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Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Films: A List
Science Fiction Films: | Space Travel | Science Fiction, General | Dystopia and Warnings about the Future | Time Travel | Virtual Reality | SF Adventure | Monsters | SF Comedies | The Future, without SF
Fantasy Films: Fantasy | Alternate Paths | High-Brow Films that use Time Travel | Films that Visualize Dreams, Fantasies or Literary Works | Fantasy Musicals | Fantasy Comedies | Christmas Fantasy | Strange Depiction of Life
Science, Technology and Industry Films: Science and Technology | Medicine, Medical Research and Public Health | Industry and Labor | Environmental Dramas and Mysteries | Builders | Mysteries about Strange Animals | Strange Houses
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Political and Social Commentary Tales in Comic Books. This list also tracks advanced civilizations in the future or outer space, high technology.
The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) (Chapters 1-11, 14)
Nine Times Nine (1940)
The Case of the Solid Key (1941)
Rocket to the Morgue (1942) (first two days)
The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) (Chapter 1)
The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (written with Denis Green)
The Casebook of Gregory Hood (1946) (written with Denis Green)
The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen's Adventures in Radio
The Compleat Werewolf
Mission of Gravity (1953)
The Foundation Trilogy (1942 - 1950)
Pebble in the Sky (1950)
The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
The Caves of Steel (1953)
The Naked Sun (1956)
Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957)
Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958)
The Gods Themselves (1972)
The Early Asimov
Banquets of the Black Widowers
Puzzles of the Black Widowers
The Return of the Black Widowers
The Union Club Mysteries
The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov
The World Jones Made (1956)
The Man Who Japed (1956)
The Man in the High Castle (1962)
The Game-Players of Titan (1963)
Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)
A Maze of Death (1970)
Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970)
The Drowned World (1961) (Chapters 1-3, 9)
The Crystal World (1964/1966) (Chapters 1-5)
Hello America (1981)
Empire of the Sun (1984)
Memories of the Space Age
Running Wild (1988)
Ring Around the Sun (1952-1953)
The Trouble with Tycho (1960)
Way Station (1963)
All Flesh Is Grass (1965)
Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967)
Worlds Without End
So Bright the Vision
The Worlds of Clifford Simak
All the Traps of Earth
Over the River and Through the Woods
The Civilization Game
"A Ghoul and His Money" (1946)
M 33 in Andromeda
The Ring of Ritornel (1968) (Chapters 1-8)
An Ornament to His Profession
The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge
Borges' first book of fiction was A Universal History of Infamy. This is a collection of brief, highly fictional biographies of real life criminals and adventurers. It has nothing to do with the Rogue tradition of Hornung and Leblanc. Instead, its tales unroll Borges' complex philosophical imaginings. Many of the tales are loaded with Borges' humor. The best of these 1933-1934 tales are included in the omnibus, Borges A Reader. Borges followed this collection in the 1940's with Ficciones, his greatest collection of stories.
By contrast, "Theme of the Traitor and Hero" is a triumph, a real detective story of the first water. It was made into a beautiful color film by director Bernardo Bertolucci, The Spider's Stratagem (1970), a gorgeous film that is like taking a vacation to Italy.
"Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in his Labyrinth" (1949) is full of vivid story-telling detail. Both in plot and style, the tale is a skillful pastiche of Chesterton. It has a fascinating central image of the labyrinth, and some not bad detective deduction at the end about the significance of a labyrinth. Unfortunately, the mystery plot as a whole is not that clever.
Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, Borges' collaboration with Adolpho Bioy-Casares, lies somewhere in the middle. Most of the problems are too contrived to make really good classical detective stories. Most of the stories also contain some real ingenuity, and the collection is very much worth reading.
Borges' writing shows the systematic, logical development of ideas found in Campbell writers of the "Golden Age" of science fiction. Borges is more of a Campbellian than is sometimes realized. Borges repeatedly expressed his admiration for H.G. Wells. Wells is the writer who most influenced Campbell and his authors.
Borges' "The Immortal" (1949) likely shows the influence of John W. Campbell's "Forgetfulness" (1937), a once-famous story. SPOILERS. There are broad similarities, with a huge advanced city, now deserted, and a group of primitive people nearby. Both stories contain a similar plot twist. Both stories have the hero exploring the city, entering by an obscure passageway.
Borges' An Introduction to American Literature (1967), written with Esther Zemborain de Torres, cites Van Vogt and Heinlein as outstanding science fiction authors. They were widely viewed in the 1940's as the two leading writers for John W. Campbell's magazine Astounding Science Fiction.
In addition are those Borges stories that deal with "everything": the concept of infinite collections of objects or ideas. These include "Funes, the Memorious" (1942) and "The Aleph" (1945). These two stories by contrast, take place in real neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. They feature characters who eventually encounter the infinite during their otherwise realistic daily lives. Borges' best story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940) deals with not "everything", but almost everything: a whole planetful of information. It too has some authentic Buenos Aires atmosphere, and the striking contrast between the near-infinite and the everyday.
Some of Capek's tales in these collections are philosophical detective stories. "The Blue Chrysanthemum" is especially concerned with epistemology: how do we know things, learn things, acquire new knowledge. What limitations do we subconsciously impose on our search for truth? Capek's tale ingeniously explores the nature of such concepts. It reminds one somewhat of the philosophical tales of Borges.
"The Stolen Cactus" has some links to "The Blue Chrysanthemum". Both tales involve rare plants and plant collectors. The way the thief in "The Stolen Cactus" evades people's mental categories through disguise, is a bit linked to the epistemological concerns of "The Blue Chrysanthemum". This unexpectedly leads to a brief but interesting discussion of the nature of God, in "The Stolen Cactus", reminding us that Capek is the author of an sf tale about the Deity, The Absolute at Large.
Since the early scientific detective stories of Arthur B. Reeve and Cleveland Moffett, there has been an interest in the "word association test" and what it might reveal about our subconscious thoughts. "The Experiment of Professor Rouss" offers an interesting twist on this idea, one that combines satire with a genuine look at how the word association paradigm might break down.
Capek had a certain realism in his approach. His detectives tend either to be policemen, or ordinary people who take up amateur detection for the first time in their lives, as in "The Disappearance of an Actor". This last story is perhaps the closest Capek came to a conventional detective story; one is surprised that it has not been anthologized more often. The mystery in "The Disappearance of an Actor" is linked to what might loosely be termed the victim's mental makeup or world-view, giving the tale a bit of a cognitive or philosophical cast. "The Disappearance of an Actor" is a search for someone missing, linking it the searches for missing objects in Capek tales like "The Blue Chrysanthemum", "The Missing Letter", "The Stolen Cactus".
"The Receipt" is a nicely done old-fashioned detective story, in which clues found on a corpse are used to deduce the victim's identity. "The Receipt" anticipates "The Disappearance of an Actor", in that the sleuths have to reconstruct the mind-set and behavior of the victim and people the victim knew, to make progress and understand the crime. In "The Disappearance of an Actor" this is then used to develop a surprising mystery puzzle plot twist. By contrast, in "The Receipt" the reconstruction is used purely for purposes of trying to track down who the victim was. Both "The Receipt" and "The Disappearance of an Actor" also share imagery of a decayed corpse found long after a killing.
"The Poet" also deals with the police getting information to track down a crime. It explores different witnesses and their world views, and how this leads the witnesses to process information in different ways. This has philosophical and cognitive implications. A modernist poem is analyzed for hidden content: an approach that will be later used in The Body Goes Round and Round (1942) by Theodora Du Bois, and "Mouthpiece" (1974) by mystery-science fiction hybrid writer Edward Wellen. See also The Dark Garden (1933) and the short story "Easter Devil" (1934) in The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G. Eberhart.
"The Orchestra Conductor's Story" develops a similar them as "The Poet". In "The Poet", the creative poet "translates" everything he sees into modernist poetry. The conductor "hears" all the sounds around him as a form of music. And this awareness helps him understand things better than other people, even things said in other languages he doesn't speak. "The Orchestra Conductor's Story" is not constructed as a mystery story, though, unlike "The Poet".
"The Crime on the Farm" is a brief and mainly minor tale of murder without mystery or detection. Its most interesting part involves farm fields and the plants that grow on them, as well as the farmer's attitudes towards such fields. The tale's extensive plant imagery links it to Capek botany mysteries like "The Blue Chrysanthemum" and "The Stolen Cactus".
"The Fall of the House of Voticky" is a fair play mystery story, but one with an unusual structure. Capek's series sleuth policeman Dr. Mejzlik is asked to solve a mystery. But the mystery is a historical one. Events in the 1400's are known only from a few scraps of information; Dr. Mejzlik is asked to reconstruct them from these bits of knowledge. Dr. Mejzlik uses deduction, and also some guesswork he subjects to Occam's Razor. This whole structure for a mystery is highly unusual in detective fiction. The mystery involves a puzzle of who killed a certain victim and why. But it goes beyond that to the riddle of explaining all the confusing pieces of information about the case, and reconstructing now forgotten events.
Both intriguing and annoying are sketches in which Capek propounds a mystery, then fails to provide a solution. Such solutionless mysteries include: "Dr. Mejzlik's Case", "Footprints", "The Old Jailbird's Story". Capek tries to milk these situations for philosophical profundity, but mainly they seem a cheat. "Footprints" is a variation on a much better story Capek wrote earlier, "The Footprint" (1917), found in the collection Toward the Radical Center. "The Footprint" explores more possible solutions for its impossibility, before deciding that none of them would work. These ideas are interesting. Then, "The Footprint" suggests some non-trivial philosophical concepts. "The Footprint" does not concentrate on the alleged "ux-explainability" of the impossible footprint. Instead, it develops a metaphor about ideas are which are unconnected from the great bulk of other ideas, just as the mysterious footprint is not connected to a known cause.
"The Stolen Murder" is strikingly surreal, in its odd developments. An idea Capek uses was already in use in crime stories: for example in episode 5 of Les Vampires (1915-1916), a crime movie serial directed by Louis Feuillade. But Capek uses this idea to develop something original: a whole "collapse or transformation of reality". Actual reality, and how reality "officially" looks, become different, midway through the tale. Perhaps this relates a little bit to the cognitive ideas of "The Blue Chrysanthemum", where people have to think outside of standard categories.
"The Little Countess" is a burlesque of spy stories. But the details of the comic parody are also used to create a puzzle plot, mystifying the narrator and reader about what is going on. The narrator-sleuth goes through several stages in understanding the events.
Much of R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) satirizes industry and the industrial age. The robots are artificially made humans, created purely to be workers. And they are themselves designed according to industrial principles. They are what industry would design and manufacture, if it could replace human workers by a "better" product: better by the standards of modern factory production. Capek develops a large amount of science fictional detail in his picture of the robots, their origin, manufacture and behavior. And most of this detail is logically based in the values and needs of industrial manufacture.
Capek shows modern commerce leading to horrible, unexpected results. The robots are created by the methods and standards of industrial capitalism; they are made in huge numbers by inexorable demands of their economic impact - but everything leads to disaster. Reading the play today, it is hard not to think about global warning, and the economic forces that keep promoting it.
Capek returned to the theme of commerce as a powerful force running roughshod over humans values in other works. The short fantasy "The Five Loaves" (1937) in Toward the Radical Center satirizes commercial goals destroying Christian values. It is an imaginative and chilling tale.
None of the Boucher novels I have read, considered as fair play, puzzle plot detective stories, reach the heights of his mystery short fiction collected in Exeunt Murderers. These are general purpose mystery stories in the Ellery Queen tradition, not impossible crime tales, and are outstandingly plotted.
Boucher's short tales are persistent users of that EQ convention, the dying message. And variations on the dying message, in which the detective has to find hidden meanings or obscure clues, in a piece of text. These are not "dying" messages, strictly speaking, but are closely related.
Boucher is generally undervalued, both as a mystery writer and as a science fiction author. Many people in both fields think of him in his later years, when he functioned mainly as an sf editor and mystery critic. He left a reputation for both personal kindness and literary quality in these roles, with a special emphasis on the encouragement of new authors. Boucher was both the writing teacher and first publisher of Philip K. Dick, for example; Dick later dedicated his classic Ubik (1968) to Boucher's memory. But Boucher's well deserved reputation as an editor has obscured his earlier literary contributions.
Boucher had an influence on several later science fiction authors. His story "Barrier" (1942) sets forth the basic time travel scenario that will later underlay Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955). Boucher's mystery novel, The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940), seems to be a key ancestor of Philip K. Dick sf stories where reality collapses. In Boucher's tale, which is not a science fiction story, characters get involved in many strange surreal adventures, that are later explained naturally as bizarre schemes of the villain. The "feel" is remarkably similar to Dick novels, such as the strange adventures of the hero in The Man Who Japed (1956).
Boucher's series detective Fergus O'Breen first appears in The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939). This is a Golden Age novel that has everything but a really clever solution. It makes pleasant reading, till one reaches the end and discovers that there is nothing clever lurking behind all this development. Along the way there are numerous subplots focusing on the suspects. Boucher reveals that most of them are Not What They Seem To Be. This is a persistent plot gambit in his novels: Boucher will ring many changes on this theme throughout his books. Boucher includes some clever science fiction ideas in Chapter 7 of this book. This chapter also contains some of the running background information on playing cards and their collectors; more is found in Chapters 10 and 12. Boucher's novels have some Van Dine school characteristics. The settings are among the sort of intellectuals one often finds in Van Dine school writers: the playing card collectors in Knave, the mystery fans of Baker Street, the theater people in Solid Key. While Fergus O'Breen is technically a private eye, he is very intellectual, and falls into the tradition of genius amateur detective who works closely with the police. Boucher's investigations take place immediately after the crime and explore every aspect of the crime and people's lives, in the Van Dine tradition.
Anthony Boucher's works contain three impossible crime novels. One of them, The Case of the Solid Key (1941), is my favorite of Boucher's novels. But not because of the impossible crime. Rather, because it is a fascinating book about 1940's Hollywood, focusing on a bunch of young people who, like Boucher himself at the time, were trying to break into the film industry. Boucher never made it in Hollywood, by the way, but he did become a prolific writer of radio plays. The Case of the Solid Key also looks in detail at a Little Theater play production in which some of these hopefuls are involved. The actual impossible crime in Key is solid but slight.
The best parts of The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937) deal with putting on a play, and are full of allusions to and ideas about literature. Similar rich inventiveness about matters literary is found in another early Boucher tale, the satire "Threnody" (1936). And while "The Punt and the Pass' (1945) is negligible as a mystery plot, it gives a lively look at a University campus, just like The Case of the Seven of Calvary.
