I go on blind dates with books, and I judge novels by their covers; but if I had the choice to filter, I’d swipe right only on speculative fiction, mysteries, and collections of poetry. It’s a thing.
Speculative fiction broadly encompasses any work with elements that do not exist in our reality or history. There’s infinite potential. The genre includes hard science fiction (like Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” series), soft science fiction (like the entire Star Trek franchise), and fantasy epics (like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”). It also includes the supernatural. Coincidentally, those are some of my favorite creative properties of all time.
Stories in this genre explore the “what-if” in our humanity. They speculate. Either overtly or implicitly, these stories push the boundaries of our collective morality by adding new and exciting points of pressure.
I mean –a love story is just a love story. But add some robots, and you got me. You got me.
A Seven-Day Challenge
I picked up a copy of a science fiction anthology a few weeks back, and decided that I’d try my hand at reading one short story per day. Take note: this actually happened way back in early May during our obstetrics rotation, so I think I deserve some applause for time management.
(Read: Last Woman Standing s/p OB)
For this self-imposed challenge, I considered anything I can read in one sitting (or two) to be a short story. In hindsight this didn’t make any sense, because I can also read novellas and 100K+ word count fanfiction in one sitting.
Short stories can be formally defined as works with <15,000 words, but both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award include only works with word counts <7500 in this category.
Reading everything was a piece of cake. Getting my brain cells together for this blog post was a different matter.
Day 1: The Dead Past by Isaac Asimov (April 1956)
Premise: Scientific research is now fully controlled by the state. Arnold Potterly, a professor of ancient history, tries to gain access to the “chronoscope”, an elusive device which allows direct observation of the past. He enlists a young physics researcher named Jonas Foster for help.
Why I picked it up: It’s the first story in Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Vol. 1 (1990) which I also recently got. Issac Asimov is my favorite short story writer of all time, mainly because of “The Last Question” (November 1956). I first read that story in elementary and it hasn’t left me since. If you can take only one thing from this post, it’s to read that short story as soon as possible. Not even this one.
Favorite quote/s: About the push and pull between pure scientific curiosity and the prerogative of the powers-that-be, Asimov describes that the protagonist: “The pure researcher, Foster, is in the minority…”.
And: “Moral judgments can’t stand in the way. There isn’t one advance at any time in history that mankind hasn’t had the ingenuity to pervert. Mankind must also have the ingenuity to prevent.”
Notes: Dystopic. I suppose most political commentaries masquerading as sci-fi go that route. Asimov pushes the extremes of the (still existing) trend toward specialization in research and centralization of academic resources with his Big Brother research committee. The main theme plays towards power and privacy –familiar burdens of today’s technology.
One of the things I love about reading science fiction written in the 20th century is how their depiction of future technology comes so close yet so far at the same time.
“The walls were simply lined with books. Not merely films. There were films, of course, but these were far outnumbered by the books-print on paper. He wouldn’t have thought so many books would exist in usable condition. That bothered Foster. Why should anyone want to keep so many books at home? Surely all were available in the university library, or, at the very worst, at the Library of Congress, if one wished to take the minor trouble of checking out a microfilm.”
In Asimov’s distant future, the internet was still unimaginable. Can’t relate!
Day 2: The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster (November 1909)
Premise: Vashti and her son Kuno live in a future where everyone stays in isolation below ground. Inside a standard plain room, all basic and spiritual needs, such as food, music, and telecommunication, are supplied by the global Machine.
“People never touched one another other.”
Why I picked it up: As it was only day 2 of the self-imposed challenge, I hadn’t actually thought that far ahead about what stories to pick. Choosing this one was by chance. I was meaning to read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (a full novel LOL), and instead got diverted by a mention of this story from the prologue.
Favorite quote/s: There’s a big divide between the digital immigrants and digital natives of the world. Forster imagines a world where everyone’s a native (but maybe some people want to emigrate back to pre-modernity?).
“Above her, beneath her, and around her, the Machine hummed eternally; she did not notice the noise, for she had been born with it in her ears. The earth, carrying her, hummed as it sped through silence, turning her now to the invisible sun, now to the invisible stars. She awoke and made the room light.”
And: “Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.”
Notes: Dystopic, again. But this time with the added flavor of zoom-style video conferences as part of daily life. The descriptions are uncannily on the nose; it might as well be the height of the 2020 lockdown.
