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May 2007
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
by Dave Truesdale

The Oddball, the Whacky, and the Prophetic in Short SF

From April, 1926 to . . . now?

SF, taken as an official genre and in the broadest sense, has never consciously set out to "predict" the future. Yes, there are exceptions, but they only prove the rule. That it has on occasion happened to do so in its 80+ years of official existence as a genre—April, 2006 marking its 80th year—merely happens to be a sideline plus. But it gave rise to the mistaken notion in its earlier days (after the public began to take notice of our new literature) that this was the primary (if not the only) purpose of SF, and the field was thus defined by many in the general public and the press solely on this basis; as a predictive literature. This popular and long-standing notion still exists among a very few of the unenlightened. Actually, more often than not and truth be told, the imaginative SF writer threw many inventive, creative, wild ideas against the wall—in the service of story—and a few of them, down through the years, have stuck (i.e. have come to pass).

Anthony Boucher (co-founder of F&SF, with J. Francis McComas), in his introduction to the classic A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (Doubleday, 1959—SFBC edition, 2 volumes), explains it this way (remember that the then USSR had successfully launched Sputnik into orbit on October 4, 1957, and the Space Race had just begun):

"When man entered the Space Age two years ago, the writers and editors of science fiction, who had so long been living in this new age, hoped for a fresh surge of reader interest, an expression of gratitude for accurate prophecy in the past and of interest in the possible accuracy of other, as yet unfulfilled prophecies.

"It seemed a logical enough expectation, but it was a fallacious one. The new readers did not arrive—to some extent, at least, because they were put off by the cry of the press (never happier than when it can claim a miracle and coin a cliché): 'Science has caught up with science fiction!'"

. . . "But facts are impotent against loud and frequent assertion. Readers believe that science has 'caught up'; and somehow the very fact of s.f.'s accurate prophecies turns into a weapon against it, as if a literature of prophecy should become outmoded the instant one of its predictions was fulfilled."

" . . . Well, you take my meaning. Prophecy (though it is here, along with that other basic s.f. ingredient, satire) is not all. Science fiction is fiction, and the best of it is damned good fiction."

When it comes to out and out, straight-up scientific inventions however, as opposed to other (as seen now, through the lens of time) prophetic conjectures, ideas, or speculations in the "softer" disciplines such as sociology or economics, for example, Damon Knight offers the following, from the introduction to Science Fiction Inventions, his 1967 Lancer Books edited collection of stories culled from 1939-1965: "Stories like these, I think, are really the essence of the science-fiction experience—the new thing, the shiny gadget that changes man's daily life or leads him into undreamed-of adventures."*
*[Damon's statement above would seem to contradict something else he (by fiat) professed some 11 years earlier. At least, according to my understanding of what the late Judy Merril wrote (and which said quote I was saving for a future column, but what the heck, it fits now, and it will still fit then). Here's what has me scratching my head, and I'll try to make it as short as possible so we can get to the really cool stories to follow.

From SF, 4th Annual Volume, The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merril (Dell, pb, June, 1959), in her "THE YEAR'S SF: A Summary," Merril writes:

"For the past three years, an annual Science-Fiction Writers' Conference has been held at Milford, Pa. Discussions at these meetings cover every facet of the writer's craft, with special reference to science fantasy: markets, agents, editors, critics, research sources, and the basic subjective problems of writing itself. During the 1958 sessions, one point of view emerged repeatedly: the writers who had been in s-f for any length of time, almost to a man wanted to get out—but to take it with them as they went. Some wanted the greater literary freedom of the book form; some wanted to get away from 'gimmicks'; others wanted editors without established s-f conventions.

" 'I want the same kind of thing, but I'm tired of saying it to the same people,' some of them summed it up. But one way or another, almost all wanted to write 'a sort of s-f' or 'something in between s-f and mainline fiction,' for a wider market."

So what has this to do with Damon Knight's assertion in his introduction to Science Fiction Inventions that these stories are "the essence of the science-fiction experience—the new thing, the shiny gadget that changes man's daily life or leads him into undreamed-of adventures." ? Well, I'll tell you. The Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, mentioned by Judy Merril above, was launched in 1956 by Damon and is the direct ancestor to the two Clarion Science Fiction Workshops still in existence to this day. Knight started it all, not to mention his founding of SFWA.

So here's the rub as I parse it now. If the essence of SF is the Idea (the "gadget") that "changes man's daily life,"—as Damon puts it—then how does this square with those complaints at the first several Milford Conferences' (which Damon "hosted") that some wanted to "get away from gimmicks."? If "gimmicks" and "gadgets" are synonymous, then let's see this claim again, from Damon: "the essence of the science-fiction experience—the new thing, the shiny gadget that changes man's daily life." Hmm. That "thing" which changes our lives.