"The Girl Who Married a Monster" (1954) has characters who work in television, and an attempt to create a bit of an inside look at that institution too.
The early Gregory Hood radio plays deal with "celebrity culture". Hood is a society figure who has many celebrity friends, who make guest appearances in his radio plays. I confess this enthusiasm for the famous makes me uneasy. Celebrity culture doesn't seem any more appealing in the 1940's than it does today. 1940's radio was deep into celebrities: they made frequent appearances on radio programs, in a way they rarely or ever did in books or movies. Celebrities were also linked to expensive night clubs and restaurants, a venue that appears in "Murder in Celluloid".
Boucher loved party scenes, involving artists and intellectuals. Some of his most joyous works are centered around such parties: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, "Mystery for Christmas", "The Elusive Violin". The presence of artist characters links such tales to the Van Dine School tradition.
The Case of the Seven Sneezes as a whole is Boucher's poorest novel. But its opening chapter is an excellent look at a Hollywood party: one of Boucher's joyous gatherings of creative people. The representatives of old, silent era Hollywood are especially interesting. It is good to see that Boucher is knowledgeable about film history as a whole, not just contemporary Hollywood.
There are some unusual writing partnerships in Boucher: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (Chapter 14), the frame story in "Mystery for Christmas". The one in "Mystery for Christmas" gets compared to a detective partnership.
Boucher could also write about policemen, and occasionally about underworld types, who show up in "The Ghost with a Gun" (1945).
"The Adventure of the Headless Monk" and "The Adventure of the Beeswax Candle" are two radio plays from the same period, Spring 1946, that have much in common in subject matter. Both are eerie tales that pit the sleuth against sinister villains who practice the black arts, both take place on foggy or misty nights, both have creepy settings, and in both there is sinister music associated with the events: an organ in "The Adventure of the Headless Monk", a clarinet in "The Adventure of the Beeswax Candle". Such music is a natural for radio. The puzzles in the two plays are quite different, however. Boucher clearly had nothing but contempt for black magic, but he also felt that it made for an appropriately creepy background for a thriller.
Some of Boucher's work is quite racy. His first novel The Case of the Seven of Calvary is downright salty. To be blunt, I don't like this. Explicit material sinks the second half of The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars. The first half is an enjoyable, light hearted Sherlockian romp. The second half has a pair of sex crimes emerge from the suspects' past: dark and unpleasant material. "The Stripper" deals with a serial killer, and the suspects' perverse sex lives. Most of this material is not very good. Boucher was perhaps fortunate, that the puritanism of American radio seems largely to have steered him away from explicit subjects in his radio plays. The occasional exception, like the Gregory Hood radio play "Murder in Celluloid", are among his least likable radio work.
The comic elements in Boucher's novels recall those of John Dickson Carr. The events lurch between wild farce and serious crime; such an alternation of tone derives from Carr. There is also a certain self consciousness about the conventions of detective storytelling, that also recalls Carr, such as Dr. Fell's assertion in The Three Coffins (1935) that one was in the midst of a detective tale.
The characters in "The Smoke-filled Locked Room" seem to be from the far left of the Democratic Party.
Boucher would look at Communists in "Death of a Patriarch" (1943). The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) has a brief but pointed condemnation of Los Angeles' anti-Communist Red Squad, comparing it to Hitler's Gestapo (Chapter 7). There is also a discussion of Communism and the Sinclair Lewis campaign in California (end of Chapter 4), a campaign which gets a brief mention later (Chapter 14).
"The White Masters" (1946) finds sleuth Gregory Hood going after a sinister Neo-Nazi organization.
Boucher's politics are perhaps clearest and most detailed in The Case of the Solid Key (1941). His hero, sleuth Fergus O'Breen, attacks both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (Chapter 5). The book mentions the Ukrainian famine (end of Chapter 4): something that expresses anti-Stalinist politics.
A play which represents the characters' political ideals says that their philosophy is essentially the same as Gandhi's philosophy of passive resistance (Chapter 2). Such Gandhian ideas might, however, be just part of Boucher's political beliefs, rather than a central premise of them all. The novel also idolizes a man who had been a pacifist during World War I (Chapter 3).
Political action reaches a climax in The Case of the Solid Key (Chapter 12), when the good guys decide to run the theater as a cooperative.
But Boucher's left wing politics also have an eclectic aspect. The Case of the Solid Key also sympathizes with executed violent anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti (Chapter 3). So did many left-of-center people who did not share the pair's violent politics. A sympathetic playwright character uses Lillian Hellman's Days to Come (1936) as a model for one of his own play (Chapter 3). Hellman was a Communist. The character's play is left wing, although it is not explicitly Communist.
The first Nick Noble tale, "Screwball Division" (1942), includes Los Angeles homicide detective Lt. Herman Finch, a character from Boucher's The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, a novel with ties to Boucher's Fergus O'Breen series. The last tale in the Nick Noble series, "The Girl Who Married a Monster" (1954), has references to Fergus O'Breen, or at least his detective agency. These indicate that the Nick Noble tales are set in the same "universe" as the O'Breen works.
A non-series short story "Mystery for Christmas" (1943) stars sleuths Mr. Quilter and Tom Smith, characters who bear a bit of a resemblance to Agatha Christie's Mr. Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite. This story too has a frame that refers to the film studio Metropolis Pictures from The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, and its head F.X. Weinberg.
Nick Noble hangs out in a cafe on Main Street, the downtown near-slum area that served as Los Angeles' Skid Row in the 1940's.
Boucher's influence began right away, in that many of the books he recommended became winners of the Edgar awards, the annual awards for mystery fiction presented by the Mystery Writers of America. Boucher also had two of the most influential pulpits in mystery reviewing: The New York Times (for general readership) and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (for hard core mystery fans). One might also point out that Howard Haycraft was a big admirer of Boucher, so that Boucher had the sponsorship of both Haycraft and Ellery Queen, the two best known American critics of the era immediately preceding his.
Boucher was often the first writer to identify famous talent. He was the first translator of Borges into English, in the 1940's, nearly 20 years before anyone else outside of Argentina was aware of his existence. He championed Ross Macdonald as the leading private eye writer of the 1950's, a dozen years before Macdonald achieved mainstream fame in 1969. One might point out that when mainstream critics took these writers up in the 1960's, that they completely failed to mention Boucher's early championing of these authors. Boucher, like all mystery critics, was treated as a non-person by the mainstream establishment.
Boucher started a tradition of separate but equal tradition of the many subgenres of crime fiction. A Boucher year-end round up of the best books of the year, will break the books down into categories such as classical puzzles, police procedurals, private eyes, suspense, spy fiction, comic mystery novels, social commentary novels, and so on, and cite the best books in each category. No one category of crime fiction will be privileged over any other by Boucher. He will suggest that good books in each subgenre are especially worthy of respect. However, Boucher will express personal affection for the classical puzzle. He will make clear that this is the most loved genre of crime fiction, by him at least, and his personal favorite. This will be presented as a personal taste, not a belief that puzzle fiction has greater objective merit than other approaches. This is a delicately nuanced approach to the proliferation of genres within mystery fiction today. It is precisely the approach that has been taken by several of today's mystery historians, such as Francis M. Nevins and Jon L. Breen.
Boucher also strongly influenced the generation of mystery reviewers that came after him. Today's large annual convention of mystery fans is called the Bouchercon. Today's critic for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Jon L. Breen, writes in a format recognizably similar to Boucher's, and Breen's yearly round-ups in the Mystery Scene annuals recall Boucher's. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's 1001 Midnights (1986) is a huge collection of reviews of mystery novels, most of them from the post-1941 era. It is the most accessible source of information on the 1941-1985 period, and has become a de facto canon of recommended books for that era. Again and again while reading it, one is struck by the fact that many of the books covered in it were first recommended by Boucher in his reviews. The collection reflects a cultural tradition first started by Boucher himself. I cannot imagine that any of the these writers will be offended by my suggestion that they write in the tradition of Boucher. I think they will take it as a compliment.
Not all modern mystery critics are Boucher derived. Authors of large scale histories of mystery fiction, such as the great Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976), and the current Guide you are reading, were probably most influenced by earlier historians Haycraft, Queen, and their ancestor, S.S. Van Dine. I know that in my own case, I have wanted to write a history of mystery fiction ever since I read Van Dine's The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) as a child, a work I have read and reread with intense fascination ever since. The debt I owe all these earlier writers is huge. And a major strand of modern mystery criticism, the book length author biography cum critical study, is also largely independent of Boucher. Classics here include Norman Donaldson on R. Austin Freeman, Charles A. Norton on Melville Davisson Post, Francis M. Nevins on Ellery Queen and Cornell Woolrich, Jan Cohn on Mary Roberts Rinehart, Richard Layman on Dashiell Hammett, Frank MacShane on Raymond Chandler, John McAleer on Rex Stout, Patricia D. Maida on Anna Katherine Green, Roger Bonniot on émile Gaboriau, and Douglas G. Greene on John Dickson Carr.
Anthony Boucher repeatedly used a number of mystery plotting techniques, always with variations.
Many Boucher stories contain numerous plot ideas, often from the different categories below. The plot of the story is a mosaic, made up of a series of different plot gambits. It can be startling to read a brief Boucher mystery short story, and see that it has three or four plot ideas, any one of which might have served a lesser writer as the sole subject of a story.
Dying Messages. Boucher's stories are filled with dying messages, a favorite technique of an author who heavily influenced Boucher, Ellery Queen. Examples: the card in The Case of the Crumpled Knave, the victim's statement in "The Three Silver Pesos", the title reference in "QL 696.C9", "Death of a Patriarch", "The Adventure of May Tenth", the coins in "The Adventure of the Green-Eyed Murder", "The Stripper", "The Red Capsule", "The White Masters". There are also statements that are not strictly from dying murder victims, but which function in the same way: such as the identification of the thief in "Mystery for Christmas", the name clue in "Gregory Hood's First Case". The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (Chapters 11, 24) contains two small verbal phrases with more than one meaning; these puzzles also work like dying message mysteries.
The dying messages in Boucher are hard to interpret: the sleuth often comes up with more than one meaning. This adds ingenuity to the tales.
There are also stories in which the presence of a dying message is not immediately obvious, but which has to be unearthed by the detective. See "Screwball Division".
Sleuth Nick Noble in "QL 696.C9" does some ingenious meta-level reasoning about a dying message. This allows him to interpret what the massage means - without at first understanding the underlying methodology of the message.
Hidden Clues in Text. Boucher also sometimes had his sleuths uncover hidden patterns in a piece of text. This text might not strictly speaking be any sort of dying message. Still, this plot approach does have some broad similarities to the dying message problem. In Boucher, see "Crime Must Have a Stop". This approach occurs in MacHarg and Balmer's "The Axton Letters" (1910).
Ciphers. The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (Chapters 5, 8), "The Singular Affair of the Baconian Cipher" show his sleuths working out simple ciphers. In both tales, this is part of the set-up of the stories, rather than part of the finale.
The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (Chapter 8) shows how an extra clue is worked into the cipher format. It is a bit related to the dying message puzzles found elsewhere in Boucher.
Faked evidence. Killers in Boucher often fake evidence, in ways designed to implicate another person. All sorts of evidence can be faked, including dying messages. This means that plots involving faked messages sometimes intergrade with dying message plots in Boucher. Boucher could also mix phony evidence with impossible crime plots, as in "Gregory Hood, Suspect".
Boucher was especially ingenious, in coming up with reasons for his sleuths to conclude a certain piece of evidence is faked. Examples: the card and fingerprints in The Case of the Crumpled Knave, the arrow in "Gregory Hood's First Case", the hair in "The Adventure of the Sad Clown", the document in "The Out-Of-Date Murder".
The evidence for the faking can be part of an elaborate chain of reasoning, involving many aspects of a case. This chain of reasoning can become a complex dance of ideas, as in the finale of The Case of the Crumpled Knave, or the solution to "Screwball Division". The finale of "Murder Beyond the Mountains" involves meta-level reasoning about some faked evidence, linked to a second deduction identifying the killer. The mere fact that evidence has been faked, itself becomes significant, and used for deduction.
"The Adventure of May Tenth" is an unusual Boucher dying message tale, in which the message is partly real, partly faked by the killer. It offers another Boucher variation on two of his favorite plot approaches, dying messages and faked evidence.
"The April Fool Adventure" is unusual, in that we readers know the evidence is fake right from the start.
"The Strange Case of the Girl with a Gazelle" is a seemingly impossible crime, that is actually faked due to phony evidence. The tale is an unusual hybrid of impossible crime and fake evidence plot.
Deductions from real evidence. Boucher detectives do Sherlock Holmes style deductions about people from objects: the archery finger tip and bow in "Gregory Hood's First Case". The Hood radio play "The Forgetful Murderer" has deductions from unbound pages of a book found at a crime scene, and to a lesser degree, from a mysterious metal object.
Several of Boucher's Sherlock Holmes radio plays open with the sleuth making deductions about his clients: something regularly featured in Doyle's original tales. Boucher's deductions tend to be sound but simple. For example, in "The Camberwell Poisoners" Holmes deduces that since his client carries a briefcase, and is out doing business in the middle of the night, that he is probably an insurance adjuster. This play also has deductions about a dog. Other examples: "The Singular Affair of the Uneasy Easy Chair". Such deduction is discussed in The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (Chapter 12), with an example.
Locked Rooms. Locked room puzzles appear in Nine Times Nine, The Case of the Solid Key, Rocket to the Morgue, "Gregory Hood, Suspect", "The Smoke-filled Locked Room".
While some mystery writers deal with a wide range of impossible crime situations, Boucher instead seems most interested in pure locked rooms.
The solutions of Rocket to the Morgue and "The Smoke-filled Locked Room" have some broad elements in common, in terms of their basic approach. The solution in "The Smoke-filled Locked Room" is fairer and more imaginative, though.
"The Strange Case of the Girl with a Gazelle" is an impossible theft from a locked room.
"The Adventure of the Headless Monk" is a locked room murder - or more strictly, a "watched room" mystery, a common variant of the locked room in mystery fiction. Its solution would be a cheat in most circumstances. But within the context of Boucher's story, the solution is an interesting idea. The tale also benefits from its vivid storytelling.
"The Singular Affair of the Uneasy Easy Chair" is a locked room mystery. But its solution is such a cliche that it is not very interesting.
Hidden Objects. Boucher also created examples of an Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer specialty, the ingeniously hidden object. Examples: the jewels in "Mystery for Christmas", "The April Fool Adventure", "The Double Diamond". Some of the hiding places will only work within the special backgrounds of the story: see "Mystery for Christmas", "The Double Diamond".
