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July 1998
 
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Clare Winger Harris

Good fiction, of the science variety or otherwise, asks more questions than it answers. One of the greatest is, What does it mean to be human? This has been asked many times and in many ways, my favorite being the way Clare Winger Harris asked it in "The Miracle of the Lily," originally published in 1928.

In this story Harris tells of radio contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Harris's aliens seem to be quite "human" in culture, intellect and ethics, and the exchange of data and technology benefits both planets.

But the alien race is threatened by tiny predators devouring their crops. Never having developed pesticides, the aliens call upon their earthly friends for assistance.

At this point a new video link comes into service, and we learn that the intelligent, benevolent, civilized aliens are giant insects - and the pests eating their crops are tiny hominids!

Question: Who are the humans, the civilized bugs or the miniature mammals?

Harris does not tell us.

Clare Winger Harris was born in 1891, in Freeport, Illinois. She grew up on the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. A brief biography published in 1947 states that, "Mrs. Harris proudly claims the distinction of being the first woman science-fiction writer in the country."

That claim might be disputed by Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who (under the pseudonym Francis Stevens) was writing science fiction - in fact, very good science fiction - for Argosy and All-Story Weekly as early as 1917. But Harris's claim is defensible in the sense that she was the first woman to write science fiction stories for the science fiction magazines.

Starting in 1926 Clare Winger Harris contributed eleven stories to Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Science Wonder Quarterly. While today's reader may find her prose creaky and old-fashioned, the stories positively teem with still-fresh and provocative ideas.

In 1930 Harris "retired" to raise three sons. Her stories were later collected under the title Away from the Here and Now. If you come across a copy, grab it!

—Richard A. Lupoff

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