The "thing," the "gadget," is precisely what has defined so-called "hard" SF in its earliest years. A lot of very early SF did have much to do with the traditional sciences such as physics, math, planetary chemistry, whatever, without much real involvement with real folks on a down-to-earth level (i.e. heavy internal characterization; again, there were highly notable exceptions)—but the term I now use for "hard" SF is "straight/traditional" SF—my definition of traditional SF is much looser than most, and includes many of the "softer" disciplines. Change one thing (and explore it as rigorously and as fairly as possible): be it physics, biology, chemistry, sociology, economics, the Arts, psychology, politics, or whatever, and we have a potentially great traditional SF story.

For goodness's sake, this is what makes science-fiction so wonderfully and beautifully different from the traditional mainstream story, which deals with the here and now and almost exclusively with heavy internal characterization and interpersonal relationships. The SF story is a literature of possible change from the way things are and the way mainstream fiction views contemporary personal experience and relationships. At its best, SF employs "out of the box" thinking in the areas of science, or culture, or politics, and those consequent effects on real folks, for good or ill. Why some today believe this traditional approach to SF is passé or old-fashioned, is beyond me.

" 'I want the same kind of thing, but I'm tired of saying it to the same people,' some of them summed it up."—Judy Merril, paraphrasing the feelings of those at the Milford Conference of 1958.]
The above quote says volumes about the current state of short SF. I want to key in on part of the above line, however. Those few first words about wanting "the same kind of thing"? But wanting to hit a larger audience? Well, let's look at some of the stories that deserve a wider current SF audience especially among the newer crop of readers and would-be practitioners—given the specific title of this column.]
Some of the following stories come from the Knight collection, but most do not. My reading habits of late are eclectic in the sense that I will read something new—whether it be a magazine or collection—and then something old. Something new, something old. It grants an invaluable perspective from which to evaluate and have fun with both.

The fun this time will be in taking a look back at some of SF's earlier excursions into the bizarre, oddball, whacky, and yes, prophetic and or predictive efforts. Some of them are truly remarkable.

When one mentions "predictive" SF, what comes to mind for many is Sir Arthur C. Clarke's idea for the communications satellite. This would be wrong, for Clarke first wrote of the idea in a 1945 article for a professional journal, and not in a science fiction story. So this one is out.

Possibly the next most touted and famous story in SF circles of a predictive nature is Robert A. Heinlein's "Waldo" (Astounding Science Fiction, 1942). A genius inventor suffering from myasthenia gravis lives in an earth-orbiting satellite, where the lack of gravity eases his condition. He invents remote controlled "hands" because of his affliction. These lifting and manipulative hand extensions have become reality and are known as waldos. We've seen them in movies hundreds of times in medical situations where contamination prohibits direct contact with a deadly virus or some highly radioactive contaminant. That the story centers deals as much with the "gadget" as on the character of the inventor and his plight shows early on that traditional SF can produce much more than what some detractors nowadays dismiss as just a one dimensional gimmick story. In fact, aside from stories in the late 20s and much of the '30s, where characterization was cardboard and crude at best in the rock'em, sock'em pulp magazine grinder, very much SF in the '40s and '50s was evolving quite rapidly in the better magazines, did concern itself with character as well as idea, and was rather well-rounded and even sophisticated in its best examples.

Another story equally as often cited as being of the scientific predictive mode is Cleve Cartmill's "Deadline," from the March, 1944 issue of ASF. Editor John W. Campbell, Jr. was visited in his office by a couple of government agents, and grilled about the Cartmill story, which outlined how to make an atomic bomb. Of course, our Manhattan Project was hush-hush, and agents wanted to know how Cartmill knew how to make an A-bomb. Campbell pointed out to them that everything in the story had been published in various journals and publications in the public domain and the author had just put everything together for his story. So much for secrecy on a critical project during WW II, and huzzahs for the science fiction writer.

Turning (for the moment) from the scientific to the sociological SF story, we come to one of the most famous (and most oft reprinted) in SF. From the April, 1951 issue of Galaxy, we have Cyril Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons." Martin Harry Greenberg, writing in the header notes to the story (Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 13—1951, DAW, July, 1985): "The central premise…is that intelligence is genetically inherited. That the intelligentsia should have lots of children for this reason is at least dubious." Isaac Asimov, following Greenberg's remarks, offers his own feeling that: "Cyril was venting his personal spleen against the Universe in this story. He was a child prodigy, who was always getting in trouble with other children . . . because his quick wit and quick tongue could expose stupidity and wound in so doing. This is not very uncommon among science fiction writers . . . ". Asimov goes on to say: "Cyril, however, was deeply unhappy at being in a world that was not designed for him, and he never did learn to de-fang his wit. 'The Marching Morons' is the way he views humanity and almost anyone with intelligence will find himself sympathizing with Cyril at odd times. Whenever Janet and I encounter some example of overweening stupidity in others that needlessly complicates our lives, we sigh and say, 'It's the marching morons,' and it helps us survive."