The violin in "The Elusive Violin" is also hidden, but more by a process, than by a fixed hiding place.
"The Singular Affair of the Baconian Cipher" deals with the hiding of a man.
Strange Cars. Boucher tales have strange vehicles, sometimes with hidden drivers: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (Chapter 11), "The Adventure of the Sad Clown".
Alibis. Alibi puzzles occasionally show up in Boucher, as in "The Adventure of the Green-Eyed Murder", "The Camberwell Poisoners". Both alibi tales involve the mathematical calculation of a single time. Once the calculation is done, the sleuth knows everything about the alibis.
A look back at a previous murder case contains a very simple alibi puzzle The Case of the Solid Key (Chapter 7). It is solved right away.
A more traditional, bust-the-perfect-alibi plot shows up in the finale of The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars. This seems right out of the Freeman Wills Crofts tradition.
Tracing a crime to an apparent murder victim. This plot gambit appears in Margery Allingham's Police at the Funeral (1931). Boucher used an Allingham-like approach in a number of works: The Case of the Crumpled Knave (Chapters 23-24), "The Three Silver Pesos". In all of these works, a character's actions murder another person, long after that character's death.
In "Screwball Division", a complex chain of circumstances disguises a victim's guilt.
The complex murder in The Case of the Solid Key was planned by the victim, and was originally designed to murder someone else. The victim winds up in the middle of it, after accidentally getting killed himself. Something similar happens in "The Red Capsule". Both tales also involve a similar planned switch of identity, between killer and victim.
Multiple Villains. Another recurring Boucher approach: a tale in which more than one villain has committed crimes. The detective (and the reader) has to disentangle this, figuring which villain did what. At its crudest, in Boucher's novels The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937) and The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942), this is not very inventive, or even especially fair to the reader. But several later Boucher short works use this approach with considerable ingenuity, and a greater fairness to the reader. See "Screwball Division", "Mystery for Christmas", "The Girl Who Married a Monster", "The Three Silver Pesos".
The plots in "Mystery for Christmas" and "The Girl Who Married a Monster" seem related.
Schemes that Backfire. Ellery Queen's There Was an Old Woman (1943) looks at a "harmless" scheme that turns deadly. Boucher wrote some tales in this tradition: his Sherlock Holmes radio play "The Notorious Canary Trainer" (1945), "Like Count Palmieri" (1946).
The synopses are highly detailed. They include every aspect of the plot, from the initial set-up, to all of the sleuth's reasoning in uncovering the solution. Characters and backgrounds are defined. Some scenes are just a prose summary. But key scenes are fully dramatized, including dialogue. Dialogue that contains clues to the mystery or significant plot elements is especially spelled out in detail.
Of the three synopses, two have good enough mystery elements to be worthy additions to Boucher's canon: "The Adventure of May Tenth", "The Adventure of the Green-Eyed Murder".
Boucher was a protégé of Ellery Queen, and hence a member of the Van Dine school. This school showed a continuing interest in a more equal treatment of minorities in its fiction:
There is a tendency today for some critics to regard the Van Dine school as artificial, and the hard-boiled school of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as realistic. Be that as it may, the admirable and pioneering treatment of race by the Van Dine school contrasts with the racism of the hard-boiled writers. Hammett's The Dain Curse (1928) shows an unfortunate acceptance of the stereotypes of the day, whereas the more vicious Chandler positively wallows in hatred in The High Window (1942).
Asimov's first real novel, and his finest work in the form, Pebble in the Sky (1950) is not a mystery story, but it is a thriller. So is his next, and second best novel, The Stars Like Dust (1951).
Asimov went on to combine the sf novel with an explicit formal Golden Age murder mystery in The Caves Of Steel (1953). This landmark book is not the first sf mystery novel - Asimov's friend Hal Clement wrote Needle (1949), a well done novel which is a science fictional mystery like those in Asimov's earlier short stories - but it is the first full fledged hybrid of the traditional murder mystery and the sf novel, complete with murder case and detectives. Perhaps more importantly, it is a well plotted book, with numerous ingenious surprises and false solutions before the final truth is revealed. Asimov was especially proud of the fact that neither the mysterious situation in the novel, nor its many true and false solutions, would be possible in our 20th century world, that they were entirely enabled by and integrated with the science fictional future of the novel. The book is not merely a contemporary mystery story transposed to the future, but a work in which the sf and mystery elements are totally fused.
Asimov wrote a sequel to The Caves Of Steel, called The Naked Sun (1956). While still being a legitimate detective story, the mystery plotting elements are weaker here, while the sf elements are perhaps stronger than those in the earlier book. Asimov also wrote a series of six sf-mysteries for teenagers about outer space sleuth Lucky Starr. As Joseph Patrouch pointed out in his excellent critical study The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov, some of these have related backgrounds and mystery puzzles to The Caves Of Steel, notably Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956) and Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957).
He also published a collection of sf mysteries, Asimov's Mysteries, which show his storytelling and sf skills, but which are not distinguished as Golden Age puzzle plot mysteries.
More importantly, several of the tales in Asimov's best sf collections, Nightfall and Nine Tomorrows, contain mystery or thriller elements. The word "thriller" is perhaps a misnomer here, or at least too vague and imprecise. Asimov's tales are best described as melodramas, in which two sides of a dispute engage in an exciting struggle to achieve some practical result, and also to morally and intellectually justify their position. At their best, such as in Pebble in the Sky or "The Ugly Little Boy" (1958) in Nine Tomorrows, Asimov's melodramas are unforgettable stories.
Asimov went on to write a number of non-sf detective stories. His two mystery novels, A Whiff of Death (1958) and Murder at the ABA (1976) are terrible, but some of his later mystery short stories are ingenious. Most of Asimov's 1970's mystery tales are written in the third person, but during the early 1980's he began to experiment with building a tale around the first person narratives of different characters, a somewhat unusual technique that recalls Wilkie Collins.
Asimov made so many slighting references to his own personal literary style - or his alleged lack of it - that one is afraid that critics are going to take him at his own word. Many science fiction writers write in an elaborate, image laden, complex literary style. Examples: Bradbury, Cordwainer Smith, Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard. There is very little imagery in Asimov's work, and his literary style clearly has nothing in common with theirs. I strongly admire all of these writers' stylistic achievements. But I also think that there are other valid approaches as well. Asimov's work is written in a style that derives not from poetry, like theirs, but which is closer to the pure form of classical music. The rhythmic complexity of Asimov's prose is breathtaking. Each sentence plays its part in an elaborate over all structure, one that builds to complex climaxes like the music of Beethoven.
I wish to thank my friend, Mark L. Ricard, for suggesting that this web site take a deeper dive into the works of Isaac Asimov. Thanks, Mark!
The science fiction ideas are richest in the first two tales, which are also the best in the series: "The Singing Bell" and "The Talking Stone". "The Singing Bell" has an elaborate background of a future world full of inventions, that has succeeded in colonizing the Solar System. This is a favorite era and setting of Robert A. Heinlein; it is less common in Asimov's work, and its presence seems almost experimental for Asimov. "The Talking Stone" has a rare alien in Asimov. One suspects he was reading his friend Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (1953); Asimov's alien has a similar sf approach to those in Clement's novel. So both "The Singing Bell" and "The Talking Stone" incorporate sf subject matter that is not typical of Asimov, and both incorporate mystery forms that were new to him too, the inverted and dying message paradigms, respectively. They seem to be tales in which Asimov is deliberately stretching his range. Neither is a masterpiece or core Asimov, but both richly detailed works repay reading. The titles "The Singing Bell" and "The Talking Stone" both echo R. Austin Freeman's pioneering collection which invented the inverted detective story, The Singing Bone.
"The Key" has sf elements recalling Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sentinel", and others that recall Clifford D. Simak's Way Station (1963). This story also includes an sf device that recalls the Mule parts of Foundation and Empire. "The Key" is best in its first third, which sets up the science fiction situation. This is one of Asimov's elaborate melodramas, in which both sides of a conflict get to present their ideas in full. As is typical of Asimov's work, the many aspects of the conflict are worked out in rich detail. After this, the story mainly turns into a series of puzzles, like those to come in some of the Black Widowers tales. The puzzles are not unpleasant, but they are not as good as the science fiction in the earlier section of the story.
Although it is not an inverted detective story, "Little Lost Robot" (1947) from I, Robot shares approaches with "The Singing Bell". In the inverted finale of "The Singing Bell", the detective has to establish that the suspect has characteristics that are indicative of being the killer - and the detective subjects the suspect to a test to show this. This resembles "Little Lost Robot", whose second half consists of a series of tests that will identify and distinguish the missing robot from a large group of seemingly identical robots. In both stories, Asimov is showing ingenious tests that establish the inner, psychological and mental approach of characters have certain special characteristics.
On a level of imagery, "Runaround" (1942) from I, Robot shares approaches with "The Singing Bell". The test in "The Singing Bell" has the suspect throwing something. For different reasons, the heroes in "Runaround" test the robots' throwing ability. Structurally, these two tales have little in common. But the relationship on the level of imagery is striking. Both stories also have scenes on other worlds, on Mercury and the Moon respectively, that involve black shadows coming out from mountains that give way to regions of bright sunshine.
The mix of Solar System space travel, exotic sf artifacts and traditional mystery genres in the Wendell Urth stories anticipates Poul Anderson's "Adventure of the Martian Crown Jewels" (1958). This is an impossible crime short story, with a rich science fiction background to rival Asimov's. One suspects that Anderson was using Asimov's general approach to constructing an sf mystery, in this story.
"C-Chute" (1951) looks at humans encountering insect-based aliens in space. The most interesting part of "C-Chute" are not the aliens per se, although their social beliefs are well-handled, as in its deconstruction of war fever. Asimov shows that the aliens are behaving just as well and just as badly, as the humans in this interstellar alien Vs humans war. The rich sociological detail of the war, and the alien's behavior in it, is quite inventive and forms a substantial and original anti-war commentary.
"Kid Stuff" (1953) combines the alien-human history of "Hostess" with the insect-based alien approach of "C-Chute". "Kid Stuff" is elaborately detailed, and in theory I should like it. But actually it seems repulsively horror filled.
Asimov returns to these modes in a Black Widowers story, "Neither Brute Nor Human" (1984), a minor tale that takes some unpleasant swipes at Poe and Lovecraft, as well.
"The Talking Stone" (1955) is quite different from all of the above. It shows aliens and humans cooperating with each other, instead of being enemies, as in the other Asimov tales mentioned. The aliens resemble those of Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (1953) in that they learn science from humans, and in that the aliens' bodies are designed to live in what for humans would be inhospitable environments.
First the real mysteries: tales in which the plot contains a mysterious situation to be solved. These fall into a number of series, each related in terms of plot.
1) "No Smoking" (1974) is the first of several Asimov tales, about people whose behavior is observed, but hard to interpret. It has a miasmic quality, and it is hard to see where the story's situation is going - before detective Henry reveals the inner logic of the events.
"The Driver" (1980) also involves interpretation of an observed person. The tale has an obscure fact gimmick, like many other Black Widowers stories - but here it is worked into a real mystery plot, complete with ingenious solution. The story takes place against a background of scientific research: a common subject in Asimov's late 1950's works, such as the sf-mysteries "The Dying Night" (1956) and "The Dust of Death" (1957).
The Union Club mystery "No Refuge Could Save" (1980) also involves a man who observes job candidates professionally for his living, just like "No Smoking". This tale could be regarded as a puzzle story, being based on an obscure bit of information. But this tiny piece of knowledge is worked into a complex mystery story, a spy tale that shows some originality of approach. The tale is loaded with bits of satire, which are often rooted in paradox, just like the mystery plot of the story itself.
Asimov did not include any of these stories in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov. So Asimov apparently felt they were marginal in his work. But to me they seem like some of his best puzzle plots, and among his works which are closest to the pure mystery tradition of "baffling stories ingeniously and surprisingly explained".
All of these tales involve people under psychological observation, often in a business context. This recalls such sf-mystery tales from I, Robot as "Runaround" and "Little Lost Robot", in which humans study robots on the job, and try to understand their psychology. In both these mysteries and the robot tales, Asimov is most interested in what is going on inside people's minds. Asimov's sf-mystery Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter has sf-based observation, through a Venusian "frog".
2) "Out of Sight" (1973) deals with explaining the puzzling leakage of classified information. "The Recipe" (1990) also deals with an impossible leakage of information, and has a solution partly related to "Out of Sight". Close to these Black Widowers stories is Asimov's sf-mystery Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957). Its main mystery plot deals with hidden leakage of information. And the solution of the mystery has some points in common with the Black Widowers tales.
These stories have solutions that are somewhat related to such tales as "No Smoking" and "The Driver".
"Out of Sight" also has specific links to "Quicker Than the Eye" in the "impossible disappearance" series discussed below, having both a solution related to the latter story, and a setting in the restaurant-like dining room of a cruise ship. Like many of the disappearance stories, its solution involves the psychology of a person watching or participating in the events.
Asimov included "Out of Sight" in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov.
3) "Quicker Than the Eye" (1974) and "The Redhead" (1984) are impossible disappearance stories. Oddly enough, both take place in restaurants. This is in addition to the fact that the frame story in most of the Black Widowers tales is itself in a restaurant. "The Lucky Piece" (1990) has another small object that disappears, as in "Quicker Than the Eye". "The Lucky Piece" is unusually tricky, and has more complications than most of Asimov's impossible disappearance tales. One of his last Black Widowers tales, "Lost In a Space Warp" (1990) is another impossible disappearance, very much in the same mode. This takes place in a private home's kitchen, an environment closely related to the restaurant settings of the other tales. The last Black Widowers story (what a sad thing to say!) "The Guest's Guest" (1991) also deals with a vanishing piece of information. This time, it is lost at the Black Widowers restaurant itself.
The Union Club story "He Wasn't There" (1981) also deals with an impossible disappearance, once again from a restaurant. Its solution is less clever and plausible than the Black Widowers stories in this tradition. And the not-very-good Union Club tale "Never Out of Sight" (1983) provides a sort of absurd version of the same idea, this time set an amusement park.
Asimov included all of the above pre-1987 stories in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1987), and made clear in his commentary that he valued such stories highly. In More Tales of the Black Widowers, his commentary on "Quicker Than the Eye" aptly links it to G. K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" (1910). Chesterton's tale is rooted in the psychology of an observer, something Asimov preserves.
"The Unabridged" (1976) involves a search for a hidden object. This story has formal similarities to the impossible disappearance tales above. This object has not disappeared, strictly speaking. But like the disappeared objects, it is now in a hidden, obscure place. The story opens with a general philosophical discussion of missing and misplaced objects: this contains ideas that will recur in "Lost In a Space Warp".
