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Science Fiction: A Definition | Jorge Luis Borges | Karel Capek | Anthony Boucher | Minorities and Civil Rights in mystery fiction | W. E. B. Du Bois | Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain | Charlotte Perkins Gilman | R. A. Lafferty | Ray Bradbury | Isaac Asimov | Science Laws Changing | Cognition | Sir Thomas More | William Shakespeare | John Keats | Georg Büchner | C. I. Defontenay | J.-H. Rosny aîné | Hugo Gernsback | Aleksandr Kuprin | Homer Eon Flint | Edmond Hamilton | Otto Binder | Nelson S. Bond | Ogden Nash | John W. Campbell | John Berryman | Arthur C. Clarke | Robert Heinlein | Rick Raphael | Cyril M. Kornbluth | Zenna Henderson | Alice Eleanor Jones | Robert Abernathy | Andre Norton | Murray Leinster | Hal Clement | Cordwainer Smith | Charles L. Harness | Philip K. Dick | Edgar Pangborn | Fred Hoyle | Theodore L. Thomas | Walter M. Miller, Jr. | Silvina Ocampo | Stanislaw Lem | Liu Cixin | Hao Jingfang | Ray Nelson | Avram Davidson | Ursula K. Le Guin | Roger Zelazny | Gene Wolfe | Edward Wellen | Angélica Gorodischer | Vernor Vinge | Dan Simmons | Greg Bear | Paul Di Filippo | Ken Liu | Iain M. Banks | Ted Chiang | Colson Whitehead | China Miéville | Ezra Claytan Daniels | Nino Cipri | J.G. Ballard | Clifford D. Simak

Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Films: A List

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.

Plus my articles on science fiction comic books: Superman, Adam Strange, Mystery in Space, Strange Adventures, Strange Sports Stories, The Spacehawk.

Recommended Works:

NOTE: The following stories are the ones I enjoyed reading by these authors, and recommend to others. Unlike the rest of the Guide, many of these works are not mysteries, but include the authors' fine science fiction tales too.

Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones The Aleph Borges A Reader Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (written with Adolfo Bioy-Casares) (1942)

Karel Capek

Povídky z jedné kapsy / Tales from One Pocket (1928 - 1929) Povídky z druhé kapsy / Tales from the Other Pocket (1928 - 1929)

Anthony Boucher

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)

"Vacancy with Corpse" (1946) (novella collected in anthology "Bodies from the Library 5", edited by Tony Medawar)

Exeunt Murderers

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

Science Fiction short stories:

The Compleat Werewolf

Far and Away The Compleat Anthony Boucher (also contains the stories from The Compleat Werewolf and Far and Away)

W. E. B. Du Bois

Short stories:

Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain

Short stories:

Ray Bradbury

"Yesterday I Lived!" (1944)

C. I. Defontenay

Star ou Psi de Cassiopée (1854) available in English translation as: Star (Psi Cassiopeia)

Hugo Gernsback

Ralph 124C41+ (Chapter 5)

Homer Eon Flint

The Lord of Death and The Queen of Life

Edmond Hamilton

Crashing Suns

Otto Binder

Uncollected short stories

Nelson S. Bond

The Thirty-first of February

John W. Campbell

Short stories

John Berryman

Short stories

Robert Heinlein

The Past Through Tomorrow (most of Heinlein's Future History series is contained in this omnibus) Orphans of the Sky 6 x H Starman Jones (1953) (Chapters 1-7)

Murray Leinster

First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster

Hal Clement

Needle (1949)

Mission of Gravity (1953)

Heavy Planet

Arthur C. Clarke

Earthlight (1955)

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

Isaac Asimov

I, Robot (1940 - 1950)

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

Nightfall and Other Stories The Martian Way The Rest of the Robots Earth Is Room Enough Nine Tomorrows Asimov's Mysteries The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories Tales of the Black Widowers More Tales of the Black Widowers Casebook of the Black Widowers 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 Best of Isaac Asimov

Randall Garrett

Too Many Magicians (1967)

Cordwainer Smith

The Best of Cordwainer Smith (these stories are also in other Cordwainer Smith collections, including The Rediscovery of Man)

Philip K. Dick

Solar Lottery (1955)

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)

Ubik (1969)

A Maze of Death (1970)

Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970)

Selected Stories

Stanislaw Lem

The Investigation (1959)

The Cyberiad (1965)

Ursula K. Le Guin

Planet of Exile (1966)

City of Illusions (1967)

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Dispossessed (1974)

The Wind's Twelve Quarters

The Compass Rose The Unreal and the Real: Vol.1: Where on Earth Very Far Away From Anywhere Else (1976)

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

Always Coming Home (1985)

Four Ways to Forgiveness

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories The Telling (2000)

Changing Planes

Voices (2006)

R. A. Lafferty

Nine Hundred Grandmothers Strange Doings Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? Ringing Changes The Best of R. A. Lafferty (collected 2019) Golden Gate and Other Stories Lafferty in Orbit Mischief Malicious (And Murder Most Strange) Uncollected stories

Fred Hoyle

The Black Cloud (1957)

Silvina Ocampo

Short stories:

Theodore L. Thomas

Short stories

Roger Zelazny

Lord of Light (1967)

The Last Defender of Camelot

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth

Ray Nelson

Blake's Progress (1975)