This is an explosive story, relevant to this very day, and one which I seriously doubt (at least) some magazine editors would consider publishing in today's politically correct world. Keep in mind that Kuttner believed intelligence to be a genetically inherited trait here, and if you don't think PC has intruded into the area of genetics, consider this. I think it was back in 1994 or '95, at Harvard, that a symposium took place on why so few women were in the top rank of scientists/mathematicians. Professors, scientists, social thinkers and like types (male and female) were gathered together in a free-form exploration of ideas, a wide open dialogue. As only one of many possible reasons (social, bureaucratic, and otherwise) for so few women pursuing an academic career in science until they had risen to the top of their profession, the President of Harvard merely offered the speculation—and it was offered as nothing more—that maybe men and women's brains were wired differently (i.e. they were genetically predisposed to perform better in certain areas). Remember that this is Harvard, a major, world-renowned university where the exploration of ideas is supposedly paramount toward the furtherance of understanding and knowledge. Well, some feminist in the audience became so outraged at even the thought that the male and female brain could be wired so differently that she began weeping. The President of Harvard had so much pressure placed upon him that he subsequently resigned a year or so later (he had experienced trouble with faculty members prior to this incident, to be fair, but this turned out to be the last straw). The feminist, PC crowd's strident outrage in the press certainly made a difference.

Let's fast forward to the present. Not two weeks ago as I write (the middle of January, 2007) I have seen not one, but two segments on the national morning talk shows concerning a difference in the male/female brain. This time, however, various brain scans and other evidence showed that the female brain is wired differently from the male brain, giving females a decided advantage when it comes to verbal skills. Not only was there no outrage expressed from any quarter, the findings were brought to light on national talk shows. Talk about hypocricy from the PC/feminist crowd.

On the one hand we have the President of Harvard labeled a sexist and forced to resign for the mere suggestion, as a possible area of inquiry only, that maybe, when it comes to math or science, there may be something different about the male and female brain. And on the other hand, when science shows a marked difference between the male and female brain when it comes to verbal skills favoring females, this is touted in the media and ignored by the same crowd that got their panties in a knot over what the President of Harvard only suggested as an area of inquiry.

And so we return to Kornbluth's suggestion in "The Marching Morons" that intelligence is genetically inherited and therefore smart folks should have more rug rats. Right or wrong as to the question of whether intelligence is inherited (it seems that in some cases it definitely is, though for the most part it is not—but what do I know), the more intriguing question, and what makes this story so relevant and fascinating is: what happens when any single group of humanity breeds faster than any other? Because of the scientific gadget known as the Pill, it became possible for many Western civilizations to curtail their birth rates. Religious communities (Catholics for one), and third world countries where the Pill was either officially forbidden, or unavailable, continued to increase their numbers. To what effect? What are the consequences? Overpopulation? Depletion of certain vanishing resources? The food required and the land it takes to grow the food? Who pays? These are just the basic social questions. The religious aspect also comes into play, as does the freedom of individuals to have as many children as they desire (but at what cost to society if the family cannot support on their own the children they have the right to birth).

And there are also the political ramifications. Here's a contemporary for instance: The Muslim population in Europe, it has just been reported, is growing at something like 4 or 5 times other populations in France, England, Denmark, and other western European countries. Given the rise in radical Islamic groups in western Europe and the attendant hate crimes, murders, and gang rapes against the "infidels" (also just reported and supported by police statistics) by these same radicals, isn't it a valid assumption to make—going strictly by the numbers—that even if the small percentage of Islamic radicals remains the same, that since the Muslim birth rate is increasing so dramatically, there will be even more radical terrorists in western Europe? Hey, I'm simply throwing out something strictly as a possibility, by the numbers. Is this an issue a science fiction writer could address these days? Could a professional, dispassionate examination of Kornbluth's basic idea—that certain folks should have children and others not—be written today? Perhaps, just maybe, with the growing radical Muslim populations in parts of the world as the backdrop? Or have we become too PC, too timid, even as cutting-edge, science fiction writers. Maybe someone like Orson Scott Card might attempt it. . . .

In any case, Cyril Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" takes an oddball, unpopular look at a controversial idea, an even more highly-charged, and totally untouched subject (in short SF) 56 years later.