Even among the real mystery tales, there are formal resemblances to Asimov's puzzle stories. For example, the impossible disappearances are presented as pure puzzles. "The Redhead" asks: "How did the redhead disappear?" This mystery is not linked to a whodunit, or unraveling some other mysterious crime situation, as it would be in a typical impossible crime story by Carr, Chesterton or Hoch. Asimov's story instead presents a pure, isolated puzzle. Still, the kind of puzzle, an impossible disappearance, is 1) one that reflects a long mystery tradition of impossible crimes 2) rooted in the actual main plot of the story. These two factors make "The Redhead" fall within the paradigm of "real mystery fiction".
Asimov liked the restaurant setting for his real mystery tales. The Black Widowers "The Woman in the Bar" (1980) and the Union Club "The Appleby Story" (1981) have such settings, although neither is an impossible crime tale like those mentioned above. Both are fairly minor among Asimov's mysteries. Both do have relationships with the above series, involving a restaurant or bar as a place of concealed contact for a clandestine organization.
4) Some of Asimov's tales deal with ingenious approaches for creating secret codes. These include "Go, Little Book!" (1972), and the Larry tale "The Key Word" (1977).
Most of Asimov's code tales were not included by him in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov.
"Go, Little Book!" also has ties to the "hidden leakage of information" kind of story. It too has scenes in a restaurant.
5) "The Lullaby of Broadway" (1974) is a sort of sequel to "Go, Little Book!". It is relatively unique within the real mysteries, with a plot that has some similarities with the earlier tale, and many differences.
"The Old Purse" (1987) is another hard-to-classify tale within Asimov's mysteries. It has some features in common with "The Lullaby of Broadway": an innocent married couple at the center of the tale, a writer and his wife, the New York City apartment house where they live, surprising but hard to explain events in that apartment house, and a solution involving somewhat similar kinds of intrigue in both stories. Some of these elements also formed a plot thread in The Caves of Steel, with Lije Bailey and his wife Jessie, and the huge futuristic New York City apartment buildings where they live.
Asimov did not include these stories in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov. In his afterwards, Asimov reveals that the initial premise of each story is based on a real life event, while his solution is fictional and made up for the tale.
6) "Can You Prove It?" (1981) deals with an attempt to establish identity. This is an unusual, innovative subject for a mystery story. The solution invokes some of the hidden information that accompanies daily life. So does the solution of the little mystery in the Union Club tale "The Magic Umbrella" (1983), which is also about trying to establish identity, this time not of a person, but of an umbrella. This latter story is most endearing for the characterization of the two battling elderly men. They reflect the similar battling conversations among the Black Widowers. "The Haunted Cabin" (1990) is another puzzle involving a mysterious establishment of identity, like "Can You Prove It?".
Asimov included both of the pre-1987 stories in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov.
Issues of identity, treated in different fashion, are also involved in such sf-mysteries as The Caves of Steel and "Little Lost Robot" from I, Robot.
7) Asimov wrote some "anti-detective stories", tales which deconstruct the conventions of the detective story, violating its norms: "The Obvious Factor" (1973), "Yes, But Why?" (1990). These have some common plot ideas in their solutions. "The Obvious Factor" especially seemed like a cheat when I first read it. No one should read these expecting fair detective tales. However, Asimov's shock effects in "The Obvious Factor" do have a scientific point, one that he memorably makes about pseudo-science.
The solution of these stories gives them some similarity to a different Asimov series mentioned above: "No Smoking", "The Driver", "No Refuge Could Save".
The robot tale "Galley Slave" (1957) also can be seen as a precursor to the anti-detective stories, in a small way. "Galley Slave" is moderately enjoyable as storytelling, being a not-bad Asimov excursion into courtroom drama, but overall the tale lacks substance. In a different way, the robot detective story "Mirror Image" (1972) also has some shared story material. "Mirror Image" has an elaborate, but somehow not very creative plot.
8) The introduction to "The Haunted Cabin" (1990) contains a real life mini-mystery that happened to Dr. Asimov. So does the entire story of "Where Is He?" (1986). Both tales are interesting, but neither of these "found" mysteries aligns closely with the main series of mystery plots that Asimov created above.
Probably the closest ancestor to Asimov's puzzle stories are "dying message" tales, and related mysteries in which sleuths have to interpret a mysterious piece of text, such as those which offer cryptic clues to buried treasure. Ellery Queen is the leading writer of dying message tales - and most of the Black Widowers stories were first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, at the direct suggestion of Ellery Queen. What seems to be the first Asimov tale to involve puzzles, the science fiction mystery "The Key" (1966), centers on both dying messages and clues to the location of a hidden treasure. It establishes Asimov's links with both of these mystery traditions.
Another work, one with more distant relationship to Asimov's writing: Lewis Carroll's A Tangled Tale (1880-1881 in magazines, 1885 in book form). This little-known but ingenious work embeds math puzzles into a fictional story. Asimov only rarely included purely mathematical puzzles or games into his tales. Asimov's Union Club mystery "Getting the Combination" (1982) is an example.
On specific puzzle-oriented Black Widowers tales:
"Friday the Thirteenth" (1975) and "The Year of the Action" (1980) are puzzles that involve both calendars and history; both are about determining ambiguous years; both look at the historical implications of those years. "The Year of the Action" involves Gilbert and Sullivan. It is hardly a mystery - but it does contain a well developed little historical essay about its puzzle, and is fun to read. Asimov had previously written two nicely-done pastiches of Gilbert lyrics: "The Foundation of S.F. Success" (1954) and "The Author's Ordeal" (1957), both in the collection Earth Is Room Enough. Gilbert is quoted by Asimov as early as "Runaround" (1942). "The Year of the Action" prophesizes the rise and re-birth of the animated film. It took awhile, but animation has been a huge business since around 1990.
"The Ultimate Crime" (1976) is a similar pure puzzle, about Sherlock Holmes and astronomy.
"To the Barest" (1979) is fun, because it gives some humorous inside looks at the Black Widowers as an institution. Its "puzzle in a will" aspects recall "The Curious Omission" (1974).
While Asimov was famous for being a religious skeptic, "The One and Only East" (1975) contains a sympathetic character who is religious. It offers a full outline of his religious practice and attitudes. Once again, this is a complex portrait of a whole way of life, that relates in form, to the portraits of new ways of life in Asimov's science fiction stories. As in many of Asimov's puzzle stories, the puzzle is barely connected to the rest of the story. The geography puzzle about "the East" has nothing to do with the religious aspects of the tale, or even the family situation of the hero. It is like a whole second story nested within the tale as a whole. "Sunset on the Water" (1986) has a geographical puzzle related to that in "The One and Only East". It also has autobiographical aspects about Asimov's love of history.
Several of the Black Widowers tales show personal sides of Dr. Asimov. "The Cross of Lorraine" (1976) offers metaphors for Asimov's fictional talent and its place in his personal life, just as the earlier sf "Dreaming is a Private Thing" (1955) did. The tale's puzzle is also unusual, in that it is a purely geometric, non-verbal riddle.
"The Family Man" (1976) deals with cognitive psychology: styles and methods of thinking. The story's puzzle is weak, unfortunately, but the discussions of thinking throughout are interesting. The discussion of "family men" versus solitary men and Henry's position on this adds to the characterization of Henry in the stories. "Middle Name" (1980) is also a pure puzzle, without real mystery in the conventional sense. It is mixed with an unusual discussion of relations between the sexes. This discussion seems related in approach to science fiction. Just as science fiction, especially Asimov's, often sets forth a sociological account of an imaginary or future world, so does this story create a detailed look at relations between the sexes in today's society.
"The Quiet Place" (1988) offers interesting metaphors for the tales of friendship between men that are so important to Asimov. It is a puzzle story, but it also offers some real detective work in its dual attempts to track down a person and a place. The story contains imagery that suggests mystical visions of peace, here linked to a place visited by the hero. This is perhaps related to the mystical visions of mental breakdown during space travel, that occur in some of Asimov's fictions. The tale has subject matter links with the story-within-a-story "The Wandering Londoner" in The Caves of Steel (Chapter 10), although that is a horror tale, while "The Quiet Place" is upbeat.
A historical note: The first Black Widowers tale, "The Acquisitive Chuckle" (1972), does not really have a detective - the solution just unfolds. It is only with the second tale that Henry firmly assumes the role of detective, which he will hold ever after. This second story is also the first tale in which Asimov realized he was writing a series: Asimov originally conceived "The Acquisitive Chuckle" as a one-shot. Also, there are only five Black Widowers in these first two stories. It is only with the third, the otherwise not-too-interesting "Truth to Tell" (1972), that math teacher Roger Halsted makes his appearance. One also notes that as far back as "Super-Neutron" (1941) Asimov was writing a tale about a men's dining club that has a guest telling it a story. So the Black Widowers have deep roots within Asimov's fiction.
"He Wasn't There" (1981) is one of the most elaborately constructed of the pure mystery Union Club stories. Asimov wrote this based on a plot contributed by Martin Gardner, well known for his "Mathematical Games" columns in Scientific American. Its New York City apartment house setting recalls such Black Widowers stories as "The Lullaby of Broadway" and "The Old Purse", but the mystery plot has a different structure than those tales.
"The Men Who Wouldn't Talk" (1980) has an uninspired puzzle gimmick. But the body of the story deals with a mass investigation at a prison, and contains some inventive ideas. It is related to earlier mass investigations such as "Little Lost Robot" and Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter.
"Irresistible to Women" (1981), despite being in a collection of non-sf mysteries, is actually a science fiction mystery, although it is not labeled as such. Like Asimov's robot sf-mystery novels of the 1950's, it is a whodunit, with a series of suspects, from among whom the detective has to find the guilty party. This whodunit structure is rare in Asimov's post-1972 short stories. Here we have three women suspects who visit the murdered man shortly before his death: a plot set-up found in countless Ellery Queen short stories. The mystery involves cognitive science, and hence is related to the many Asimov mysteries that turn on psychology and the inner mental workings of the characters.
David Starr, Space Ranger opens with a mysterious death in a restaurant. In this it anticipates the many non-sf mysteries that Asimov would write that were set in restaurants.
Unfortunately, as a mystery David Starr, Space Ranger is weak:
There are other links between "The Hazing" and later Asimov:
Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury continues Asimov's interest in portrayals of scientific research. Here the research of Project Light builds upon the earlier discovery of the interstellar jump and subetheric space, which had been seen in "Little Lost Robot" and "Escape!" in I, Robot. As in the earlier stories, this research is viewed as a part of future history: events logically following on previous events. The way Project Light is a large scale human undertaking set in outer space recalls "Little Lost Robot". The jealousy of Cook for his superior recalls "Liar!" in I, Robot.
Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury reflects the wrong astronomical idea of its era, that Mercury only keeps one face to the sun. It does not: Mercury, we now know, revolves like every other planet. However, luckily the story does not emphasize this aspect much. Instead, the focus of Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury is how large the Sun seems when viewed from Mercury, and how much light it gets from the sun. These aspects have not dated at all. Asimov uses them to create his poetic opening chapter.
The Venusian frog aspects develop ideas Asimov first explored with The Mule in The Foundation Trilogy. Lucky also faces a hazing, as in the story "The Hazing", although here it does not lead to space travel or kidnapping.
Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter is also a tale of a large scale scientific program on a base in space, like "Little Lost Robot" and "Escape!" in I, Robot. We see not only people engaged in research, but a richly developed look at the results of the research, anti-gravity. Asimov had previously explored a world in which anti-gravity was in common use, in "The Singing Bell". Here he shows its initial development.
While Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn is not mainly a mystery, it is one of the best Lucky Starr novels, gripping throughout. The last three Lucky Starr novels, Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn, seem to form a trilogy. Like The Caves of Steel, they emphasize the conflict between Earth and a group of thinly populated outer planets that use robots. In all of these books, robots play a major role. These books and "The Ugly Little Boy" (1958) were the last major sf works Asimov created before the long silence, 1959 - 1971, during which he published almost no new science fiction, except for his novelization of Fantastic Voyage and a few often very short stories. So their very existence seems precious.
Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn opens with an absorbing account of space travel, to and near Saturn (Chapters 1 - 8). It involves a chase through space, as well as a vivid account of Saturn and its rings, and shows what Asimov could do when he choose to write "space opera". Everything has been imagined with both logic and detail. Like the space travel in "Super-Neutron" (1941), the space ship goes south of the ecliptic, and views a planet from its South Pole. There were good space travel scenes in the second half of Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, too. But those mainly restricted themselves to vivid descriptions about what might be seen from Jupiter's moons. In Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn, Asimov instead develops a look at space travel as a whole.
The second half of Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn deals with a political struggle. Its intrigue reminds one of the political parts of The Foundation Trilogy and Pebble in the Sky. The book has the first real look at the lives and beliefs of the Sirians, and other Outer World planets. It gives a full look at the politics of these societies. The depiction of how the Sirians regard Earth people as racially inferior is a chilling and powerful pro-Civil Rights commentary, like Pebble in the Sky. The book also shows Asimov's belief that political solutions to problems are far better than war.
Between the complex vision of space travel, and the equally full look at a series of planets and their life styles in its second half, Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn is deeply science fictional. It is a full tilt look at a possible future, an Asimov specialty.
Dua is close to what is now known as transgendered: she looks like one of the three sexes on this planet, but she really is an unusual combination of two of these three sexes.
It might be worth emphasizing, that The Gods Themselves deals very purely with "consensual relations among adults". Also, while the characters all have flaws and limitations, their relationships and sexuality are presented largely sympathetically.
Genre science fiction wrote much about gender and gay life during the 1966-1976 era. Writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany and J.G. Ballard offered many science fictional explorations of such alternative sexuality and gender. The Gods Themselves was part of this movement: an important part.
The explicitness, detail, depth of feeling and respect with which the gay and transgender characters and relationships are depicted, makes The Gods Themselves almost unprecedented. Not just in science fiction, but in human literature as a whole.
Redundancy. Asimov uses "redundancy" to make clear that these characters are LGBT:
Mystery Plot. The middle section of The Gods Themselves has mystery elements. These elements involve the beings called the Hard Ones. Both heroes Odeen and Dua wonder about the many mysterious unknown aspects of the Hard Ones' lives. The reader wonders too: readers know just as little as Odeen and Dua. At the end of the story, Odeen and Dua figure out the answers about the Hard Ones, and share them with the reader: just like detectives giving the solution at the end of a typical non-science fiction mystery. The middle section of The Gods Themselves is thus a combination of science fiction and mystery: just like The Caves of Steel and other Asimov science fiction-mysteries. However, the middle section of The Gods Themselves differs from The Caves of Steel, in that the mystery does NOT involve a murder.