Short stories

Avram Davidson

The Investigations of Avram Davidson The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy

J. G. Ballard

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (also includes most of the tales listed below in other collections) The Voices of Time Billenium Passport to Eternity The Terminal Beach (American collection) The Terminal Beach (British collection) Vermilion Sands The Atrocity Exhibition Low-flying Aircraft The Wind From Nowhere (1961)

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

Re/Search No 8/9

War Fever

Running Wild (1988)

Clifford D. Simak

City (1944-1952)

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

Eternity Lost

Uncollected stories

Cyril M. Kornbluth

Science Fiction short stories

Mystery short stories

Zenna Henderson

The People short stories

Alice Eleanor Jones

Science Fiction short stories

Robert Abernathy

Science Fiction short stories

A.E. van Vogt

The Weapon Makers (1943)

M 33 in Andromeda

Transfinite: The Essential A. E. van Vogt The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. van Vogt

Charles L. Harness

The Paradox Men (1949, 1953)

The Ring of Ritornel (1968) (Chapters 1-8)

An Ornament to His Profession

Uncollected stories

Poul Anderson

The Corridors of Time (1965)

Short stories

Vernor Vinge

"True Names" (1981)

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

"The Cookie Monster" (2003)

Paul Di Filippo

"Stone Lives" (1985)

Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others Exhalation

China Miéville

The City & The City (2009)

N. K. Jemisin

How Long 'til Black Future Month? Short fiction

Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (2006)

Short fiction

Hao Jingfang

Short fiction

Nino Cipri

Finna (2020)


A People's Future of the United States (2019)

Science Fiction: A Definition

My personal Definition of Science Fiction: "Fiction which explores innovation in science, technology or society, substantially different from our real world, and which is set in a universe run by rational scientific laws."

Let's unpack this a little:

Please see the Wikipedia article on "Definitions of science fiction". It lists numerous definitions, many of which have much in common with my own, above.

Actual SF Tales and the Definition. Both the definitions in the Wikipedia article, and my own definition, reflect the common practice of numerous actual science fiction writers and their stories. These definitions are not, or at least not entirely, a priori prescriptions for how sf should be written. Instead, they reflect the underlying principles of countless real science fiction tales.

Obviously, there are worthwhile tales that say, mix science fiction and fantasy, and which thus do not conform to the above definition. So there are good stories that fall outside my definition, and most of the definitions in the Wikipedia.

But the big point: most science fiction tales do conform to these definitions. Maybe at least 95% of the tales in the field. So such definitions are very much worth keeping in mind. They make explicit the ideas underlying most, although not quite all, of the stories in the sf field. (Ideas in the arts do not need to cover every artwork to have value. An idea, even if it has many exceptions, can illuminate big chunks of a field, and thus be useful and valid.)

The above definition works just as well for "literary" authors of science fiction, such as Karel Capek, Margaret Atwood or William S. Burroughs, as it does for genre writers like Asimov and Heinlein. Burroughs' book Nova Express very much deals with innovations like aliens invading Earth, and "word viruses". While its literary technique is highly experimental, its content is squarely within the boundaries of the above sf definition. Writers like Capek, Atwood and Burroughs clearly saw value in science fiction paradigms, and choose to write books with science fiction as the underlying principle.

Alternate Paths. Two kinds of fiction are often published as "science fiction", but do not correspond well with most definitions of science fiction, including mine:

Both of these kinds of stories are interesting and legitimate. But the fact is, that they do not correspond well with most definitions of science fiction - or with most standard kinds of science fiction books and films actually made.

It is not clear if such tales are "really" science fiction. Maybe they are actually separate, distinct genres. If so, that is fine!

Good SF vs Bad SF. Unlike some of the Wikipedia definitions, mine is NOT an attempt to distinguish between good and bad science fiction, or to define goals toward which good science fiction should aspire. Instead, my definition simply seeks to distinguish science fiction from other kinds of literature, such as realism, fantasy or the supernatural.

Note: I very much agree that defining good science fiction is a worthwhile task. And that the definitions of people like Heinlein or Sturgeon that attempt to point to good science fiction make informative reading. My definition simply does not attempt to do this - instead, it tries to differentiate science fiction from other kinds of fiction.

Jorge Luis Borges

Borges is an unusual combination of mainstream and genre writer. An extraordinarily well read and cultured man, Borges' work is packed with literary and philosophical allusions. Yet most of it has strong ties to either mystery fiction, or science fiction and fantasy. Borges' fiction is complex and highly plotted. The plots are fully in the tradition of popular writers of mysteries and sf. Many of the stories are brilliantly ingenious. Borges' work consists of short stories and essays. While the essays tend to be critical works about some author or topic, they usually develop complex, ingenious ideas that are very similar to those in Borges' stories. A strong influence on all of Borges' work are the ingenious tales of G.K. Chesterton, with their complex, well made plots, their rich atmosphere, and philosophical allusions. Borges was also strongly influenced by Chesterton's master Robert Louis Stevenson, and by such 19th Century pioneers of mystery and sf as Poe and Hawthorne.

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.

