.

From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon - by Jules VerneOK. The science is a little wonky. But they had to deal with real problems like lack of air in space and zero gravity.

So here’s Jules Verne in 1865 writing stories that, I believe, influenced a generation of people who helped lay the groundwork for the technologies that would be necessary to send Neal Armstrong to the moon 104 years later.

Something else I noticed about science fiction…

Science fiction could be used like a lens to focus attention on major issues that might be harder to address in conventional fiction.

Take “War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells. Look at it once — it’s kind of an outdated historical piece of fiction. Look at it again and it’s a brutal commentary on British colonialism.

So, science fiction follows rules, can influence and inspire people, can tackle the major issues…I’m not sure what you look for in fiction, but that pretty much works for me.

From my perspective, I hope that I’ve given you a few things to think about when it comes to science fiction.

As for me, I have flown on dragon-back through the skies of another world, and I’ve watched vast space fleets clashing in the darkness beyond Orion. The finest legacy my father left me before he died was a love and appreciation for science fiction.

Thank you.

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With Friends Like These…

On September 27th, I had my three remaining wisdom teeth extracted. Not a particularly fun event, of course. My friends and co-workers, notably Dave Roberts and Jonathan Quigg, decided that they needed to do something to mark this event. So they commissioned the creation of a video for me…and greeted me with it upon my eventual return to work…

Basically, there’s a web site called Fiver.com, advertised as “the world’s largest marketplace for small services,” where people offer to do things for $5. This one guy, who has no teeth, offers to make videos on demand on any topic. So, Dave and John commissioned him to make a video for me.

It’s…um…unique.

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