The mystery in The Gods Themselves has some broad structural resemblances to the mystery surrounding the Second Foundation in The Foundation Trilogy:
This opening section is grounded heavily in science. It seems to be an example of "hard science fiction": sometimes defined as sf based on accurate science. Asimov was championing hard science fiction in his essays during this period.
Cosmic Engineering. The discussion of moving the Moon (in the last third) is in the tradition of sf tales of Cosmic Engineering. Asimov likely grew up reading such tales in pulp magazines, written by authors like Edmond Hamilton and Otto Binder.
The Gods Themselves has something of a "kitchen sink" construction: as the saying goes, Asimov seems to be "throwing everything but the kitchen sink" into the story. The book is a huge compendium of science fiction subjects and techniques, some old and maybe old-fashioned like Cosmic Engineering, others up-to-the-minute.
The book's highlight is its depiction of the New York City of the future (Chapter 5). This chapter is a parade of technical marvels. Depictions of advanced, large, fabulous cites were a standard in 1910's sf: the Last Redout of humanity in the future in The Night Land (1912) by William Hope Hodgson, the advanced civilization on Venus in Homer Eon Flint's "The Queen of Life" (1919).
Gernsback's New York City anticipates the futuristic city Trantor in Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951) and the future New York City in The Caves of Steel (1953). Both Asimov and Gernsback have elevators leading to the roofs of buildings, where one can stare out and see immense vistas. The "routing goods" technology in Gernsback perhaps finds an echo in the different "routing people" technology in the opening of Foundation.
Much of the description of Gernsback's New York centers on light. We get an early look at the solar power plants that provide energy to the city. And the chapter concludes with a full scale "light show" showing the city at night. The depictions of light have a "visionary" quality that recalls the work of William Hope Hodgson. They use color, also recalling Hodgson.
The depiction of New York City streets (Chapter 4) shows that electric vehicles have replaced gas-powered cars. Electric vehicles also appear in the non-science-fiction detective story "The Man Higher Up" (1909) by William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer. In Ralph 124C41+, pedestrians are speeded along by the electric-motor roller skates they wear, called "coasters". Both the coasters and the electric vehicles are re-charged wirelessly from power sources on the streets: thus avoiding the need for charging stations.
It depicts industry as something that consumes workers, the way the evil pagan god Moloch was worshipped by human sacrifice in the Bible. This metaphor anticipates the science fiction film Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). Metropolis in turn influenced the Moloch imagery in Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl (1955).
The description of the elaborate machinery in "Liquid Sunshine" has a "visionary" quality. So do the depictions of advanced lenses and technical equipment earlier in the tale. They describe an elaborate visual experience, one that is beautiful, and which seems to evoke an almost hallucinatory intensity of visual patterns. Visionary experience was prominent in the 1910's works of William Hope Hodgson. The subject matter of Hodgson and Kuprin is different, with Kuprin being more interested in machinery. Still, the visionary feel of Kuprin definitely recalls Hodgson.
The young hero's many jobs and wandering from place to place, recall the early life of Kuprin himself. This gives "Liquid Sunshine" an autobiographical aspect. The liveliness of these descriptions perhaps reflects their roots in reality. However, the specific details of "Liquid Sunshine" are likely different from the author's own adventures.
"Liquid Sunshine" deserves praise for its sympathetic depiction of Jews. The black servants in the story are not caricatured either. Unfortunately, the tale mars these accomplishments, by having the scientist make dismissive racial remarks at the story's end.
Flint's Utopian novella "The Queen of Life" (1919), about a trip to Venus, seems quite sophisticated. It opens with a vivid space flight to that planet, followed by a well thought out look at Venus' advanced civilization. The tale is a genuine science fiction story: full of imaginative, logical detail following from Flint's basic premises. The story's many feminist angles should also intrigue modern readers.
Flint's sequels "The Devolutionist" (1921) and "The Emancipatrix" (1921) seem inferior to "The Queen of Life". The idea of humans as slaves to animals has a long tradition in sf. It shows up in "The Emancipatrix", with humans as slaves to bees.
Flint's stories about cosmic engineering, humans altering solar systems through technology, were cited as an influence by Edmond Hamilton.
Hamilton would script many mystery and science fiction tales for comic books in the 1950's and 1960's. His mysteries often centered on "mysteries of identity".
Problem and solution. "Who Goes There?" has a "problem and solution" structure. The hero, and implicitly the reader, are faced with a science fiction problem: identifying the alien. Eventually, the hero comes up with a solution, a method to identify the alien. The method used as the solution is logically based on the ideas in the story.
Such a "problem and solution" has some resemblance to the mystery tale: a riddle or puzzle, and a logical yet surprising solution based on prior events in the story.
Note that the method is the solution to the problem. The identity of the alien determined by the method is not something that the reader can deduce logically. Only the method of determining the alien is developed logically from prior story elements. This differs from most mysteries, where the identity of the culprit is the solution, logically derived from clues. By contrast, in "Who Goes There?", it is the method of finding the alien that is the problem's solution.
"Problem and solution" tales occur in other science fiction authors. They include some of Isaac Asimov's robot stories, and Gardner Fox's Adam Strange comic book science fiction series.
Lovecraft tradition. "Who Goes There?" perhaps reflects the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his followers, a tradition not always viewed as close to Campbell:
Technology. "Who Goes There?" opens and closes with pictures of the aliens' advanced technology. This gives a "super-science" dimension to the tale, recalling such Campbell stories as "Night".
The opening includes a spectacular light show: a favorite subject in science fiction.
Popularity and canons. "Who Goes There?" is far and away John W. Campbell's most famous story today. This is in part because of the numerous film versions, as The Thing. It is also perhaps because it is one of the most horror-centered of Campbell's works, thus finding an audience among the vast group of horror fans.
However, the fame of "Who Goes There?" also reflects its repeated inclusion in science fiction canons. Even before the first film version The Thing from Another World (Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, 1951), there are signs that "Who Goes There?" was becoming a canonical science fiction story. "Who Goes There?" was included in the pioneering science fiction anthology Adventures in Time and Space (1946) edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, a work that helped establish science fiction canons. Since that time, "Who Goes There?" has repeatedly shown up in key science fiction canon-building enterprises, such as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two (1973), where it was voted top place among science fiction novellas, and the All-Centuries Locus Polls (2012), where "Who Goes There?" took 4th place among novellas.
"The Roads Must Roll" (1940) is Heinlein's most impressive short story. It is richly inventive in its look at future technology leading to new social organization.
"Delilah and the Space Rigger" (1949) recalls "The Roads Must Roll", in showing a whole new technological infrastructure, and the society that develops out of it.
"Misfit" (1939) is the first of Heinlein's "big engineering projects in the future" tales, anticipating "The Roads Must Roll" and "Delilah and the Space Rigger". In both "Misfit" and "Delilah and the Space Rigger", we see the huge enterprise being built. "Misfit" also has elements of Cosmic Engineering: altering astronomical objects through human engineering, usually to benefit Mankind. Cosmic Engineering is associated with Edmond Hamilton and Otto Binder.
"Coventry" (1940), by contrast has little technology in it. It is mainly sociological. It casts a satiric look at Libertarian fantasies, contrasting them with grim realities.
Three of the stories give a vivid picture of life on a future moon colony: "The Black Pits of Luna" (1948), "It's Great to Be Back!" (1947), "The Menace from Earth" (1957).
The last two-thirds of Starman Jones are thinner. The endless political intrigues among the astrogaters are unpleasant. Worse, they lack plausibility, especially in the complete lack of built-in safety features or double checking over their calculations. This criticism has the benefit of hindsight, to be fair: safety features in software are standard in the 2000's, whereas Heinlein was trying to extrapolate in 1953!
Similarly, the photographing of the records is interesting (start of Chapter 14), but one wonders why such archiving doesn't happen automatically. In the future technology of Murray Leinster's "The Ethical Equations" (1945) for example, it likely would have.
Real knowledge of How To Do Things in Starman Jones is restricted to a few men with practical experience. They can teach young men in person. But there are no textbooks, training films, training software or encyclopedias in this future, to share knowledge on a massive scale. Modern society since the 1700's has depended on such books to spread the principles behind its industrial base. Admittedly, in the future world of Starman Jones, all professions and knowledge are highly restricted by Guilds. Still, one wonders if one is also seeing a none-too-workable prejudice in Heinlein against book learnin' and in favor of Practical Men.
So what is different about the future in "Code Three", from the 1963 United States? Mainly the high tech police vehicles, and the very high speed highways. Most of "Code Three" is devoted to pictures of all the advanced technology mounted on the giant police truck the heroes drive. Raphael shows imagination and logic, in his endlessly detailed depictions of this technology. This is the center of the story.
The high speed freeways are also logically imagined. They are visibly influenced by the advanced highways in Robert Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" (1940), one of the most famous and admired of sf stories. Heinlein broke up his roads into a series of lanes, each moving at a different speed, from slow to fast. The freeways in "Code Three" are also broken up into zones, in which cars move at different ranges of speed. Heinlein featured a corps of professional highway workers, and buildings and equipment for them; the highways in "Code Three" are similarly patrolled and maintained by a specialized Patrol.
Before either Heinlein or Raphael, Hugo Gernsback had two lanes on pedestrian sidewalks in Ralph 124C41+ (1911) (Chapter 4). The lanes were for pedestrians moving in different directions, not speeds. And Gernsback's pedestrians are on motorized roller skates he called "coasters".
The future in "Code Three" is full of constant communication, resembling a bit today's society and its in-touch members. However, communication in "Code Three" is above all the human voice saying things, transmitted by radio. Radio was THE high tech medium of the 1940's, and it wowed many authors of science fiction and scientific detective stories. It is still central in "Code Three" in 1963. "Code Three" does include a fascinating scene where information is read off metal tags by a machine, interpreted, and transmitted by radio. So Raphael was envisioning other kinds of data communication. But there is no conception of an Internet routinely transmitting every sort of text and data; rather, specialized machines are built occasionally to transmit important kinds of data such as those on the metallic tags.
The heroine is a well-developed person, in the depiction of her professional activities. This is an implicitly feminist portrait, with her working in a position of equality with the men.
"Code Three" recalls 1950's films, about California highways and vehicles:
William P. McGivern wrote "Killer on the Turnpike" (1961), a non-science fiction novella about State Police hunting for a murderer on what seems to be the New Jersey Turnpike. The highway and the police patrolling it are organized on similar lines as in "Code Three". This might not indicate that "Killer on the Turnpike" was an influence on "Code Three". It might simply mean that both stories are grounded in the reality of the US highway system in the 1960's. Both authors show mobile police vehicles talking by radio to dispatchers in fixed locations; highway entrance and exit points as key areas of possible interception; milestones used to identify locations on the highway; information connections to national crime fighting networks. Both works also feature bad weather to make the highway scenes more suspenseful.
Code Two and Death in Small Doses are examples of the era's semi-documentary school of films about elite government agencies fighting crime in a high tech world. Such films were shot in a near-documentary manner, showing how their organizations functioned in detail. One can see related ideas in prose mystery fiction like "Killer on the Turnpike" and prose science fiction like "Code Three". These works are also strongly technological.
These works are not explicitly political, but on reflection they do have a political dimension. "Code Three", "Killer on the Turnpike", Code Two and Death in Small Doses all glorify government agents and their organizations. They came from an era when patriotic Americans valued their government. After 1978, radical conservatives and libertarians would constantly belittle and demonize government. They have done everything possible to fire government employees and defame their work. These stories and films reflect the attitudes of an earlier and more practical time, when the real life achievements of government agencies were recognized and applauded.
"First Contact" (1945), traditionally Leinster's most famous tale, is interesting when discussing the alien's communication through infrared, part of Leinster's interest in communication media. The Crab Nebula parts are lively. But it is also too militaristic for comfort. Leinster sometimes depicts both the social and natural worlds as full of enemies who want to destroy each other. Sometimes, as in "De Profundis" (1945), this can be a basis for an imaginative story. But often times, it just seems depressing.
Leinster also likes portraits of societies breaking down into complete disorder. This is funny and remarkable in "A Logic Named Joe". It is less appealing in the sinister opening sections of "Sidewise in Time" (1934).
"Evidence" takes place on a run-down cattle ranch in modern day 1919 Texas, near the Mexican Border. Perhaps any story set on a Texas cattle ranch should be classified as a Western. But Western elements are not stressed. Instead, the tale seems more like a "detective story set in a rural region". The hero seems more like a folksy man of the countryside, rather than any sort of cowboy.
Mission of Gravity shows the influence of an early story by "Lee Gregory" (Milton A. Rothman), "Heavy Planet" (1939). Both deal with planets with huge gravity, and both have protagonists who are alien life forms, adapted to the enormous gavitational pull. In both, the aliens are intelligent and technological, but not as advanced as the humans who have just arrived on the planet for the first time. In both, obtaining new science and technology from the humans is a major goal of the local aliens. Clement's alien society is more idealistic than the one in "Heavy Planet", with the aliens more interested in commerce, and less in war and fighting.
Mission of Gravity is at its best in its opening chapters (1-6), when it offers a pure science fictional look at an initial exploration of an alien planet. After this point, the tale becomes more of an adventure story, with less sf invention.
Cordwainer Smith's science fiction resembles Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, in that it takes place in a far future universe that is completely different from both today's society, and the work of other science fiction writers. Both writers are also more interested in showing a future humanity, than they are in exploring alien worlds or beings. Both writers' works have aspects of the thriller, and both writers' thrillers involve melodrama, in which two sides of a moral dispute compete for their teams' success. Both writers were also scholars in their private life, Smith being a Sinologist with State Department connections. I once interviewed a State Department colleague of Smith's, and he told me that Smith was the wittiest storyteller he had ever met, a man with an amazing flow of monologue.
"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (1962) and "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (1964) are Smith's responses to the Civil Rights era. Some of Smith's most major works, they form a powerful attack against racism, and a look at the integrationist civil disobedience of the day. Like Isaac Asimov's Civil Rights novel, Pebble in the Sky (1950), they need to become much better known among general readers. "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" is set at a later time period than "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" in Smith's future history and hence was placed later in The Best of Cordwainer Smith. However, I believe "C'Mell" should be read first, to give the two tales maximum impact.
The rhythmic prose of Smith is some of the best in modern literature. His work has some of the subtlest rhythmic effects since that of Sir Thomas Browne.
