by Clare Winger Harris

Surinam Turtle Press



Away from the Here and Now
Cover by Ditmar

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The first woman to publish in the science fiction magazines using her own name was Clare Winger Harris, who lived from 1891-1968.  Although she had already published a novel when she broke into the pages of Weird Tales in 1926, the eleven short stories she published over the next four years formed her contribution to science fiction.  Harris collected all of her short fiction in a vanity-published book in 1947, which was brought back into print by Richard Lupoff in 2011. 

Harris's debut story, "A Runaway World" was first published in Weird Tales in 1926 and set a century later.  In the tale, which maintains a feel of small town America with a few technological gadgets, although televisios are still rare, the narrator, James Griffin, describes how Mars is suddenly pulled from its orbit.  Not long later, Earth follows suit and the catastrophe is accompanied by the expected rioting.  Although three years pass with the planet far away from the sun, the Griffins and their colleagues are able to survive on the food they managed to stockpile and through the use of their atomic heater.  Harris plays around with the idea that the planets can move between stars, much as high level electrons can move between nuclei of atoms.  There is little tension or conflict in the story, which is more a description of events, something which will be repeated throughout Harris's work.

In December of 1926, Hugo Gernsback ran a contest, asking readers to send in a short story based on the magazine’s cover, an image of five nearly nude humanoids watching a floating ocean liner.  Harris submitted the third-place winning “The Fate of the Poseidonia,” which tells the story of George Gregory, whose instant dislike for Martell, who lives in the apartment next to him, sabotages his relationship with Margaret Landon, who he has been wooing.  These relationships serve to drive the narrative while Gregory also reports on the strange disappearance of water around the world as the sea level drops due to the emergence of enormous fissures below the ocean.  Naturally, Gregory finds a link between the disappearance of the water (and a couple of ocean liners) and his hated neighbor.  As with “A Runaway World,” the narrative is more descriptive than story, with the protagonist exploring, but not actually influencing the events.

Harris also looks at the idea of using science fictional tropes as a means to conclude the validity of historical events in “A Certain Soldier,” about two scholars who are determined to discover the identity of the Roman soldier who started the fire that consumed the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70.  Harris includes a form of time travel in her story, but doesn’t provide any sort of explanation for the temporal change, which weakens the story.  However, her protagonist takes a more active role, both in the twentieth and first centuries than previous protagonists did.

The driving force behind “A Dangerous Drug” is Edgar Hamilton’s desire to marry Ellen Gordon, six year’s his elder, which is the only reason Ellen spurns his advances.  Hamilton ’s solution is to administer a drug which will retard her aging, and then an antidote when he becomes older than she is.  Hamilton ’s plans don’t work out as well as he would like and he winds up quickening his own aging, only to find himself in an alternative reality.  The story doesn’t quite work and has an almost Twilight Zonish twist to the ending.

After a war between humans and insect life results in the destruction of nearly all vegetation on the Earth, humans continue to thrive using manufactured food. “The Miracle of the Lily” refers to the possibility that they can reintroduce vegetation to their world centuries after it was first destroyed and at the same time that humans are beginning to establish contact with the native inhabitants of Mars and Venus.  The story’s ending is telegraphed and Harris’s conclusion seems almost as if it is the set up for a more interesting story to follow when and if the humans ever meet their interplanetary neighbors.

Six months after Harris’s first story, “A Runaway World” appeared, Miles J. Breuer broke into Amazing Stories with “The Man with the Strange Head.”  Breuer’s career lasted more than a decade longer than Harris’s and saw him collaborate with Jack Williamson, whose work began appearing in the December 1928 issue of Amazing (coincidentally with stories by both Harris and Breuer). Breuer and Harris collaborated on the story “Baby on Neptune .” In some ways, “Baby on Neptune ” plays with some of the ideas Harris introduced in “A Dangerous Drug.” The Neptunians operate on a different time scale than humans, which causes difficulties first in the human attempt to decode their radio messages and again when the humans visit Neptune .  At this remove, the story, which accurately describes space sickness, is perhaps most interesting for its depiction of Neptune , so different from modern understanding.