"The Circuit Riders" by R.C. Fitzpatrick (Analog, 1962) is another seemingly whacky idea story in the sociological realm, which turns out to be more prophetic than one would have imagined. This one envisions a future where individual emotions are monitored at "police stations." When the readings get too high they are pinpointed and the cops are soon at your door. The "cops" here are more like the monitors of home private security systems today. They sit in front of screens and mark the rise and dips in emotional levels in parts of the city. When certain types of abnormalities in the readings signal more than just momentary, individual anger, but spike to a real crisis, they refine the signal, are sent out and act either to prevent the situation, or arrest the individual or individuals for "treatment." At times, no "crime" has occurred, just the intention. Instead of "thought police" we are asked to imagine the "emotion police." Now, square these "emotion police" with where we are today. There have been many reported cases where someone has verbally assaulted (sheesh) another person, and as part of their punishment they must undergo "sensitivity training." This scary sensitivity training is a form of psychological reconditioning, and sounds like something out of Orwell's 1984, or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, as well as what Fitzpatrick shows us in "The Circuit Riders" 45 years ago. It is not the obligation—or the right—of the State to partake in such matters. And this whole concept of sensitivity training comes today from so-called enlightened, progressive, liberal types who desire to control what we think, say (remember the Harvard President), and feel. Big Brother comes in many disguises. It's too bad that far Left Liberals (socialists and Nanny-staters) can't own up to their own part in it today (not that far Right social Conservatives are blameless. Keep the Church out of my bedroom).

Perhaps the ultimate Big Brother short story comes from the pen of Lewis Padgett (the writing team of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) in their 1949 speculation (ASF, Jan., 1949) "Private Eye." In his header notes to the story, which is reprinted in Science Fiction Inventions, Damon Knight says: "In 1949 the notion that events might leave recoverable traces in matter was not new. . . . But Henry and Catherine Kuttner were the first to ask themselves, (a) if there were a device that could read these traces, wouldn't the police use it to solve crimes, and (b) in a world like that, how could a man get away with murder?"

Isaac Asimov, writing the notes to "Private Eye," (The Great SF Stories: 11—1949, DAW, Mar., 1984) says: "In 'Private Eye' however, Henry Kuttner [preceeding me by four years] took the harder task of allowing a futuristic gimmick—one that would seem to make it impossible to get away with murder—and then labored to produce an honest murder mystery anyway. The result was an undoubted classic."

As in many of the best gadget or gimmick stories, they are "invented" or created to serve the story. So too in this one. From the story, the "tracer" is "a device for looking into the past. And it was limited to a fifty-year span. . . . It was sensitive enough to pick up the 'fingerprints' of light and sound waves imprinted on matter, descramble and screen them, and reproduce the image of what had happened." It also takes the new by-product of this invention to read it effectively, a "forensic sociologist." So imagine, if you will, that everything—and I mean everything—in your life, from the public to the most intimately private and embarrassing moments, can be recalled from the past fifty years (with due justification and process, mind you), if the authorities believe you may have committed a crime. Despite this knowledge that your life is literally an open book, you decide to commit a murder. Therefore, you must plan carefully for years, giving nothing away in your actions or motives toward your intended victim. You go so far as to become friends with your victim-to-be. You manipulate others around you, marry someone you don't love because she can further your plans. You consciously alter your every waking and sleeping moment (what if you should talk in your sleep and give yourself away?), conscious that you must outwit those who will be analyzing your every move—for years—for even the most minute facial expression that may give you away once you commit the murder.

Outwitting the penultimate Big Brother is the task Kuttner and Moore have set themselves. Their ingenuity is amazing, and even more so today where we have security cameras everywhere; in businesses and stores, in parking lots everywhere, in apartment complexes and gated communities, in hospitals and government offices, on street corners and at every major intersection—and the number grows daily (ask someone in London, where they are much more pervasive than here in the U.S.). Not to mention the ease with which one's actions can today be traced through phone, credit card, and internet transactions. We have it easy today, compared to the society in which the Kuttner's have envisioned in "Private Eye."

I can't help but think of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (published a mere 3 or 4 years after "Private Eye" and therefore written even closer in time following the Kuttner/Moore story). Bester has industrialist Ben Reich committing murder, who is then chased by a telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell. The situations are similar: how does one commit murder when the authorities can either read your mind, or know everything you've done for practically your whole life? Bester went on to win SF's first Achievement Award for his novel in 1953 (this Achievement Award was later—at the 1955 Worldcon—given the official name of the "Hugo" and so Bester's award was retroactively also called a Hugo), and is to this day acknowledged as one of the greatest SF novels of all time. But I can't help but wonder if Kuttner and Moore's little, unsung gem of a precursor, "Private Eye," might not have influenced Alfie just a tad.

Writing the header notes to the following story, Martin H. Greenberg calls "Exit the Professor" a "whacky science fiction story." (From Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 9--1947, DAW, Feb., 1983) Coincidentally, "Exit the Professor" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Oct., 1947) was also written under the byline of Lewis Padgett, though most attribute this story to Henry Kuttner alone. This funny tale is one of Kuttner's beloved "Hogben" stories; about a family of hillbillies with mutant abilities (they can fly, turn invisible, make the most outlandish gadgets without knowing what makes 'em work) spiced with cornpone humor and backwoods ways. In it, however, and to the point, Kuttner describes a laser gun. In his pre-story notes, Asimov relates this: "Incidentally, Henry described that 'shotgun gadget' that 'makes holes in things' and prudently didn't go into detail. But anyone can see, in hindsight, that what the Hogbens had put together was a device that fired a laser beam. Lasers, of course, had not been devised in 1947, and wouldn't be for another thirteen years."