In "Drunkboat" (1963), Smith incorporates large sections of Arthur Rimbaud's poem "Le Bateau ivre" (1871). "Drunk boat" is just a literal translation of Rimbaud's title. Here Rimbaud's non-rational visions are made to represent the experience of space travel. There are precedents for such hallucinatory and verbally symbolist depictions of space flight, in Isaac Asimov's "Escape!" (1945) and "I'm in Marsport Without Hilda" (1957). Smith includes other such avant-garde passages in his work, notably the opening of Norstrilia.
Smith's title is a variation on a quote from William Cowper's hymn "Light Shining Out of Darkness", the one that begins "God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform". As an Anglican, Smith presumably sang this hymn many times in church. Cowper's hymn states that "Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain. But God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain." Perhaps from here, Smith developed the sf concept of a "scanner". It is perhaps another example of a sort of pun or word play leading to creative ideas for Smith.
The Scanners as a group resemble many disparate kinds of organizations. These show Smith's interest in and creativity with social organizations that have quasi-governmental roles:
The exploited habermen are at first depicted as condemned criminals. They are called the scum of the earth, and are at first seen as just "bad" people. But gradually one becomes aware that the habermans are also drawn from "heretics": people whose views society finds intolerable. This is part of Smith's look at social dissenters and innovators. Such social dissidents are often given terrible difficulties by society in Smith - but often wind up having a deep influence on society, too. It is part of the dual vision Smith has on the importance of social non-conformists and innovators.
The Scanners sometimes communicate by light signals and other visual means. Such light signals recall a bit the "light show" in Hugo Gernsback's description of futuristic New York, in Ralph 124C41+ (1911).
The well written ending of Ria evokes the inner nature of each character in the form of music. This music all blends together and forms a hidden music of humanity, which Smith calls the Instrumentality of Mankind. It is clear that this is another name for the Tao, the hidden inner principle of reality, in Taoist philosophy. Smith evoked Taoism sympathetically in one of his last stories, "Under Old Earth" (1966), and clearly Taoist ideas were important in his work. Smith used the same name for the governing body of his far future sf tales. It is unclear whether he was already planning these sf stories, and based the name and concept in Ria on this sf government, or whether the reverse was true. I suspect the sf ideas came first. In the sf stories, the phrase "Instrumentality of Mankind" contains no musical meanings, or references to musical instruments. It refers instead to its members being the "Instruments" of humanity, carrying out their wishes, and achieving their goals. The use of the same name to refer to the Tao in Ria, and the giving this name a musical significance, seems to be kind of inspired pun. A pun created not as humor, but as an enhancer of meaning and allusion.
"The Rose" shows the possibilities of thought. It deals with many different modes of cognition: music, science, mathematics, paintings, dance, color, automatic writing, graphs of equations, paradoxes, games like chess. It deals with possible translations from one mode to another, such as mathematics to music, and structures found in both science and art.
A non-fiction work that shows many media of thought is A Computer Perspective (1973), by Charles and Ray Eames. This classic book shows the rise of computer technology. It takes a deep dive into human thought, showing how mathematics and computing permeate human history and society. It shows how human life is based on thinking. Reading A Computer Perspective and "The Rose" together will open up new insights into how human life is based in thought, including mathematics.
"The Rose" cites "Alexander's painting, Lady on a Couch, where the converging stripes of the lady's robe carry the eye forcibly from the lower left margin to her face at the upper right." (Chapter 15) Best guess: this refers to John White Alexander's painting "Repose" (1895). Both "Repose" and another famous Alexander painting "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" (1897) indeed show a striking sense of design, with interesting lines making up the composition. John White Alexander's son was mathematician James Waddell Alexander II, a founder of Knot Theory. The Alexander family themselves embodied "Science and Art".
The finale shows Weber's waltz "Invitation to the Dance" starting in the background. This is perhaps a reference to the ballet The Spectre of the Rose (1911), which used the Weber as its music. This work was produced by the famed Ballets Russes.
"The Chessplayers" (1953) is a brief comic tale, that is quite different from Harness' complex space operas. It is set in contemporary times, is barely science fiction, and offers a comic look at real life. Its overall approach recalls a notable non-sf short story, Douglass Welch's "Mrs. Union Station" (1937). Both tales offer good-natured, but pointed satire on a group of hobbyists who carry their passion to extreme lengths: model railroad enthusiasts in Welch, chess club members in Harness. Both tales are knowing "inside" looks, filled with satiric detail. Both stories are looks at what we would now call a "subculture", a sub-world filled with people with different values and activities than the world at large. The specific events in Harness' "The Chessplayers" are quite different from anything in Welch, though.
Harness frequently writes about time travel. SPOILER. Such tales as "O Lyric Love" (1985) and "The Tetrahedron" (1994) show the heroes taking on the roles and lives of real historic personages. This echoes the end of "The New Reality", in which such a role adoption happens without time travel. These stories also both look at historic Italy, as Harness points out in his introduction to "O Lyric Love".
Both "The New Reality" and "The Tetrahedron" examine famous scientists of the past. They postulate that these scientists had ideas that are now lost to modern science. This premise is implausible, looked at from stern standards of realism. But it does make for interesting sf.
"Lethary Fair" (1998) is a comedy with a trial background, like "George Washington Slept Here" (1985). It is even more burlesque and baggy-pants in tone.
There are moments in "The Rose" that foreshadow cyberpunk, especially some of the intrigue in the street. "Lethary Fair" sometimes seems to be parodying cyberbunk, especially William Gibson and the film Blade Runner (1982). "Lethary Fair" includes information transported by emplanted mind chip, like Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" (1981). And a beautiful female android, like Blade Runner. Cyberpunk featured a world that is decayed socially while technologically advanced. But cyberpunk's societies, however socially decayed, tend to feature the most advanced, glamorous cities: Gibson's work is in the Sprawl, a futuristic version of the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, while Blade Runner is inspired by Kyoto and other high tech Japanese cities. By contrast, the baggy-pants comedy of "Lethary Fair" is set in a socially decayed version of a small town in the South, full of good old boys and local characters. It is a deliciously low-rent version of cyberpunk.
"Lethary Fair" echoes Harness traditions, in its own comic way. The opening shows comic versions of how technology might assist painting, echoing "The Rose". The mental enhancement also recalls "The Rose", although in "Lethary Fair" this is technological, rather than biological as in "The Rose". SPOILERS. "Lethary Fair" includes silly comic versions of next-step-evolved humans, a constant feature of early Harness and his main influence Van Vogt. "Lethary Fair" ends with the arrival of democracy, like The Paradox Men.
"The Minority Report" recalls ideas and approaches used by Clifford D. Simak. One of the most powerful ideas in Simak's City, is a future human society in which no man has killed another for decades. In City, this is achieved through advances in human civilization: people achieving a more peaceful future. In Dick's "The Minority Report", such a future without murder has come about through technological innovation instead. While this is less idealistic, perhaps, it is still an important concept. Dick is to be congratulated for having done some original thinking about how such a society might come about and be maintained.
Simak's novella "Worlds Without End" (1956) combines the spy thriller with science fiction. Intrigue shows rival future organizations struggling for power. "The Minority Report" takes a similar approach. Dick shows a political dimension, by structuring this as a sinister military coup against a civilian government. Dick is expressing his pacifist convictions. Dick's story was published nearly a year before Simak's.
The hero of "The Minority Report" encounters or develops several different interpretations of events, over the course of the story. These different ways to see the tale's events can seem almost like "alternative realities". They emerge, seem very real, then suddenly collapse: all rather like the ways Reality itself sometimes collapses in other Dick stories.
The alternative explanations also seem like an approach derived from mystery fiction. Sleuths in mystery fiction often draw up tentative explanations of what they think might be going on. Sometimes these explanations of the tale's mysteries turn out to be true. Other times, these plausible explanations turn out to be utterly wrong, and collapse when confronted by new evidence.
I didn't like Steven Spielberg's film version of "The Minority Report". It drains all the political commentary out of Dick's story, betraying Dick's meaning. Filming "The Minority Report" as an action-and-special-effects film also seems wrong-headed. "The Minority Report" is a spy story. It could have been filmed with standard, traditional film techniques that emphasize story telling and suspense. And with little violence, action or special effects. Classic thrillers like Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969), Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967) and A Dandy in Aspic (Anthony Mann, 1968) are the sort of movies that could serve as models for an ideal film version of "The Minority Report".
The opening (Chapters 1-5, start of Chapter 6) describes a future world. It follows the strict "social science fiction" paradigm: showing how society has been transformed by a series of technological innovations and scientific discoveries. "Social science fiction" is especially associated with editor John W. Campbell and his magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Dick was trained as a writer by Anthony Boucher, who published in Campbell's magazines.
The opening draws on early stories of Dick, but greatly extending their concepts in new directions:
For all his messy personal qualities, the hero Joe Chip's job has him using technical means to investigate and measure the world around him. His job is to discover and learn the real nature of the world, rather than just guessing or judging by appearances. This links him to the job of "detective" in mystery fiction, although Joe Chip has no official detective status.
After the opening, the story moves in drastically different directions (Chapter 6).
Putting Runciter in cold-pac, recalls the way Lord Running Clam's spores are gathered up in Clans of the Alphane Moon.
The funeral hymn Dies Irae, part of the Verdi Requiem (Chapter 7), describes the Last Judgement. So does the poem quoted in "Faith of Our Fathers", Dryden's "A Song for Saint Cecilia's Day".
The helicopter beanie (Chapter 7) is probably a homage to such beanies' inventor, science fiction writer Ray Nelson. Dick and Nelson collaborated on the novel The Ganymede Takeover.
The ocean on Solaris makes highly complex geometric patterns, as an expression of its intelligence. Real life folk dancing in Eastern Europe often employs geometric patterns. See all the revolving circular forms in the Lithuanian folk dance Subatele.
Adaptations and Influence. One wonders if The Cyberiad helped inspire The LEGO Movie (2014), with its heroes being "master constructors" in a world nearly entirely made of robot parts.
The Cyberiad was made into an opera (1970) with music by Krzysztof Meyer.
"The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl's Own Perfection Led to No Good" helped inspire Will Wright's video game SimCity (created 1985, distributed 1989). This story also parallels a long tradition of simulation computer software, stretching from the 1950's to the present.
Ancestors?. Clifford D. Simak had long written about both robots, and the ability of machinery to enhance/influence artistic creativity.
Aleksandr Kuprin's "Liquid Sunshine" (1913) deals with a very large, multi-story machine. It perhaps influenced the huge machines in Lem. The young Lem worked as both a welder and auto mechanic: scenes of his heroes tinkering with machinery reflect a man who has worked with machinery in real life.
The "burlesque of fairy tales" tone of The Cyberiad perhaps recalls comics writer-artist Ed Wheelan. Wheelan made burlesques of both movie genres, in his series Minute Movies, and of fairy tales in Foney Fairy Tales. Wheelan's satire "Eyes of the Skull" (Flash Comics #18, June 1941) parodies conflict between the nations Agraria and Agressa. It perhaps anticipates the two countries in conflict in "The Trap of Gargantius".
The way the robot can manufacture objects, and pull them out of a container in his belly in "A Good Shellacking", recalls the robot in the classic sf film Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956).
Trurl's Machine. "Trurl's Machine" deals with a machine that has the wrong idea (two plus two equals seven) and which tries to force that idea on everyone else. It can be read as an allegory, about people who want to inflict bad science on the world, often for political motives:
The Trap of Gargantius. "The Trap of Gargantius" creates a detailed future society, with an innovative condition by the end of the tale. It thus follows the Campbell tradition of "social science fiction", which looks at such innovative future or alien societies. By contrast, such Campbellian alternate societies are not present in several other stories in The Cyberiad.
The Dragons of Probability. "The Dragons of Probability" invents a complete imaginary science of probability and nonexistence. As Lem points out in his commentary, the fictitious science is inspired by the real-life physics domains of quantum mechanics and particle physics. This invented science is skillful. It deserves applause both for its creativity and inventive detail, and the accurate, insightful way it mirrors the thinking of real-life physics and mathematics.
Lem had previously invented the fictitious science of "solaristics" in his novel Solaris (1961).
Trurl's Prescription. "Trurl's Prescription" opens with a good science fiction idea. SPOILERS. It shows a large group of robots, living not on a planet, but plugged into a huge machine they have built, near a star. This is perhaps a variation on the "The Trap of Gargantius": both deal with groups of robots, in both the robots are plugged into something. The rest of the tale is less interesting, offering more word-play than substance in its sf ideas. Its core plot twist is a variation on "The Offer of King Krool".
Gay Themes. SPOILERS. The plugs in "The Trap of Gargantius" can be read as homoerotic imagery. So can the whole subject matter of uniformity imposed by militaristic discipline. Ideas of uniforms and subjection to authority return in "The Offer of King Krool".
The brief suggestion in "The Mischief of King Balerion" that the King might want to experience the body of a woman, can also be given LGBT readings.
"How Trurl built a Femfatalatron" sticks exclusively to heterosexual experience in its sex machine - and in that sense, can be read as a heterosexual story. But it also describes one male controlling and stimulating the sexual feelings of another man, using this machine. This can be seen as a gay sexual situation.
Nelson never became a best selling author. But his work was prestigious, and anthologized by such leading sf figures as Isaac Asimov, Forrest J. Ackerman, Avram Davidson, Harlan Ellison and Judith Merril. "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" (1963) was recognized as a classic long before it was filmed, as They Live (1988). The movie adds characters and incidents, but most of its science fiction concepts come straight out of Ray Nelson's story.
SPOILER. "The Great Cosmic Donut of Life" (1965) shows a future society where group marriage is common. The hero is locked in a rivalry with another man, over the heroine's affections. The tale ends with the hero getting down on his knees and proposing marriage - to the other man. It is quite startling. It is not quite "gay marriage": the two men and the heroine are now part of a group marriage of three people.
Ray Nelson has a personal web site. This includes a bibliography.
Davidson's crime fiction often attempts to evoke a society, a locale or a milieu. Some of his works are historicals: "The Importance of Trifles" (1969) recreates 1830's New York City. Others evoke a modern-day locale, such as "The Cobblestones of Saratoga Street" (1964), and its portrait of a thinly-disguised version of New York's Gramercy Park neighborhood. In addition, Davidson constructs clear, well-defined plots. These plots partly focus on crime and mystery, but they also include much of the non-crime aspects of his characters' lives and work.
Between his interest in social details, and his plotting, Davidson can be described as a "content-driven" writer. This is not too surprising: both the science fiction and mystery fields are dominated by content-driven writing. Davidson's crime fiction tends to deliver this content in a clear, fairly straightforward manner.