Mystery Stories

"Death and The Compass" is an anti-detective story, where the idea is to look at all of the ingenious ways in which the author subverts the conventions of the traditional detective tale. The mystery plot is complex, but every aspect of it supports Borges' logical satire of detective fiction. One point: one element of the mystery that is never explained is the nakedness of the corpse under the cape; I suspect that this is simply Borges' homage to Ellery Queen's The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935), where such nakedness plays a role in the solution. Like his master Chesterton, and like Ellery Queen, most of Borges' mystery fiction reflects the intuitionist tradition.

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.

Science Fiction: Borges and the Campbell Tradition

Borges' solo fiction includes more science fiction than detective stories. Even "The Garden of Forking Paths" is more interesting for the sf ideas its characters discuss, than for the thriller elements that make up the story proper.

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.


Several of Borges most important works deal with mathematics, especially permutations and infinity - two not unrelated subjects. These include the stories "The Babylon Lottery" (1941), "The Library of Babel" (1941), "The Book of Sand" (1975) and the essays "The Doctrine of Cycles" (1934), "The Total Library" (1939), "Avatars of the Tortoise" (1939), "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (1942). These works take place in an abstract domain entirely created through mathematics.

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.

Karel Capek

Capek, like Borges, was a plot-oriented mainstream writer, who often turned to either mystery or science fiction in his writings.

Tales from Two Pockets

Capek published two collections of brief tales loosely linked to crime, Tales from One Pocket and Tales from the Other Pocket (1928 - 1929). They have been translated into English by Norma Comrada and published in one volume as Tales from Two Pockets (1994).

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.

"The Orchestra Conductor's Story" develops a similar theme 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.

Interpreting Modernist Literature, to Furnish Clues in a Mystery

In Capek's mystery short story "The Poet", a modernist poem is analyzed for hidden content. This approach is used in: See also attempts to understand apparently surrealist utterances in:

R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)

R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (1920) is a science fiction play by Capek. It is about machine-made workers, and invented the word "robot". It became a sensation on the world's stages in the 1920's, and made Capek famous. A more complete and faithful English translation than the earlier 1920's one is found in the Capek collection Toward the Radical Center.

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.

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher was a mystery and science fiction writer, editor and critic. There is a book-length biography and critical study of him, Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography (2008), by Jeffrey Marks. During 1945-1948, Boucher also plotted a large number of mystery radio plays. A collection of his radio mysteries, The Casebook of Gregory Hood is available from its publisher, Crippen & Landru.

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 and the Van Dine School

Boucher's novels have some Van Dine school characteristics:

Backgrounds: Intellectual

Boucher seemingly moved in every intellectual circle in California, in the 1930's and 40's, as a grad student, aspiring playwright, aspiring screen writer, critic for a political newspaper, mystery writer, science fiction writer, radio writer, practicing Roman Catholic, and classical music lover. Intellectuals from all of these areas show up in his stories, delineated with startling vividness, and much background on their life and work. One has a feeling that one is getting a first hand portrait of a real era in American life. And one that is less idealized (and whitewashed) than the portraits of New York City intellectuals in Van Dine, Ellery Queen and the Lockridges.

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.

Nine Times Nine (1940) shows the frustrating career, or non-career, of a young writer during the Depression. He keeps getting fired from whatever "starting position" writing jobs he can find. The novel doesn't seem especially enthused about the WPA or its hero's writing work there.

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 representative of old, silent era Hollywood is 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.

Backgrounds: Eerie Tales

"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: The puzzles in the two plays are quite different, however.

Backgrounds: Other

Boucher's "Coffin Corner" (1943), employs sports backgrounds just as EQ did, four years previously, in his Paula Paris series of shorts. Sports also plays a role in Boucher's radio play "Gregory Hood's First Case".

Boucher could also write about policemen.

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 Case of the Crumpled Knave

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.

Subjects: Vacancy with Corpse

The short story "The Ghost with a Gun" (1945) and the novella "Vacancy with Corpse" (1946) have subjects in common:

Both works were published several years after Boucher had stopped publishing novels.

Both Nine Times Nine (1940) and "Vacancy with Corpse" (1946) have:

Sister Ursula's unexpected skill as a cook in "Vacancy with Corpse", recalls retired film star Stella Paris' unexpected cooking expertise in The Case of the Seven Sneezes (Chapter 1).

Other Writers. Wartime housing shortages earlier played a role in The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943) by Rufus King. As in "Vacancy with Corpse", a mansion is thrown open to workers who need a place to stay.

The Halloween setting of "The Ghost with a Gun" plays a role in the mystery plot. It also recalls such holiday-set mysteries as Calamity Town (1942) by Ellery Queen.

Storytelling: Vacancy with Corpse

"Vacancy with Corpse" would make a good movie or TV film. The romance between the heroine and the investigating cop would be great for film.

"Vacancy with Corpse" has a traditional mystery setting: a mansion owned by a rich family. And traditional mystery characters: the family, including an invalid, a doctor, nurse, and male secretary. What, no lawyer?

The story telling in "Vacancy with Corpse" is logical. After two pages introducing the hero and heroine and setting up their romance, Boucher gets down to business. The heroine starts right in telling the hero something: something that does indeed turn out to be important in the case. The opening is NOT a tease: it starts at a genuinely logical starting point of the mystery plot.

The opening shows three of the main characters "on stage". And mentions five more characters, in the dialogue. All eight of these people will play a major role in the plot. Boucher tells us something clear about each of these characters, letting us readers get a good grip on who each character is. Later chapters will develop all of these characters further. But the opening gets readers off to a good start.