“The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.”
There’s a lot of discourse in this short story on the problems specific to a highly advanced society totally dependent on technology. At some point, the development and autonomy of machines will outpace the understanding of humanity, and what was once technology becomes magic. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The machine becomes a way of life.
Day 3: A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum (July 1934)
Premise: Early in the 21st century (ha!), a group of scientists make the first landing on Mars. What follows is a vivid retelling of the adventures of Dick Jarvis, the crew’s American chemist, who had to walk back to the landing site after crash-landing during a mission.
Why I picked it up: I got a copy of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame”, as edited by Robert Silverberg. This was the first story.
Favorite quote/s: “I was thinking what a present that’d be to take back to Mother Earth when a lot of racket interrupted.”
It’s amazing how the first instinct of explorers is to find souvenirs to take home.
Notes: I don’t particularly recommend this one, so my notes are a bit of a spoiler.
I think my favorite part here is an encounter with a silicon-based creature with gray scales, one arm, mouth and a pointed tail, whose only job in life is to build pyramids of its own excrement around itself. What a clever and singular thing to imagine.
“That queer creature! Do you picture it? Blind, deaf, nerveless, brainless—just a mechanism, and yet—immortal! Bound to go on making bricks, building pyramids, as long as silicon and oxygen exist, and even afterwards it’ll just stop. It won’t be dead. If the accidents of a million years bring it its food again, there it’ll be, ready to run again, while brains and civilizations are part of the past. A queer beast—yet I met a stranger one!”
In a single scene, Weinbaum established an entirely fictional delineation between silicon-based creatures and carbon-based animals like us. The entire short story is riddled with the same elaborate language and pseudo-logic. While the descriptive exploration of the narrative was entertaining to a point, there was barely any development in either character or plot. It’s possible that the appeal of this book depends entirely on the reader’s limits of imagination, which I admit I didn’t have much of at that time.
The short story does suggest some conflict, specifically with regards to communicating and cooperating with non-humanoid aliens and also dealing with peaceful societies (and then, maybe, stealing from them). But it’s still mostly meh.
Day 4: Mimsy Were the Borogroves by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and Catherine Moore) (February 1943)
Premise: A posthuman scientist attempts to make a time machine, and ends up sending a box of educational children’s toys into the distant past of 1942. It is discovered by a seven-year-old boy named Scott Paradine, who begins to learn more than just how to play.
Why I picked it up: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll were two of my favorite literary pieces of all time. The poem Jabberwocky remains in my heart. This short story is a fun little deconstruction and expansion of that little book.
Favorite quote/s: I read this before I rotated in pediatrics, so really, I can relate to how creatively and uniquely the author described children.
“A self-contained, almost perfect natural unit, his wants supplied by others, the child is much like a unicellular creature floating in the blood stream, nutriment carried to him, waste products carried away—”
And maybe a little idealistic: “Only a child wouldn’t be handicapped by too many preconceived ideas.” “Hardening of the thought-arteries,” Jane interjected.”
Notes: The story is a bit different in that it actually includes the point-of-view of children. This dynamism in perspective directly ties into the story’s underlying premise, which states that our way of thinking as adults is determined by both explicit and implicit training received in childhood. And the conventional thinking of the next generation can then be challenged by alien (or in this case, futuristic) stimuli. This is a story about how children think.
“Children are different from the mature animal because they think in another way. We can more or less easily pierce the pretenses they set up—but they can do the same to us. Ruthlessly a child can destroy the pretenses of an adult. Iconoclasm is their prerogative”.
As a counterpoint to the children, the story also shows the development of Scott and his two-year-old sister Emma through the eyes of their parents. There’s some consultation, some apprehension, and a lot of doubts. Is this the natural precocity of children, or is there something more sinister at play?
One of the characters made an interesting analogy –adults conventionally think in euclidean terms, and a foundation on non-euclidean geometry will generate a parallel yet inexplicable language-game. It stood out mostly because a friend of mine linked this video series on YouTube around that time also:
Day 5: The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
Premise: Monks in a Tibetan lamasery have been working for three centuries to encode all the possible names of God, which they have determined to contain only nine letters (with some other caveats). With the advent of modern technology, our pious monks rent a computer capable of printing all possible permutations of this name, shortening their quest from 15,000 years of manual encoding to just three months.