Davidson wrote a linked series of detective stories with fantasy solutions and puzzles, collected in The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy. The depiction of their imaginary 1900-ish Eastern European city of Bella, owes something to his portrait of 1830's New York City in "The Importance of Trifles". Both cities have a colorful waterfront full of sailors, as seen in Bella in "The Ceaseless Stone" (1975). The Eszterhazy tales are detective-solving-a-mystery in form, as is "The Importance of Trifles".
Science fiction: the Campbell tradition. Science fiction elements are most emphasized in an early section, detailing the background of the book's society (Chapter 2). This section recalls in broad terms Robert Heinlein's famous novella "Universe" (1941). The tales differ in that Heinlein's takes place on a spaceship on a long voyage from Earth, whereas Lord of Light shows us the society that has developed long after the spaceship has crashed on an alien planet. So there is no "spaceship universe" as there is in "Universe" and most of its many imitators. But both "Universe" and Lord of Light show:
This section's depiction of radical reproduction technology (in the Karma houses) changing how humans create themselves in future generations, is part of a sf tradition that includes Philip K. Dick's Dr. Futurity (1954, 1960). It also recalls the mass manufacture of humans and human body parts in Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (1920).
Mystery. Lord of Light has mystery elements. They are located in central sections of the novel (Chapters 4, 5, first half of 6). They culminate in a murder mystery. The mystery is soon solved (middle of Chapter 6). Lord of Light has a full, formal mystery puzzle. The identity of killer is a surprise, when revealed - although it is fairly easy to suspect. SPOILER. More baffling are aspects of how the killer managed to become an active presence. This two-stage process is firmly rooted in events previously depicted in earlier chapters. The use of these events by the killer is "logical but unexpected and surprising", in the best mystery puzzle tradition.
Reviving neglected ideas. The heroes in Lord of Light try to revive technological knowledge that has been suppressed by the planet's elites. The whole question of preserving and reviving knowledge that has slid or been pushed into obscurity is an important one. It appears in other sf works, such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Telling (2000).
Neglected ideas are sometimes linked to embattled minorities who speak their own languages. There are institutions attempting to preserve everything from Native American cultures to Scots Gaelic literature (see An Comunn Gaidhealach). Cultures can also be attacked politically, such as Cambodian culture under dictator Pol Pot, or Taoism in Communist China.
In addition, ideas can fall out of favor. Traditional ideas about mystery fiction and science fiction seem to be understood by far fewer people today than 50 or 100 years ago.
Meritocracy. The society in Lord of Light presents itself as a meritocracy. Its citizens are told that if they are virtuous, they will be promoted in future lives, and eventually reach the top rung and become gods. In reality, exactly the opposite is happening. People with real ability and independent ideas are being weeded out and killed. Only mediocrities with "go along and get along attitudes" prosper and get promoted.
This bears a satirical resemblance to the present day United States. The USA too is often depicted as a meritocracy, especially by members of the elites. It is unclear how good these elites actually are. How many owe their positions to coming from families of wealth and power? These questions might not have single answers, and some "elites" might be better than others. It might be, for example, that tenured college professors are genuinely highly skilled, while top Wall Street money-makers might simply be well-connected mediocrities and hacks.
Lord of Light has corrupt evil powerful people running society, battling each other and external challengers in sleazy, violent and vicious ways. This can recall Al Capone and 1920's mobsters battling for power; Nazi, Communist and Third World dictatorships with internal battles for power. It also recall Jacobean tragedies, with their corrupt aristocrats fighting each other. Zelazny wrote his master's thesis on the Jacobean play The Revenger's Tragedy (1606).
Allusions. Lord of Light bears an overall resemblance to John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1664). Both show a revolt of a high-powered being against Heaven. The hero of Lord of Light is far more moral than Milton's protagonist, however.
Lord of Light references two other poems, by descriptions rather than by explicitly naming the poets. These are "Correspondences" by Charles Baudelaire, and The Inferno by Dante. "Correspondences" does indeed anticipate the feel of Lord of Light.
The Rakasha pleading to be let out of their imprisonment, recall genies begging to be let out of bottles in The Arabian Nights.
The Irish stand-down contest recalls a similar duel in Baranca (1960), an episode of the TV series The Rifleman directed by Joseph H. Lewis.
Nikki: poetic diaries. "24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai" explicitly invokes the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Basho took part in the Japanese tradition of nikki: poetic diaries. These diaries describe beautiful events in heightened poetic language. Some describe travel, journeys their authors took. This includes the Tosa Nikki (935) by Ki no Tsurayuki, one of the first great nikkis. And Basho's classic The Narrow Road to the Deep North (circa 1689). The nikki tradition influenced Beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac's On The Road (1957), which describes his journeys in the American West. "24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai" is very much in the nikki travel diary tradition, with rich descriptions of what the heroine is viewing throughout Japan.
"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" possibly influenced Ursula K. Le Guin:
"Mouthpiece" opens with the dying, apparently meaningless ravings of a crook. Then the hero tracks down the crook's associates, to try to interpret the ravings. Such interpretation has antecedents both within and outside mystery fiction:
Meanwhile, the story's events trigger thriller elements. These seem modeled on The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) by Eric Ambler.
One can see such logically developed, highly detailed future societies in Vinge:
Campbell also liked sf stories based on science and technology. This has led some writers to claim, with some justification, that Hard Science Fiction is also a Campbell-based tradition. Still, in practice the term Hard Science Fiction has been most linked to post-1965 writers, who emerged after Campbell's heyday.
"Hard Science Fiction" and "Social Science Fiction" are two different concepts. A story can contain one without the other. Gregory Benford's "Exposures" (1981) is a good example of a story that is "Hard Science Fiction" but not "Social Science Fiction". It focus on an astronomer in the modern day USA, who makes discoveries at his observatory. There is plenty of serious science in the tale: making it "Hard Science Fiction". But there is no future society: just the typical life of contemporary America. This makes it NOT "Social Science Fiction".
Works can also be BOTH "Hard Science Fiction" and "Social Science Fiction". In other words, they can both contain much science, and develop future or alien societies. Examples include Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, and Vinge's "True Names" and "Fast Times at Fairmont High".
The mystery of the Mailman is given three separate solutions during the course of "True Names", with only the third and last being the true solution. Such mysteries with multiple solutions go back to Trent's Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley, and are also common in the later mystery writers Anthony Berkeley and Ellery Queen.
The first and third solutions are deeply science fictional. By contrast, the second explanation is one that could occur in a non-sf mystery.
A reference early in "True Names" to government organizations as "instrumentalities", is perhaps a homage to Cordwainer Smith, and his concept of The Instrumentality of Mankind.
"The Cookie Monster" starts out like a typical mystery novel of the 2000's, with a heroine getting a new, ordinary job and plunged into mild mystery from it. This is the sort of situation that could occur in standard modern detective stories. But the science fictional events that soon erupt are far from standard.
The repeated looping of the characters, recalls a bit Charles L. Harness' "Time Trap" (1948).
"The Cookie Monster" offers a devastating look at the new world of work in the USA. People with middle class dreams and middle class self-identities, discover that they are really part of an exploited proletariat. Vinge includes both the computer industry and academia in the scope of this bitter satire.
SPOILERS. The powerful heroine's request for a social outsider to investigate (and by implication, change) her society, recalls members of the Instrumentality inducing social change in Cordwainer Smith.
SPOILERS. Elements of the mystery plot recall A Variety of Weapons (1942) by Rufus King. In both books, outsiders are brought into a compound of the rich; in both similar motives are eventually revealed.
Ballard had a great period in 1980-1984 with such classic works as the novel Hello America, the story sequence Memories of the Space Age, the historical novel Empire of the Sun, such short stories as "Report on an Unidentified Space Station" and "The Object of the Attack", and the interviews collected in Re/Search No 8/9 and the essay "What I Believe".
Running Wild. Three of his works of the 1985 - 1991 period stand out. "Running Wild" (1988) is a fascinating mystery novella. This story is thematically related to "The Object of the Attack" (1984). Both deal with revolt among a group of disaffected young people against authority in contemporary Britain. Both have a mystery like format, and a similar "tone". Both are full of political and cultural allusions that give the basic plot much richness of meaning.
On its own, "Running Wild" displays Ballard's mastery of narration. Ballard is able to create climaxes and give shape to events the way a classical composer gives structure to a piece of music. The reader soon comes to hang on every word of the story, not just to find out what happens next, but because of its meaningful part in an overall narrative structural flow. Ballard has created such effects before, in stories such as "The Waiting Grounds" and "Now: Zero". But this is one of his longest and most sustained pieces of narrative flow. At each step or stage of the story, Ballard creates a very elaborate "mise-en-scène" or atmosphere, just the way a film director creates a mise-en-scène in a movie. The Ballardian technique of narration shows each mise-en-scène emerging out of the next, through a logical (and emotional) development. Step by step, through eighty pages, Ballard develops each new mise-en-scène out of the last. The constant changes in the inner structure of the mise-en-scène, and the relationships between each mise-en-scène and the next, fascinate any reader with an interest in the formal unfolding of complex structures, whether in the form of music or story or film.
The reader almost "sees" the narrative progression of the story in terms of movement, or as dance images. It awakens mental images of movement, the way the unfolding forms of classical music also do. This is a good mental metaphor, one that springs spontaneously to the brain while under the influence of the artistic experience of the story, a metaphor that seeks to capture the almost magical sense of movement or flow this story seems to provide.
Dream Cargoes. "Dream Cargoes" (1991) is a science fiction short story. It breaks new thematic ground in Ballard's work in that it deals with the conception of a new child, an image of new fertility in Ballard's work. Although "The Waiting Grounds" can also be read as the "birth" of an advanced cosmic mind.
"Dream Cargoes" succeeds as a complex piece of science fiction imagination. One should never forget that Ballard, in his own words, is "a real science fiction writer", and that creating new science fictional situations is an important component of Ballard's art.
"Dream Cargoes", like the stories in Memories of the Space Age, is related in theme and technique to Ballard's earlier novel, The Crystal World (1964/1966). All of these works feature Ballard's most elaborate verbal style, featuring complex rhythmical prose and vivid visual imagery. (So do many Ballard works not thematically related to The Crystal World.) Such beautifully written stories are deeply satisfying to read.
Report on an Unidentified Space Station. Ballard says that he remembers virtually all his dreams. "Report on an Unidentified Space Station" (1982) is based on one of Ballard's dreams. It is one of his most Borges like works, recalling Borges' "The Library of Babel" (1941).
Its image of the station filling the universe recalls the global mind filling the universe at the climax of its evolution in "The Waiting Grounds".
The characters take confusing paths through a bewilderedly laid-out station. This recalls the way the hero wanders lost through the forest in "The Illuminated Man". In both works the protagonist finds himself doubling back over his trail. Both environments are futuristic and complex.
The Enormous Space. The story "The Enormous Space" (1989) features some of Ballard's most dream like imagery. This uneven but fascinating tale holds similarities to Ballard's early story "The Overloaded Man" (1961), where the protagonist deliberately tries to abstract his perceptions away from reality, and to "The Terminal Beach" (1964), where the hero deliberately maroons himself on an island with nothing but a candy bar to eat. Here the hero maroons himself in his home.
As hunger breaks down the protagonist's sense of reality, he begins to perceive his house in a new way, "discovering" new doors and rooms he never saw before. I have exactly such experiences in dreams, where I have found and explored such new areas in the house I grew up in. Ballard's story captures this sort of dream experience with extraordinary vividness and accuracy. Although it eventually falls apart into trumped up violence in its second half, the dream experiences of the beginning stab the heart with their beauty and insight to the world of dreams.
Passport to Eternity. The best of J.G. Ballard's very early stories is the exuberantly inventive outer space fantasy, "Passport to Eternity" (written c1955, published 1962). Ballard would never write anything this "science fictional" again, with the exception of "The Waiting Grounds". "Passport to Eternity" is part of a series of raucous comic satires that run through Ballard, culminating in "The Index" and "The Message from Mars" (1992).
"Passport to Eternity" anticipates Ballard's later novels, in which well-to-do characters indulge some taboo pathology as a kind of "entertainment". Those novels tend to be mainstream works set in contemporary times, rather than the science fiction of "Passport to Eternity". Both "Passport to Eternity" and the novels tend to have much about sexual indulgence.
Prima Belladonna. This period also saw "Prima Belladonna" (1956), the first of his Vermilion Sands short story series, set in a future resort town. All of these stories deal with some futuristic art form, and "Prima Belladonna starts this pattern by focusing on singing plants.
Both of the early tales, "Prima Belladonna" and "Passport to Eternity", are comic and intellectual in tone.
The characters in the Vermilion Sands stories show an intense interest in the arts, an interest that is both intellectual and burningly personal. This interest was widespread among intellectuals in the 1956-1970 period: the era in which the tales were first published. One can see this interest in the rapt attention of the people in the art galley in the film L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960).
"Prima Belladonna" is set in the Recess, a ten-year period of reduced employment and thus enforced leisure. Many people instead devote their energies to the arts. This is a vision of a society where art is valued more than commerce, making money or economic development. Under its comic surface, this is a Utopian vision of a less materialistic society. The Vermilion Sands stories are how Ballard himself envisions the future, as he points out in the preface to the book. These stories don't preach or explicitly advocate such a less materialistic culture and society: but they show such attitudes in detail.
The Subliminal Man. The anti-materialist attitudes in "Prima Belladonna" can be contrasted with Ballard's nightmare tale of capitalist consumer society pushed to its ultimate in "The Subliminal Man", a tale that depicts work and consumption as evil force that seize control of people's lives. "Prima Belladonna" and Vermilion Sands show the Utopia that can come about through anti-materialist society; "The Subliminal Man" depicts the Dystopia of materialism and the capitalist consumer good society.
Imagery at the end of "The Subliminal Man" recalls the climax of the film Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957). SPOILERS. Both have a man climbing up to a height on a structure, then falling to his death. Both have crowds of politically disturbed people below.
The Waiting Grounds. Ballard only published intermittently throughout the 1950's. His prolific period begins in force with "The Waiting Grounds" (1959), his first great work. Everything is immensely still in the early portions of this tale. Eventually, slight movement is introduced. It gradually accelerates, and eventually the landscape begins to revolve. The whole movement is one of the great triumphs of mise-en-scène in Ballard's work. Several later Ballard stories involve the vortex of a storm: the effect like the eye of a hurricane that sweeps through the forest in "The Illuminated Man", the tornado at the end of "The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D".