Sister Ursula's solution begins with a list of still-unsolved mysteries that any good solution must explain (Chapter 12). Such a "list of unsolved mysteries" is a common feature in detective fiction. And always welcome.

Sister Ursula's solution is full of clever ideas. It helps make "Vacancy with Corpse" one of Boucher's best long-form mystery works.

The Nick Noble short stories

Nine of his short stories employ Boucher's series detective Nick Noble. This character recalls Erle Stanley Gardner's Mugs Magoo, in Gardner's Paul Pry stories. Both are alliteratively named former police officers who were thrown off the force for political reasons, had tragedy strike their lives, and who subsequently declined into alcoholism.

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.

Anthony Boucher and Mystery Plot Structure

BIG SPOILERS in this section.

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. Anthony Boucher's stories are filled with Dying Messages. This is a favorite technique of an author who heavily influenced Boucher, Ellery Queen. Examples in Boucher: 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. I've dubbed this approach Textual Analysis. 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).

Boucher and Radio

The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen's Adventures in Radio (2002), by Francis M. Nevins and Martin Grams, Jr., is a detailed history of the Ellery Queen radio program, with a complete listing of all the shows. It gives an account of Boucher's involvement with the program, to which he provided plot synopses. The book reprints three of Boucher's synopses, written for the Ellery Queen radio show, but never actually used.

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".


"The Smoke-filled Locked Room" (published 1968) was written around 1950. It seems to show the influence of the best-known mainstream political novel of its day, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1946). Both works go behind the scenes in political campaigns, both contain a tough but decent and vulnerable woman political operative, who supports the career of a male politician who ultimately betrays her and what he originally stood for. Both works end in tragedy.

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 plays (Chapter 3). Hellman was a Communist. The character's play is left wing, although it is not explicitly Communist.

Boucher and Mystery Criticism

Anthony Boucher wrote a vast amount of mystery criticism, from the early 1940's till his death in 1968. His writings are the foundation of most histories of mystery fiction of that period, and he is the most influential critic in modern mystery history. Just as Howard Haycraft's Murder For Pleasure (1941) was treated as a canon-defining look at the pre-1941 era, Boucher's critical writings set the tone for modern mystery reviewing. Boucher's early mystery criticism is now available as The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary 1942 - 1947, edited by Francis M. Nevins. This 450 page volume can be ordered from its publisher Ramble House. It mainly contains brief reviews of hundreds of books and authors, including reprints of many works originally published before 1942.

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 treatment 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.

Minorities and Civil Rights in mystery fiction

Van Dine School: Pro Civil Rights. Anthony Boucher's sf story, "Q.U.R." (1943), was the one of first to describe African-Americans gaining political prominence in the future: one of them is Head of the Council that governs Earth. This is like being the modern-day President of the United States, only including all of the planet Earth. Both that story's sequel, "Robinc", and The Case of the Solid Key, give early, sympathetic portraits of gay people. All of these depictions of minorities are astonishingly liberal for their time, and probably form the high water mark of integrationist treatments of minorities in genre fiction before the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's. A later sf tale, "The Ambassadors" (1951), treats civil rights issues in an allegorical fashion, with great wit and humor. "Vacancy with Corpse" (1946) (Chapter 5) has a sympathetic character giving a speech praising tolerance and love.

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:

HIBK School. Mary Roberts Rinehart usually treated the black characters in her novels realistically, without any of the stereotypes or cheap humor some authors of the period favored. The Had I But Known (HIBK) writers of the Rinehart school often followed suit. Among Rinehart's followers, Dorothy Cameron Disney's The Balcony (1940) is especially notable for its trenchant treatment of racial issues. Leslie Ford's Murder with Southern Hospitality (1941-1942) looks at police persecution of blacks in the South. Ford's detective Colonel Primrose has a gay subtext.

HIBK writers pioneered in positive portraits of lesbian detectives:

Hard-Boiled. 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 two best-known early 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).

During the 1950's some hard-boiled writers became far more positive in depicting racial minorities:

Hard-boiled writers sometimes included gay feelings into their work. While rarely explicitly labeling such feelings as "gay", there are often vivid queer subtexts: Other Americans. Other important early treatments of Civil Rights in American mystery fiction include: The British. Some British writers were antisemitic. But others offered positive depictions of Jews: Some British writers' fiction deals positively with gays: Disabled Characters. Positive depictions of disabled characters:

Blind Detectives. My Syllabus on Mystery Fiction has a section on Blind Detectives.

Comic Books. My list of Political and Social Commentary Tales in Comic Books has much about positive presentations of minorities.

Gay Films. My list of best fiction LGBTQ Films.

TV Westerns. My list of Television Westerns on Civil Rights.

Native American Detectives. Please see (external to this site) Steve Lewis' list of Native American Detectives.

Woman Detectives. Please see (external to this site) Bob Schneider's list of Woman Detectives.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois was a scholar, famous for his non-fiction writings on race relations, history and sociology. But he also wrote fiction, including some science fiction.

The Comet: a short story

"The Comet" (1920) is an excellent post-disaster tale. It is in the tradition of Jack London's "The Scarlet Plague" (1912) and Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Poison Belt" (1913).