The laser beam plays a major role in capturing a visiting professor (he ends up trapped in a bottle in the attic with invisible grandpaw for company) who has heard strange things about the reclusive Hogbens, and wants to write a paper on their mutant abilities—which they deny not all too convincingly. It's a clash of civilizations, and one of the funniest in a series of funny stories I've had the pleasure to read. Kuttner is a master at capturing the hillbilly mindset and worldview through their dialogue, and add a dollop of mutant strangeness on top of all that and these stories are more than a hoot.

Another lighthearted mutant story is Eric Frank Russell's "Muten" (ASF, 1948; reprinted in Science Fiction Carnival, ed. Fredric Brown and Mack Reynolds, Bantam pb, June, 1957 [originally published by Shasta in Dec., 1953]).

One professor Parkinson receives the following letter and reads:

"Dear sirs:

I have read as how your looking for mutens and I beg to say as how I got a muten right here which same you may inspeck on application.

Yours truly
G. Timberlake (George Timberlake)."

Parkinson sends one Steven Yule to investigate, though most mutant claims turn up empty, or frauds. This time it is different. Written in a hillbilly-lite voice, Yule discovers that through some sort of irradiation, farmer Timberlake has gotten hold of a horse that can talk. Yes, what may be the first talking horse in SF. I'm on shaky ground here, and I could be wrong, but I believe this to be the first talking horse short story in SF. A horse, by the way, with the name of Endwhistle. The complications Russell sets up, and works out splendidly, are a riot.

First, Yule must convince his supervisor that his mutant is on the up and up. Then he must convince Parkinson to shell out some dough in order to transport the mutant. Parkinson believes the mutant to be a human being, and is not made aware that it is a horse. So Parkinson tells Yule to take the train and charge it to his office. Yule shrugs and says okay. But at the train station the horse is not allowed with passengers, so extra costs are incurred to ship him with the livestock. But the police and the railroad clerk don't believe the horse can really talk, that Yule is only throwing his voice. So to prove that the horse can talk we have one of the funniest comic scenes I've come across in a long time. While the cop, the railroad clerk, and Yule are jawing, in walks the mayor, the fire chief, and two henchmen, intrigued by the scene. They are all skeptical of the ventriloquist dodge, but eventually agree to get in a circle and hold each others protruding lips while Endwhistle talks. So picture a cop, a clerk, Yule, the mayor, the fire chief, and two henchmen in a circle holding each others lips in a livestock boxcar with a talking horse! Russell's slapstick, over-the-top dialogue is smartass funny.

And when Endwhistle does talk? He's a wise ass Mr. Ed times two. Throughout the rest of the story all I heard was Mr. Ed's voice every time Endwhistle wisecracked his way through scene after scene. It turns out that farmer Timberlake finally agrees to sell Endwhistle to Yule, but when Yule takes him into a bar and another customer with high ambitions for Endwhistle gets the horse drunk . . . well, the hilarity is piled high. This delightfully witty romp gives new meaning to the old joke "A guy and a horse walk into a bar. . . . "

Speaking of the visual media (Mr. Ed ) reminds me of a scene from (I believe) Raiders of the Lost Ark. The classic scene everyone remembers where Indiana Jones is being chased through the bazaar by one of the bad guys. Tired of running and out of breath while the bad guy is shrieking after him with scimitar held high, Jones stops, turns, says something like "What the hell," takes out his revolver and simply shoots the guy. It's a much beloved little touch of business, but did you know that it was done 57 years ago in an SF story? And not only that, but in a fanzine from Northern Ireland? The fanzine was called Slant, the story is called "The Swordsmen of Varnis," and its author is Clive Jackson. Other Worlds Science Stories became aware of this story and ran it in 1950.

Essentially, this very short story is a satire of the space opera fantasy. We have the hero and his bride to be (the "Royal Lady of Mars") on a galloping horse heading for their castle sanctuary and some magic crystal or whatever that will help them win the day from the evil horde (also on horseback) who are close on their heels. Arriving at a tunnel just inside the city gates and just ahead of the bad guys, our hero must fight them off while his beloved tries to open the door to the Temple of the Living Vapor, wherein resides their salvation. He's hacking them down left and right. They begin to pile up in the narrow arched tunnel. They try to hack back. Here are the final lines:

"Now the cold hand of defeat gripped the hearts of the Swordsmen of Varnis: two, three, four more of them mingled their blood with the red dust of the courtyard as Tharn and his fighting princess swung their merciless blades in perfect unison. It seemed that nothing could prevent them now from winning the mysterious secret of the Living Vapor, but they reckoned without the treachery of one of the remaining Swordsmen. Leaping backward out of the conflict he flung his sword on the ground in disgust. 'Aw, the Hell with it!' he grunted, and unclipping a proton gun from his belt he blasted Lehni-tal-Loanis and Her Warrior Lord out of existence with a searing energy-beam."
We remember the classic scene from the Indiana Jones movie, but Clive Jackson, in a fanzine, and SF did it first.