"The Waiting Grounds" seems to be in the tradition of Arthur C. Clarke. It describes simple but high-tech human colonization of an alien world: a very Clarke-like subject matter. "The Waiting Grounds" has plot elements that perhaps recall Clarke's "The Sentinel" (1951). In turn, the megaliths in "The Waiting Grounds" perhaps anticipate the monoliths in Clarke's film 2001, in shape at least, if not in function. The evolution and "birth" of an evolved cosmic mind in "The Waiting Grounds" perhaps anticipate the Star Child at the end of 2001, though the parallels are not exact.
"The Waiting Grounds" does not always seem as personal or "Ballardian" as much of Ballard's work. Its science fictional background is creative, but perhaps more reflects the traditions of Clarke and science fiction as a whole, rather than Ballard himself. This is especially true of the tale's first half.
"The Waiting Grounds" involves a highly geometric construction. Such geometric architecture recurs in "The Voices of Time", with its mandala, geodesic dome, parabolic lecture hall and spiralling "folly". Geometry plays a role in "The Atrocity Exhibition", with it invocation of some real-life geometry: Enneper's models of geometric surfaces. Geometry in art and architecture is discussed in a key passage of "The Illuminated Man", contrasting rectilinear modern architecture with curvilinear forms in Baroque art. The geometry of buildings and constructions is a Ballard motif, a place where mathematics enters his writing.
"The Waiting Grounds" is also the first Ballard tale to introduce one of his complex landscapes. These elaborate environments are one of the best features of his work. They are intended to evoke states of mind.
Studio Five, The Stars. The landscape of "The Waiting Grounds" would essentially reappear in the Vermilion Sands series, starting with the second tale, "Studio Five, The Stars" (1961). This tale, with its elaborate description of Vermilion Sands, is in some ways the real start of the series.
"Studio Five, The Stars" deals with the use of computers to write poetry. While now outdated in some slight ways - the use of paper punch tape is now passé, although it is put to magnificently poetic use in the story - this is an amazingly prescient look at the future of computing. It is still one of the best and most realistic looks at artificial intelligence in science fiction.
The Last World of Mr. Goddard. Ballard wrote several stories in this period, in which the sf events of the tale allegorically depict the mental states of the protagonist. The best of these pieces is "The Last World of Mr. Goddard" (1960). This is a fantasy tale, depicting a man about to be retired.
The Voices of Time. Published the same month (October 1960) as "Goddard" is "The Voices of Time". The climax of Ballard's early fiction, it is Ballard's greatest story. It is exceptionally beautifully written, with a rich collection of imagery.
The way first plants, then the hero can perceive time, is an example of the ideas about time that run through Ballard. The crystallization in "The Illuminated Man" and The Crystal World is based on overlapping time images. Ballard ingeniously describes the same process in reverse in "The Atrocity Exhibition", where real-life images are discussed as if they were examples of the overlapping time photos in a Marey chronogram. Mathematicians frequently invoke both a function and its inverse function; the overlapping-in-time images of The Crystal World, and the reversal of this process in "The Atrocity Exhibition", are rigorous mathematical inverse functions of each other.
"The Voices of Time" has spinal imagery, with sea anemones evolving into developing a notochord: the evolutionary ancestor of the spine in vertebrates. "The Atrocity Exhibition" including the image of a trilobite, a primitive segmented animal from the ancient past, one whose segmentation reflects the segmentation that underlies the body plans of spinal creatures. The trilobite is linked to a photo of balconies on a hotel: likely also involving repeated architectural segments in a row, like the repeated segments of a trilobite.
"The Voices of Time" ends with the hero experiencing a vision involving time in outer space. "The Waiting Grounds" also concludes with a penultimate vision; both stories have epilogues that wrap things up after the vision ends. These visions have something of the feel of a mystic vision: they reveal to the hero cosmic forces shaping the universe. But neither is in fact mystic: both visions use a mechanism based in science rather than mysticism, such as the time perception in "The Voices of Time". And both show a scientific cosmos, rather than a religious revelation.
The vision in "The Voices of Time" is linked to cosmic sources in far outer space. In this it anticipates the sources of the crystallization in similar outer space regions in "The Illuminated Man" and The Crystal World.
"The Voices of Time" is filled with strange plants and animals, evolved from and different from the familiar plants and animals of today's world. These are perhaps linked to the "biomorphic" abstraction in Surrealist painting. Surrealist abstract paintings like Max Ernst's The Eye of Silence (1944) show patterns built up out of forms and shapes that might be found in human or animal bodies. They are "biomorphic", coming from Greek words "bio" meaning "life" and "morph" meaning "form": paintings based on "life forms", the shapes of body parts. Ballard choose The Eye of Silence to be reproduced on the book jacket of Ballard's novel The Crystal World. Ballard is an outspoken admirer ofd Surrealism. "The Voices of Time" explicitly evokes Surrealism in its description of the evolved animals and plants.
The evolved, surreal animals living in their vivariums in "The Voices of Time", recall the evolved, surreal orchids in their vivariums in "Prima Belladonna". All of these organisms have startling new properties, ones that be called "cognitive": they relate to how these beings think, perceive and communicate. However, the tone of "Prima Belladonna" is comic and cheerful, while that of "The Voices of Time" is nightmarish.
The mandala is a well-known symbol in several religious traditions. The one in "The Voices of Time" contains a large cross inside, lines reaching to the circular edge. This anticipates the crucifix that is so prominent in "The Illuminated Man". Christian symbolism runs through Ballard. His point of view seems to be Mainline Protestant: the minister in "The Illuminated Man" is Presbyterian, for example.
The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D. Also very beautiful is "The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D" (1967). This piece has some of Ballard's best allegory, in the scene where the hero and heroine lay down in cracks of a giant mirror. This is allegory worthy of Hawthorne. Ballard is very sensitive to postures: see the Preface to Vermilion Sands, and the finale of "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1966), which concludes when the hero assumes a final posture - a sublimely imagined end. We are used to reading stories whose climax is some colossal event; this tale suggests we should look at the most intimate parts of our personal experience. In all these stories, the posture is "lying down". This is preparatory to sleep, in human life, and reminds one of the onset of sleep at the end of "The Voices of Time".
The Wind From Nowhere. Ballard has all but disowned his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere (1961), often no longer including it in lists of his published books. Written in two weeks of vacation from his job, it is very atypical of his work of the period. Unlike them, it is written in a plain prose style, and has little poetic imagery. I found it impossible to read years ago. However, after reading Empire of the Sun (1984), I went back to it, and found it surprisingly interesting. Like Empire, it has a war, or at least a military logistics background. It shows a side of Ballard that would not emerge into the rest of his work till twenty years later. The novel eventually turns into an absorbing adventure story.
The Drought. The Drought (1964) has the best architecture of Ballard's early novels. The first half shows a journey toward a goal (in this case, the sea); the second half takes place some years later, and shows the journey back. Along the way, the characters and places of the first half return, and their fates are revealed. Ballard used an identical architecture for Empire of the Sun. This later novel draws on the architecture of The Drought, and the subject matter of The Wind From Nowhere.
"The Trouble with Tycho" shares story elements with the earlier short tale "Mirage" (1950). "Mirage" investigates mysterious life on Mars, and shares some concepts with "The Trouble with Tycho". "The Trouble with Tycho" also reflects "Hermit of Mars" (1939), with the hunters of "Hermit of Mars" anticipating the prospectors on the Moon in "The Trouble with Tycho", similar mysterious creatures around, and a trip to a remote part of the alien landscape. A much poorer story, "Mr. Meek Plays Polo" (1944), also has an ancestral element, with its "radiation moss" gathered on rocks in the Inner Ring of Saturn anticipating the equally health-giving lichen on the Moon in "The Trouble with Tycho".
Way Station is also an impressive look at non-standard sexuality. It forms a plea for tolerance for those who are sexually "different". This centers on the treatment of the Vegan characters.
"The Thing in the Stone" (1970) resembles Way Station, in starring an isolated but educated man, living alone in rural Wisconsin, but who is in touch with aliens. It also has time travel elements, that recall "Project Mastodon".
"Honorable Opponent" (1956) also reflects Cold War tensions. It moves to a comic solution that is a bit of a wish fulfillment, but which is also clever as plotting.
"Project Mastodon" (1955) is unpleasant, when time travel is envisioned as a method for providing weapons for the Cold War. Such militarism is in contrast to the Cold War solutions offered in other Simak.
"Buckets of Diamonds" (1969) is another tale in the same mode as "The Big Front Yard". Transportation goes to the future in it. It also has some interesting ideas about both technology's role in life, and the possibilities of language. This light-hearted tale has some satire about the Cold War, recalling "Galactic Chest".
"How-2" (1954) is another look at the ideas of "Skirmish", but with non-violent solutions, this time in the courts. "How-2" was published a few months after the landmark US Supreme Court decision "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka" (1954), which ordered the desegregation of US schools. Such legal approaches to integration were highly topical.
While comic, both "How-2" and "Skirmish" have a disturbing edge. One is uncomfortable about the machine imagery, which Simak develops with an uninhibited relish. One suspects that "How-2" might have influenced John Sladek's The Reproductive System (1968).
"Horrible Example" (1961) is a short but delightful tale, that builds on ideas in "All the Traps of Earth".
Both tales are constructed as science fiction mysteries: what is going on with the mysterious planet? Just as in a regular mystery, there are clues, investigation, and a solution to the mystery at the end of the story. Simak makes this explicit in "Limiting Factor". The characters are discussing the strange planetary system:
A similar mystery planet turns up in "Jackpot" (1956), but this tale is perfunctory.
"Worlds Without End" (1956) combines the spy thriller form, with science fiction. It has a bit of mystery, elements which are eventually explained. Simak has fun, coming up with science fictional versions of spy thriller paradigms, such as loyalty to dueling countries, or different teams of supporters (they include robots here). Such science fictional variants of modern day institutions, remind readers that human society is going to change: a key theme of science fiction. Way Station also opens with spy fiction elements, but they play less of a role as the tale progresses.
"Worlds Without End" continues Simak's interest in computer-aided writing. The two story-creators in the tale, George and Herb, echo the zany pair of Hollywood scriptwriters in the 1930's satirical play and film Boy Meets Girl, co-written by Samuel Spewack.
"Earth for Inspiration" (1941) is an early look by Simak, at "science fiction writing within an sf story". It does not deal with computer-aided writing. But it is a lively, inventive tale. It also deals with robots, and Earth's future history, elements that would soon be part of Simak's City. "Earth for Inspiration" was reprinted in Sam Moskowitz's anthology The Coming of the Robots (1963).
A non-science fiction look by Simak at the value of the press is found in his Western short story "Trail City's Hot-Lead Crusaders" (1944). The crusaders of the title, are newspapermen who stand up to corrupt town bosses in the old West. Simak was a newspaperman all his life, and this tale speaks to his convictions on the subject. "Trail City's Hot-Lead Crusaders" is in the anthology Westerns of the 40's: Classics from the Great Pulps (1977), edited by Damon Knight (also reprinted as 7 Westerns of the 40's: Classics from the Great Pulps). I was impressed by "Trail City's Hot-Lead Crusaders" decades ago. but a recent rereading suggests it is a fairly conventional Western tale, less creative than Simak's sf.
Way Station looks at an alien artform: works which blend abstract color images and a film-like experience. Such works recall the real-life "color music" or "abstract" films, long created by experimental animators. Simak's treatment is enthusiastic. It perhaps reflects the intense interest in avant-garde art, literature and film amnion educated people in the 1960's.
By contrast, I didn't like two Simak short stories about painters, "The Spaceman's Van Gogh" (1956), and the award-winning "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" (1980). Both seem static as story-telling, and uninteresting in their treatment of art. Both deal with solitary painters who have lived isolated lives. Both have a hero who tracks down the artist's work. Both have him finding an example of the painting, in a small, somewhat claustrophobic underground cave or burrow.
"The Civilization Game" (1958) returns to a subplot from Ring Around the Sun: humans deliberately leading archaic lifestyles. In "The Civilization Game" this is given more of a meaning and a serious purpose, in an attempt to preserve traditions that otherwise would be lost. It's a interesting idea, but one of which Simak seems to have generally negative feelings. The traditions include the arts, and also various political activities. "The Civilization Game" is one of several Simak works that suggest "bad" human traits, such as swindling and dirty dealing, might have hidden merit or survival value for humanity.
"Ogre" (1944) is a novella about an alien planet where music is composed, among other things. The tale embraces some dreadful moral and political ideas at the end: it seems to be written by Simak's Evil Twin. Probably the worst Simak story ever. Nellie the robot, does show that highly individualized robots were already part of Simak's fiction at this early date. The story appeared in January 1944, shortly before the debut of Simak's City series. Like a number of Simak's early works for John W. Campbell, it shows frighteningly powerful aliens in conflict with humans visiting their planets: see "Masquerade" (1941), "Tools" (1942), "Hunch" (1943), the last of which shares the moral failings of "Ogre". "Masquerade" has aliens on Mercury taking up human music and dancing through mimicry. These tales tend to be grim.
Both "Full Cycle" (1955) and "So Bright the Vision" are full scale sociological looks at future human societies. "Full Cycle" draws on sf premises Simak previously explored in City.
Simak would go on to look at multiple universes and their interaction in Cosmic Engineers (1939). This too is a pretty mild story, as a reading experience.
Way Station contains an approach that will recur in other Simak tales: the idea that in the future, scientific discoveries might give a factual, scientific basis to specific religious concepts. Such a development might increase spirituality and spiritual practice. But it also might change or transform the way people today view religion. It would thus be a two-edged sword. In science fiction, the future has the potential to transform everything. In Simak stories, the future can affect religion too.
Simak never became a big best-seller, or a household name celebrity. Almost all of Simak's readers were people who were interested in sf as a whole, from pulp fans in the 30's to academic specialists in sf in the 70's. He was rarely described as "transcending the genre". He was never taken up by mainstream literary critics who didn't read much sf. One guesses that he was completely unknown to most people who didn't read sf - and widely admired by those that did.
Simak's work has trenchant, far reaching sf concepts. It also has values that endear it to readers who believe sf should be literary, such as characterization, lyrical writing about nature, and a concern for human beings. Because of this, Simak was endorsed by many different schools of sf fandom, and kinds of literary taste.
Simak wrote a large number of short stories and novellas. The novellas are especially good. The novellas are concentrated in three key collections: So Bright the Vision, Skirmish, and Worlds Without End. These novellas offer much that can enhance Simak's reputation.
These are my personal picks and favorites, films I saw and like.
Please see also the science fiction and fantasy sections of my list of Best TV Shows.
Informative books on Science Fiction films:
Lab Lit (works showing science or technology in contemporary or historical settings):