As in "The Poison Belt", the disaster in "The Comet" is due to an astronomical phenomenon through which the Earth is temporarily passing. In both tales, people shut up in isolated rooms survive. In "The Poison Belt" people also need oxygen tanks survive, a feature not found in "The Comet".

"The Scarlet Plague" had explored elements of class. "The Comet" looks at class as well. But its deepest looks are at race relations, with W. E. B. Du Bois offering a trenchant look at both racism and what might replace it.

It is reprinted in The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer.

Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain

Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain was a Bengali writer and advocate for women's education. Her named is spelled several different ways in English, including Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and she is also known as Begum Rokeya.

Sultana's Dream: a short story

"Sultana's Dream" (1905) is a brief but well done feminist Utopia. It anticipates Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915).

It is reprinted in The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. And is available free online.

"Sultana's Dream" is a genuine Utopia, in that it shows a good society emerging purely from a change in social organization. There are no biological changes to humans.

"Sultana's Dream" centers on one social change: allowing women to be educated and take on jobs in science and technology. It argues, quite plausibly, that such changes will improve society.

"Sultana's Dream" is unusual among Utopian fiction in that its society does NOT:

"Sultana's Dream" simply suggests that female education and employment would improve society. It doesn't require that women (or men) act selflessly, abandon individuality or all march to the same drummer. This is quite different from a good deal of Utopian writing.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the noted feminist and economist, wrote several Utopian works.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman's most famous Utopian novel is Herland (1915).

Herland shares some broad approaches with an earlier science fiction novel, A Crystal Age (1887) by W.H. Hudson. Both show:

Economist Gilman is often shrewd in her critiques of present-day male / capitalist society. She backs up her depiction with statistics and a knowing look at its drawbacks and failures. She is less convincing in her bald assertions that women and socialism would do a better job. Often times, she offers no evidence at all for her assertions.

Eugenics has a very bad history - and seen today, the advocacy of eugenics in Herland is a major failing. The book's stance, pro-eugenics and anti-abortion, recalls that of a famous film of the era Where Are My Children? (Lois Weber, 1916).


Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote only one detective novel, Unpunished (1929). Her story shows similarities with both Anna Katherine Green and Isabel Ostrander. Links to Ostrander: The basic set-up of Unpunished is not too different from Ostrander's At One-Thirty (1915). Similarities: Anna Katherine Green-like features of the story include:

R. A. Lafferty

R. A. Lafferty is a prolific writer of comic, surrealistic science fiction extravaganzas. His short stories are generally much better than his novels. He is perhaps most admired for the short stories he wrote 1966-1974. Lafferty's first four short story collections are especially important: There are also many good tales in the recent omnibus The Best of R. A. Lafferty.

"Enfants Terribles": a short story

His non-science-fiction mystery short story "Enfants Terribles" (1971) falls within our genre. It has mystery, but no science fiction whatsoever.

All sources agree that this tale was first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (June 1971). But the blog Continued on Next Rock also says the writing of the tale was finished in December 1959. It then failed to get published until 1971, over a decade later.

A Detective Story. "Enfants Terribles" is a full formal detective story. That is, it has a crime, investigation and a solution, with the case solved by detective characters. Further, "Enfants Terribles" is a good detective tale, with an ingenious, clever solution. And some not-bad reasoning by the sleuths. "Enfants Terribles" also benefits from the lively characterization, of a large cast of characters. It is thus an example of my definition of a good traditional detective story: "a clever mystery plot wrapped in good storytelling".

Schools of Mystery Fiction. "Enfants Terribles" has some features of the Van Dine School:

And features of the intuitionists, the larger group that contains the Van Dine School:

Characters. Very smart kids were a Lafferty subject: see his sf tale "The Primary Education of the Camiroi" (1966).

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury published around a dozen tales in mystery pulp magazines in the 1940's, in between his much larger careers as a fantasy and mainstream writer. "Yesterday I Lived!" (1944) is a well done tale of mystery on a Hollywood film set. Not surprisingly for Bradbury, the tale is very well written. It also has a good puzzle plot. The article on Karl W. Detzer describes how many of Bradbury's contemporaries were also publishing film set mysteries. Unlike Detzer's, which shows signs of the realist school, Bradbury's is more in a puzzle plot, intuitionist mode.

Isaac Asimov

Even before his official entry into the mystery scene in The Caves Of Steel (1953), Isaac Asimov's science fiction books often exhibited mystery technique. In particular, his great Foundation Trilogy (1941 - 1950) consists of a series of long short stories, each of which has affinities to the formal detective story. Each has a complex plot, and there is usually a surprise ending which reveals hidden aspects to the situation, just as the solution does to a mystery story. Similarly, the stories contained in I, Robot are often science fictional mysteries. A robot is misbehaving: what could possibly cause this? Investigation ultimately reveals the solution to the puzzle. Asimov also wrote non series sf works in the same mystery format, most importantly, "Hostess" (1951). There are no murders or official detectives in these tales, but their status as stories in which mysterious situations are ultimately elucidated, certainly makes them close relatives of the mystery genre. The brilliant plot complexity of the Foundation Trilogy, in particular, marks it out as one of the best works of science fiction.

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!