We all remember Total Recall, the movie adapted from Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." It first saw print in the April 1966 issue of F&SF. But did you ever wonder where the dream packages offered by the Total Recall Co. really came from? Or rather, where Phil Dick might have come up with the idea for the dream "packages" offered to Recall's clients? Not saying he did, but Dick just might have read, and had in the back of his mind, Isaac Asimov's wonderfully self-revealing story "Dreaming Is a Private Thing," also from F&SF (Dec. 1955). In this prescient short story we have competing "dream" companies, one of which is called Dream, Inc. It hires dreamers under contract to dream all sorts of scenarios for its clients, who purchase the dream packages at outlet stores, much like we rent movies from Blockbuster today. We go into the salons, pay our money, and slide into booths after choosing our dream. Some dreams are immensely popular; to be read as more commercial for they cater to a wide audience. Some dreams are more sophisticated, but cater to a more elite few. Same as with movies and books today, in a commercial sense at least.

Dreamers are highly sought after, what with two companies competing directly for the same market. Thus, they are under tremendous pressure to produce regularly and often, as well as to dream, well, blockbusters—something commercially appealing but also radically different and fresh. We enter the story with one of Dream, Inc.'s top dreamers quitting because of burnout. He just can't do it anymore. He has no family life, no life of his own, and he wants out. The founder of Dream, Inc., failing to change his mind, lets his dreamer go with no ill will. Why? He understands the psychology of the dreamers better than they do themselves. He knows they are a compulsive lot, that despite everything they may say or want, they can't help themselves and must dream. It is a compulsion, an obsession they can neither run from nor hide. It is at this point, near the very end of the story, that Asimov opens himself up for the world to see, for he has been talking about the compulsive writer (himself), and why he couldn't quit even if he wanted to. Here are the final lines:

" 'You see, Frank, how it is. You can stop work here anytime. So can I. This is our job, not our life. But not Sherman Hillary. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he'll dream. While he lives, he must think; while he thinks, he must dream. We don't hold him prisoner, our contract isn't an iron wall for him. His own skull is his prisoner. He'll be back. What can he do?'

"Belanger shrugged. 'If what you say is right, I'm sort of sorry for the guy.'

"Weill nodded sadly, 'I'm sorry for all of them. Through the years, I've found out one thing. It's their business: making people happy. Other people.' "

Asimov does three things here. One: he might have given Phil Dick the gimmick/germ/idea/springboard for his story. It certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility since Isaac's story was written 11 years before Dick wrote his, and the basic ideas are strikingly similar. Two: has Asimov predicted Virtual Reality here—in a very real sense—or has there been some previous-to-1955 short story with as much similarity to what we now know about VR? Oh, and let's not overlook that Asimov has these dream salons, where dreams are rented at corner establishments, much like we rent movies today. There has to be some props in that alone. Three: Asimov has laid his soul bare, and without guilt, a thing he had never done before on such an intimate, personal level. And he made it work splendidly and to great effect.

One final story involving a movie reference, and we'll move on. In a 1944 issue of ASF, John R. Pierce wrote "Invariant." The protagonist, one Homer Green, has invented a regeneration serum, but with a side effect he hadn't imagined. Not only can he regenerate his physical tissues, making him immortal, but a byproduct enables him to regenerate not only his brain tissue, down to the original neurons and pathways, but his very same memories. Just as his physical tissue and organs heal themselves to what they were the day he took the serum, so too does his brain reconstitute itself exactly like it was the day he first took the serum. Down to the very same experiences and memories he had in 1943. It is now the year 2170, and an historian has come to visit. The kicker is that Green can have no new memories, or he will die. He must take his serum in order to maintain his immortality, but each day, as his body heals itself to its original state, so does his mind. Thus his thoughts and memories never progress beyond 1943 and are preserved intact, something he had not foreseen and is now doomed to live with. From an historical perspective, Green is a perfect time machine. He never forgets what he knew of his time for it is always renewed by the immortality serum. Historians come to see him each day, but he never remembers them from the day before. He is trapped in his present, forever.

Now, what movie in the not too distant past has employed this theme? You got it: Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray as the lead. Murray is forever doomed to repeat a single day, over and over and over. The primary difference between the story and the movie is that Murray remembers the previous day, though he must live it again and again, while the inventor in the story has no memory of his previous day. But the basic theme is the same: that of a man trapped in a single day. But Astounding did it first, some 40-odd years before the movie variant.

Finally, let's return for a look at what I honestly believe to be one of the greatest predictive, prophetic short SF stories in history, bar none. I've been saving it for last because I think it is an absolutely incredible work. The story is bylined as by Will F. Jenkins, but everyone knows this as a pseudonym of the incomparable Murray Leinster. The story is "A Logic Named Joe," and first saw the light of day in the March, 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction (ASF).