“The Artificial Man” features a character named George Gregory, who is not the same character as the George Gregory who appeared earlier in the volume in the story “The Fate of the Poseidonia,” although both men share a similar fate.  In “The Artificial Man,” Gregory is a relatively optimistic man, even after he loses a leg following an accident on the football field shortly before his scheduled wedding to Rosalind Nelson.  However, after he loses an arm in an auto accident, again postponing his wedding, he begins to become bitter and wonders how much of his physical body could be replaced without damaging his mental facility and his sense of soul.  As with the other Gregory, his curiosity costs him his fiancé. Harris’s depiction of a cyborg from 1929 is ahead of its time and Gregory’s ideas about body and soul working together add a nice dimension to the character.

“The Menace of Mars” opens with Harris’s planet-moving concept as described in “A Runaway World,” but the results are very different.  As all the planets (and the sun) move closer to each other, most of the Earth becomes inhospitable and the remnants of humanity flee to two colonies at the poles.  Hildeth finds himself living in Polaria, at the North Pole, while his fiancé, Vivian Harley takes refuge at Eden , on the opposite end of the world. The title refers to a Martian invasion which has some similarities to the one described by H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds, but in other ways may be unique in the annals of science fiction.  In his Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years, E. F. Bleiler describes Harris’s writing as “routine,” and The Menace of Mars is a good demonstration of that description.  However, while the writing may be pedestrian, the ideas Harris proposed, especially so early in the genre’s history, demonstrate a keen imagination, allowing her ideas to remain fresh, even after nearly ninety years..

Harris explored a wide range of science fictional tropes in her short career, including time travel, cyborgs, and space travel. In “The Evolutionary Monstrosity,” she looks at biologists using bacteria to speed up the evolutionary process, questioning how well evolution of the body without a changing environment would work and where it would fall apart.  Her scientist, Ted Marston, along with his friend Irwin Staley, explore the possibilities, while their friend Frank Caldwell maintains his distance and provides an outside voice of reason to question their methods and support the idea of their research.  It shows Harris’s imagination that although Marston creates a horror, she does not write a story in which the moral is that there are things man was not meant to know, instead showing that science has a place and can and should probe the unknown, with precautions in place.

As it happens, the story which brought Harris to my attention, “The Fifth Dimension,” is the weakest (and shortest) of her works.  Originally appearing in the December 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, alongside Jack Williamson’s first published story, it is a tale of clairvoyance and déjà vu, weakened by the ridiculous dialogue shared by the husband and wife as they ponder how much of their lives are predetermined and what, if anything, can be changed.

While some of Harris’s story ideas remain fresh after ninety years, others seem familiar because they have been retold by other authors.  This is the case with “The Ape Cycle,” her final and longest, story, which has a strong similarity to the background for Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, published more than thirty years later.  In Harris’s story, Daniel Stoddart and his son Ray begin the process of uplifting apes for use as servants.  The story follows their family for several generations as they successfully breed the animals, introduce them to society, and society changes based on the apes’ abilities and usefulness.  Throughout, Harris includes some speculation about whether animals can have souls and at what point using the uplifted animals would amount to slavery, although she never quite provides an answer to either question, eventually turning her attention to an uprising by the creatures.  “The Ape Cycle” provides a powerful conclusion to the volume, demonstrating that although Harris was writing at a time when science fiction was first finding its place, it was still able to examine topics from a variety of angles.

A Runaway World The Artificial Man
The Fate of the Poseidonia The Menace of Mars
A Certain Soldier The Evolutionary Monstrosity
A Diabolical Drug The Fifth Dimension
The Miracle of the Lily The Ape Cycle
Baby on Neptune  

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