Wendell Urth sf-mystery short stories

The hybrid science fiction-mystery short stories in Asimov's Mysteries are a mixed bag. Five are set in the same series, and mainly employ the series sleuth Wendell Urth. The various Urth tales employ different mystery techniques: All of these tales are thus in the strict form of a subgenre of mystery fiction: inverted, whodunit, dying message. However, in each case the science fiction elements are elaborate and creative, while the mystery ideas are simple and form a brief percentage of the tale. These are science fiction tales in the form of mysteries, rather than stories whose main plot content is centered on mystery. Also, with the possible exception of "The Dying Night", none of these stories would really allow a reader to figure out the mystery solution from clues in the story: in other words, they are not "fair play".

"The Dying Night" requires the detective (and reader) to choose from among three suspects, to determine the guilty party. This is a familiar pattern in the short story whodunits of Ellery Queen.

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":

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 Dying Night" has a full sf background too: the future use of observatories built throughout the solar system. Asimov rings many changes on these: where they're built, what they watch, new science they can be applied to. It is pleasingly imagined in depth. Mixed with this is the use of a new invention Asimov dreamed up for the story: "scanners" used for scientific research.

"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 first third of "The Key" differs in approach from the rest 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.


A note on aliens in Asimov: "Hostess" (1951) looks at alien-human histories on Earth.

"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.

The Black Widowers: Real Mysteries

Asimov wrote 66 non-science fiction short stories about the Black Widowers (1971 - 1991), a group that meets once a month for dinner, and to solve a mystery or a puzzle. The tales have been collected in six volumes. The stories are armchair detective tales. Quite a few of them are disappointingly trivial, linked to some tiny point or obscure fact that serves as the gimmick. But several have more substance. I especially liked 18 stories that contain real mystery, and 12 stories that center around puzzles.

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) 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.

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.

The Black Widowers: Puzzle stories

Next the stories about puzzles. These are stories in which the Black Widowers try to solve some puzzle or riddle. There are quite a few of these, probably more than the true mysteries. I confess that I tend to be disappointed by any work of crime fiction that does not offer a good mystery to solve. But still, some of the best Asimov puzzle stories have compensations. The best puzzles can be enjoyable, with the ingenious Dr. A. offering clever sidelights to the puzzle. And the puzzles are embedded in fictional backgrounds that are sometimes well developed.

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. ("Robbie" (1940) showed science fiction films as mainstream entertainment in the future. This too came to pass.)

"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 little girl in "Robbie" is also a creator and teller of stories, both in her spaceship game-playing and her versions of fairy tales she tells Robbie.) The tale's puzzle is 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.

The Black Widowers: Development of the Series

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.

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.

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.

The Union Club Mysteries

The Union Club Mysteries (1980 - 1983) collects a series of very short mystery stories Asimov wrote; a few more appear in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov, and others are still uncollected. Each is around 2,000 words (six pages), but each manages to have a carefully developed background, a puzzle or mystery, and a solution. Like the longer Black Widowers stories, a few of the Union Club tales are real mysteries, and others are preludes to disconnected puzzles embedded in the stories. Quite a few of the tales are fun, in part because of the care Asimov devoted to the backgrounds of the stories, which are often concise but richly developed.

"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.

Mirror Image: a detective short story

As the title of Asimov's "Mirror Image" (1972) suggests, the premise of the mystery shows an elaborate symmetry. Symmetry has a long if sparse tradition in mystery fiction. Please see a list of links to my articles on Symmetry in Mystery Fiction.

The premise of "Mirror Image" is a variant on the premise of earlier "The Dying Night" by Asimov.

"Mirror Image" and "The Dying Night" share story material with Asimov's "anti-detective stories". This material is shared in an unusual way: the solutions of "anti-detective" tales like "The Obvious Factor" and "Galley Slave" anticipate the opening premises of "Mirror Image" and "The Dying Night". By contrast the solutions of "Mirror Image" and "The Dying Night" have nothing in common with the anti-detective tales like "The Obvious Factor".

The premises of "Mirror Image" and "The Dying Night" involve:

SPOILERS. Like some other Wendell Urth tales, the clue to the solution in "The Dying Night" is based in astronomy. By contrast, the clues to the solution in "Mirror Image" are grounded in human psychology.

"Mirror Image" has an elaborate, but not brilliant plot. Still, it is an enjoyable "read", as a detailed detective story.

Not Final!

"Not Final!" (1941) is an early short story. It falls into two parts. The first part looks at future civilizations on Jupiter and its moon Ganymede. These civilizations are depicted using ideas based in science, especially astronomy. This astronomy-based look at possible civilizations in the Solar System, is an approach that will return in the Lucky Starr books.

In this first part, we learn much about the aliens' home world of Jupiter. But very little about the actual aliens themselves.

The second part of the tale, is an in-depth look at a technological research project. Such research projects are a favorite Asimov subject, recurring in a number of tales.

I enjoyed the first part of the tale more than the second. But admit that Asimov's through detail in the second part is impressive.

The tale's first part contains a different research project: the attempt to understand the Jovians' language. This account is brief, but plausible. It anticipates a much more detailed tale about deciphering an alien language: "Story of Your Life" (1998) by Ted Chiang. Both works show professional linguistic scientists involved with the deciphering project.

Spell My Name with an S

Plot. "Spell My Name with an S" (1958) reflects Asimov traditions. The early sections about mathematics being used to predict the future, recall the psychohistory of Foundation. Their small scale, and emphasis on one person's future, are an interesting variant on psychohistory.