The "Joe" of the title is a personal computer. The story calls personal computers "logics," but they are personal computers nonetheless, down to every detail. In short, the storyline is one where one Logic becomes sort of self-aware and goes overboard in attempting to help its family of users. But it extends this help to the entire network of home "logics" to disastrous ends, depending on what questions all of its users ask it. It will go to any lengths to solve your problem or answer your questions. A bank president might ask, half in jest, How do I rob my bank without being caught? His own personal Logic will give him the answer. Someone might ask how to commit the perfect murder, and his own personal Logic will supply the answer. Leinster runs the reader through a few of the possible questions he has his characters ask, and shows the consequences.

The real beauty is, of course, how righteously dead on Leinster is in his depiction of the home personal computer and the internet in 1946! Here's part of one of the opening (long) paragraphs, and it pretty much says it all:

"You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it's got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It's hooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed with relays. Say you punch 'Station SNAFU' on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an' whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin' comes on your logic's screen. Or you punch 'Sally Hancock's Phone' an' the screen blinks an' sputters an' you're hooked up with the logic in her house an' if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today's race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin' Garfield's administration or what is PDQ and R sellin' for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin' full of all the facts in creation an' all the recorded telecasts that ever was made—an' its hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country—an' anything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an' you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an' keeps books, an' acts as consultin' chemist, physicist, astronomer an' tealeaf reader, with an 'Advice to Lovelorn' thrown in. The only thing it won't do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said 'Oh, you think so, do you?' in that peculiar kinda voice. Logics don't work good on women. Only on things that make sense."
Did Leinster nail it, or what? Wow. One of my sources for this story was (again) Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 8—1946, DAW, Nov., 1982. Even in 1982 Asimov was blown away by this story. He writes: "As you look back upon the stories written a third of a century ago, the ones that strike you with head-shaking envy (if you are a science fiction writer—especially a famous one) are those which actually get things right." . . . "Read this story, however, and you'll swear Will Jenkins had some sort of pipeline into the 1980's. Just change 'logics' to 'home computers' and make a few other inconsequential semantic changes and you'll see that Will went charging full-speed in the right direction. Clever as science fiction writers may be that doesn't often happen. It happened this time, though."

Can you possibly imagine what Asimov would have written of this story today, 25 years later, in 2007, with the global internet in all of its (still unfolding) glory, and the current software running on the average personal home computer? Again, wow. Though SF insiders are familiar with "A Logic Named Joe," it still remains to my eyes one of the overlooked classics of prophetic SF, and must surely rank in the top 3 or 4 of all time in the area of scientific, predictive short SF stories. If you haven't yet read this marvelous story by all means seek it out. It can be found in the above Asimov series from DAW, in The Best of Murray Leinster (ed. J. J. Pierce, Del Rey pb, April, 1978), Science Fiction Carnival (ed. Fredric Brown and Mack Reynolds, Bantam pb, June, 1957), and most likely other collections.

One thing running through all of the oddball, whacky, and prophetic stories discussed above is that they all, in their own way (be it serious or humorous), do, in fact, deal with human beings and at the most unexpected moments say something telling about the human experience. Some make serious social commentary along the way as well, while still others show the promise and caution specific scientific or social speculations may hold for us . . . as human beings. They are part and parcel of the traditional science fiction experience. And please do not equate "traditional" with "restrictive," or "old-fashioned." It is quite the opposite, and much like rare, expensive, fine wine. It grows better with age. New is just different, not necessarily better. The heart and soul of traditional SF is an open-ended, ever-expanding experience for the reader, and offers a literary palette of thousands of colors from which the genre writer can mix or match while creating his imaginative endeavors. It is an infinite rainbow of color the traditional mainstream author only wishes he could see, and is why SF is so appealing to those wishing to be stimulated, excited, and challenged in a way mainstream fiction cannot ever hope to approach.

You will notice that the smattering of stories discussed above come from the '40s and '50s—with one exception from 1962. There are many more just like them, enough to fill a half dozen reprint collections at least. I see in my notes that I have 8 more I wanted to include here, but as usual I gab too much along the way, and even for an online column where length isn't the issue it is for a print venue, maintaining reader interest yet remains an issue.

The oddball, the whacky, and the prophetic stories in SF are by no means all that SF is about; far from it. There are so many approaches, so many types of SF it boggles the mind. But to the extent that the less any sort of traditional speculative element is even hinted at in an SF piece, the less it becomes SF by fiat. By this I mean that in a lot of current, trendy SF today we find only a whiff of some SF or F trope in a story, and it is there only to justify its being called SF so it can sell to an SF market (That viable mainstream markets—for lack of a commercial audience—withered somewhere in the '50s has been acknowledged by others. SF has long been the largest, and most commercially viable genre for the short story is also a demonstrable fact).