Why I picked it up: Arthur C. Clarke is one of the great names in science fiction. This short story just happens to be one of his best ones.
Favorite quote/s: SPOILER ALERT. I am actually adding warning, because I’d like everyone to read these quotes in context.
“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.) Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”
Notes: Stories that make you go “what the f/ck just happened?” are the simply the best. This story doesn’t fit into hard science or even intense mystery; it’s not even futuristic speculation, as computers were already quite capable of the said task by the 1950s. I’d argue 90% of the story is almost just slice-of-life –just another day at work.
“It is really quite simple. We have been compiling a list which shall contain all the possible names of God.”
Names have power. We just don’t know what kind. And for the thoughts of the two Westerners/outsiders charged with maintenance of the rented computers, names (and maybe religion of any sort) also have no clear relevance. But the end of the story begs otherwise.
“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names—and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them—God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.”
Day 6: It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953)
Premise: Anthony Fremont is a three-year-old boy with the power to hear thoughts and manipulate reality. The rest of Peaksville, Ohio were separated from the rest of the Earth at the moment of Anthony’s birth, stuck in a town with no electricity and no external source of food. Like any boy (or uncontrollable inhuman creature), Anthony’s actions can range from unintentional harm to outright malice.
Why I picked it up: The 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, also titled “It’s a Good Life“, remains to be one of my favorite episodes of the anthology. It was the right blend of uncanny horror. I didn’t even know it was based from a short story.
Favorite quote/s: “Everybody in Peaksvile always said, “Oh, fine,” or “Good,” or “Say, that’s swell!” when almost anything happened or was mentioned—even unhappy things like accidents or even deaths.”
Notes: Jerome Bixby wrote a short story with masterful world-building. The buildup was great, and the horror underpinning every interaction was subtly yet effectively done. It’s easy to imagine the mental strain that comes with living with a telepathic tyrant.
“It did no good to wonder where they were—no good at all. Peaksville was just someplace. Someplace away from the world. It was wherever it had been since that day three years ago when Anthony had crept from her womb…”
The stress of living with a character as awful as Anthony Freemont could drive any reader insane to the point of giving up, but that isn’t even an option for the other characters in the book. The atmosphere almost bleeds out of the book and into real life.
But I think I do still recommend the 1960s TV episode more. One of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, no contest.
Day 7: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin
Premise: Omelas is a place of indescribable happiness and comfort, where all of life’s necessities and pleasures are met with none of the destructive trappings of modern society. But there is one singular cost.
Why I picked it up: This is the only short story in this list that I’ve already read before; I once read this back in high school as part of our module on dystopic literature. I remember enjoying it. In the spirit of this venture, I was actually planning to read “The Day Before the Revolution” instead, which is a highly-rated work by Ursula K. Le Guin published in 1974, but I felt like that it relied too heavily on prior knowledge of another work called “The Dispossessed“. And I was running out of time. So I ended with a classic.
Favorite quote/s: “Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness.”
Notes: As I’m writing and editing this blog post, weeks after reading this short story, I’m reminded of several conversations on the horrors of capitalism and the converse limitations of socialism and communism as socioeconomic paradigms. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, driven in part by the author’s liberal politics, delivers a criticism of privilege stretched to its extremes. Specifically, the story hammers at privilege that is self-aware of the costs of its comfort and luxuries.
“The nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science”
In a short story that is only four pages long, Le Guin manages to write a powerful argument on suffering and joy that provokes the reader. In the intervening weeks since I reread this piece, I was finally able to watch The Matrix (2000), and the story asks a similar question –the shadows on the wall or the freedom from the cave, the red pill bearing the truth or the blue pill of blissful unreality.
The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
Not really. (It never is the end).
Aside from collecting more books (speculative or otherwise) from the digital world, I’ve also recently ordered a couple of titles from Big Bad Wolf Books. They have crazy discounts at their website, with some from 50% off to even 90% off! I don’t really know how they maintain their margins, but I encourage you to take advantage as long as we still can.
In any case, I hope to write about the books I’ve recently bought! Someday. When they arrive and when I actually get to read them.
(Read: Big Bad Wolf Book Sale (2019))
Until next time! ❤️