The middle sections of "Spell My Name with an S" show the working out in detail, of the prediction from the opening. This working-out is ingenious.

The structure of "Spell My Name with an S" recalls that of "Jokester". Both tales:

Social Commentary. "Spell My Name with an S" has elements of satire. The middle sections look at over-sensitive government security agents on a Big Research project. Their scruples lead to Byzantine intrigues and results.

There is also social criticism in the hero's earlier criticism of Big Science projects. This is treated less satirically than the Security aspects of the plot.

It is the hero's wife's idea for him to visit the mathematician. The wife wants to advance the husband's career. This recalls "Franchise", also with a wife telling the hero what to do for career advancement. The wife's demands in "Spell My Name with an S" are much more modest and agreeable than those of the wife in "Franchise", however. She is a sympathetic character, while the wife in "Franchise" is frightening.


A key subject in Asimov is irrationality - the loss of reasoning ability and/or consciousness:

The Hazing: a short story

"The Hazing" (1942) has plot motifs that will show up again in David Starr, Space Ranger. Both show a group of heroes who are overpowered and kidnapped by ambiguous-but-obnoxious bad guys. One of the kidnappers is a giant, fierce and low-brow, in both tales. Both groups of heroes are taken to a backward, more primitive society on a frontier planet. Both have adventures there that underscore the masculinity of the heroes, and have the heroes accepted into the rough-and-ready all-male primitive society. In both, the heroes soon are in the gaudy clothes of the frontier society. Both have all-male casts, but this is hardly unusual in Asimov. Asimov's late Black Widowers story "Police at the Door" (1990), will return in part to such material, with its intellectual hero's longing to be part of a group of working class men.

There are other links between "The Hazing" and the later Asimov short story "Escape!":

David Starr, Space Ranger

David Starr, Space Ranger (1952) is the first of a series of six juvenile science fiction mystery books Asimov wrote in the 1950's about this character. Like many books published for teen readers, they are long novellas, not really of novel length. Each concentrates on a different region of the solar system, as it was known then.

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:

Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury

Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956) is a science fiction mystery that shares imagery and approaches with "The Talking Stone" (1955). Both have: Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury is a genuine whodunit: a story in which the detective and reader have to pick the guilty party out a cast of suspects. Both the dying message and other clues offer a fully "fair play" mystery, in which it is possible to identify the villain. In this, it resembles The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun.

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.

Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957) is a science fiction mystery, that shares some features with The Caves of Steel. Both are whodunits, set in science fiction universes in which all characters are under mental surveillance. Both stories tale place in a related science fictional milieu: Earth versus advanced Outer Worlds, with robots in common use in the Outer Worlds. Perhaps more important is a common structural characteristic. Both works maintain long chains of deductive investigation that stretch over the entire book. Because of this richness of plotting, Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter is the most important of the Lucky Starr works, considered as a mystery.

The Venusian frog aspects develop ideas Asimov first explored with The Mule in The Foundation Trilogy.

Lucky 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.

"Not Final!" (1941) has elements that anticipate Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter:

Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn

Mystery Plot. Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958) is less of a science fiction mystery, than are some of the other books in the Lucky Starr series. There is no central mystery, and the book is structured as a thriller rather than as a mystery puzzle.

Closest element to a conventional mystery: there is a subplot about locating a capsule. At the end (Chapter 16), Lucky does this, using clues based on the Dying Message of a bad guy. This "dying message used to locate a hidden treasure" approach recalls "The Talking Stone" and "The Key".

There is also an interesting passage (last part of Chapter 4) in which Lucky finds hidden significance in a message from a Sirian ship. This is not a dying message, but such "text interpretation" has formal similarities to the "dying message" kind of mystery. What Lucky figures out is both logical and surprising, the way a mystery solution should be.

Bigman makes a good deduction from evidence (end of Chapter 7, start of Chapter 8). However, the evidence Bigman uses is not shared with the reader ahead of time - so there is no way for the reader to anticipate Bigman's reasoning. Still, this passage shows Bigman as having good reasoning skills.

Two Bases. SPOILERS. Two different bases are established: one by the Sirians on Titan, and a small one by Lucky and the Federation on Mimas. This recalls in broad terms, the Foundation series establishing both the First Foundation and the Second Foundation.

Claustrophile. The quarters on Lucky's spaceship The Shooting Starr are tight and small. The base established on Mimas is underground. Both reflect the "claustrophile" aspect of Isaac Asimov, a liking for tight and / or underground spaces. See also the supercomputer Multivac being underground in "Franchise". It has corridors inside of it, where people can walk around. And most famously, the underground New York City of the future in The Caves oF Steel.

Earth vs Outer Planets. 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.

Space Opera. 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.

Race Prejudice and Society. The second half of Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (Chaopters 9 -16) 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.

"Not Final!" (1941) has elements that anticipate the second half of Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn. Both:

The book 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.

Sputnik. The rivalry between the Federation and the Sirians recalls a real-life conflict: that between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Federation resembles the 1958 United States; the Sirains recall the real-life 1958 Soviets.

Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn shows the Federation as morally superior to the Sirians. By implication, it sees the United States as morally superior to the Soviet Union.