So now it is, in far more instances than ever before, that the SFnal idea is only window dressing, and is not really explored as the core of the story; the core idea of the story from which the exploration of character can be examined and explored in a different dynamic. At best, it is only a backdrop for the laconic retelling of a mainstream exploration of "character interaction," or "character emotion," or "internal character examination." Spare me. By itself, if this is all a story has to offer, it bores me to death. I need something more. A thinly disguised reshuffling of the same matrix of experience(s) mainstream authors have been emulsifying their characters in for a long time just doesn't do it for me, and is why I choose to read science fiction.

So go back and read some of the best in SF's past. The next time you find yourself in a used bookstore, or in the huckster room at a con, go ahead and cop that cheap paperback collection from the past. Then read several month's worth of the pro magazines but most especially a few new collections featuring slipstream, pseudo-stream, para-stream, or let's-stop-and-think-about-how-we-feel-about-the-stream stories—whatever new term has been devised to disguise what these stories really are. Then repeat the process. The old, then the new; some old and some new. And if you're of like mind you'll see a striking difference, and ask where the optimism, the wonder, the story and the SF have gone. Don't get me wrong. Not everything is going to hell in a handbasket. All I'm saying is the handle on the basket may be wearing a little thin near the join, so you'd better get a grip. It also goes without saying that if you like your SF with little or no SF in it (which seems a contradiction to me, but . . . ), then by all means there is plenty of new stuff to suit your taste, primarily in the ever-increasing number of new collections, and small mom and pop magazines attempting to cross the line between SF and mainstream fiction. For the most part, and with rare exception, you can have'em. The only thing they stimulate in me is my boredom meter. But that's just me.

Finally, and purely for the fun of it, I offer a friendly challenge. A certain Big Name author wrote a story with a unique scientifically based, er, invention. This, ahem, strap-on "device" is called a "vibratory penetrator." Ahh, yes, you heard me right. A (chuckle) strap-on "vibratory penetrator." The first person to guess who the writer is, and the story in which this device appeared, will win . . . . nothing (save for bragging rights and the undying esteem of his fellow SF aficianados). I have given Gordon Van Gelder the name of the author and the title of the story. He is free to give hints, and at the end of the month if no one has given a correct answer, he will reveal the answers. Vibratory penetrator, indeed. Don't ya just luv SF?

For those who would like to search out some great collections of classic SF, here are a few great places to start, though there are many more.

Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories, ed. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW paperbacks, 25 volumes from 1939-1963). Absolutely indispensable. Highly recommended.

Science Fiction Hall of Fame; The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time, ed. Robert Silverberg (Avon pb, July, 1971) Reprinted as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame; The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time, Volume One, 1929-1964, ed. Robert Silverberg (Tor hc, Feb., 2003; Orb tpb, Feb., 2005)

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volumes Two A and Two B; The Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time, ed. Ben Bova (Doubleday, 1973)

A Treasury of Great Science Fiction; Volumes 1 and 2, ed. Anthony Boucher (Doubleday, SFBC editions, 1959)

Off the Beaten Orbit (original title: Galaxy of Ghouls), ed. Judith Merril (Pyramid pb, 1955)

A Century of Science Fiction, ed. Damon Knight (Simon and Schuster, 1962)

Science Fiction Inventions, ed. Damon Knight (Lancer pb, 1967)

Tomorrow, the Stars, ed. Robert A. Heinlein (Doubleday, 1952; Signet pb, Aug., 1953)

Science Fiction Carnival, ed. Fredric Brown and Mack Reynolds (Shasta, 1953; Bantam pb, June, 1957)

Famous Science-Fiction Stories: Adventures in Time and Space, ed. Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas (Random House, 1946)

The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (Simon and Schuster, 1952)

Beyond the Barriers of Space and Time, ed. Judith Merril, introduction by Theodore Sturgeon (Random House, 1954)

Portals of Tomorrow, ed. August Derleth (Rinehart, 1954)

The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, ed. Barry N. Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg (Southern Illinois University Press hc, Dec., 1980

The Preserving Machine, collection by Philip K. Dick (Ace, 1969)

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, ed. Frederik Pohl (Random House/Ballantine, 1976), and any other collection.

The Best of Henry Kuttner, introduction by Ray Bradbury (Random House/Ballantine, 1975), and any other collection.

The Best of Fritz Leiber, introduction by Poul Anderson (Random House/Ballantine, 1974), and any other collection.

The Best of Jack Vance, preface by Barry N. Malzberg (Pocket Books pb, May, 1976), and any other collection.

The Best of Murray Leinster, ed. J. J. Pierce (Del Rey pb, April, 1978), and any other collection.

And pretty much any collection by Fredric Brown, Theodore Sturgeon, Clifford D. Simak, Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, and William Tenn. I'm sure I've forgotten a good dozen other writers whom I strongly favor, but . . .

*     *     *

Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at

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