The Sirians have moved ahead of the Federation by building a Titan base. The Federation meanwhile had done nothing, and was taken by surprise. Lucky regards this inaction and neglect by his own Federation as reprehensible (last part of Chapter 8). This recalls the real-life 1957 launching by the Soviets of the satellite Sputnik. It took the United States by surprise. It was a giant shock to the US, whose inaction was seen as reprehensible by the US press.

Lucky admires an advanced robot built by the Sirians (Chapter 8). Lucky argues that since the Srians are human beings as well as a political enemy, that all humans can take pride in the robot as a technological advance. I think this argument has a real-world parallel: asserting that all humans can take pride in the advance in space travel embodied in Sputnik, even though it was launched by an enemy, the Soviets.

Lucky also argues that a good response to the threat posed by Sirian robots, is for the Federation to build even better robots. This argument also has real-world implications: it suggests that the correct American response to Sputnik, is for the US to build its own, better satellites.

The ISFDB suggests that Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn was "likely published in September 1958". Sputnik was launched on October 4, 1957. Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn was written between December 1957 and February 1958. This gives time for ideas about Sputnik to be included in Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn.

The Martian Way

"The Martian Way" (1952) is an impressive novella. It is one of Asimov's most acclaimed works.

"The Martian Way" shares subject matter with the later Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn. In fact, Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn can be considered in the direct tradition of "The Martian Way". Both:

While Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn embodies these same subjects as "The Martian Way", it always finds new and different material in its specific approaches to these subjects.

In both works, the space travel, ice and Saturn elements can be seen as "hard science fiction". However, the tales also include much about politics. These political sections are scientifically sound, but they are not primarily about science.

"The Martian Way" includes a brief but incisive look at a future Energy Crisis centered around oil and coal. Please see my list of mystery fiction and some sf dealing with Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.

The use of cartoons to explain space issues to the public in Hilder's talk, echoes the use of cartoons in the real-life science fiction film Destination Moon (1950). Asimov is on record as having seen this film when it came out.

"The Martian Way" does not include mystery elements, or a detective. This differs from a great deal of Asimov's fiction. It also lacks spy elements, another Asimov favorite. The tale has a certain linear quality, in which events are set forth is a straightforward order.

LGBTQ Themes

Some of Asimov's works can be read as embodying gay, bisexual or transgender themes:

The Gods Themselves

LGBTQ. The Gods Themselves has many LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) themes in its middle section. The aliens Odeen and Tritt are both referred to as "he", and have a gay male romance. The characters soon join in a permanent relationship: one of the earliest and most vivid accounts of a gay marriage in literature.

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, Thomas M. Disch 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 LGBTQ:

Using a term like "queer" is a literary technique that helps make clear to readers what is going on. It is redundant - we can also tell from the plot that she is transgendered. But using "queer" helps clue readers in. This is like newspaper stories that tell a reader everything three times, a standard technique in reporting. It may sound unnecessary. But in practice, redundancy really helps most people, myself included, to understand what they are reading. Film critic David Bordwell has written about the use of redundancy in Hollywood films, that helps viewers understand the stories.

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:

Hard Science Fiction. This opening section of The Gods Themselves is grounded heavily in science. It seems to be an example of "hard science fiction".

Confusingly, "hard sf" is frequently defined in a number of ways, that actually refer to distinct concepts:

The first section of The Gods Themselves satisfies all three of these definitions. It is thus "hard sf" no matter which definition you use. One suspects that Asimov was familiar with all of these definitions, and was deliberately trying to write a work that embodied all of them.

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 1926-1945 pulp magazines, written by authors like Edmond Hamilton and Otto Binder. (See also my article on Otto Binder's 1950's Cosmic Engineering comic book tales in Mystery in Space.)

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.

Science Laws Changing

Some highly creative science fiction stories deal with the laws of science changing. This topic appeals to writers with roots in 1930's science fiction pulp magazines:


Cognition includes ways human beings think, reason, perceive, remember, learn and understand. Cognition is a subject that runs through key works of science fiction: Looks at how future technology might aid the creation of literature:

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More began Utopian fiction with his novel Utopia (1516).

Social Change

Utopia is notable for looking at systematic social change. Such change is a central theme of science fiction, particularly of the John Campbell school. Book Two of Utopia describes a society completely different from ours.

The discussion of sheep in Book One is also a look at social change. It starts with a single premise: the rise of sheep herding in England. It goes on to explore a whole series of ramifications, showing how raising sheep has transformed many aspects of English society. This is a common paradigm of Campbell school science fiction. Such fiction often starts with a single change, then shows how it logically transforms many aspects of society.

There are differences: Utopia looks at a real-life change (sheep) that has already happened; Campbell science fiction at an imaginary social change that might happen in the future. Still the intellectual approach and literary techniques are remarkably similar.

Before reading Utopia, I knew that some authors, notably Poe in "Mellonta Tauta" (1849) and H.G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895), had looked at social change before Campbell (whose influence started in the 1930's). But I now see that such change is discussed centuries earlier, in Utopia.

Utopia also shows examples of a systematic change in values. Book Two shows all the Utopians finding gold ornaments to look clown-like and childish. Such changes of values are a standard technique in Campbell school science fiction.


A striking passage in Book Two evaluates the new society of Utopia mathematically, in terms of higher yields, etc. I don't know how common such mathematical analysis was in real life in that era.

Another impressively modern passage in Book Two points out that music makes a strong impression on people - but that we don't understand how it does this. Today, "how music works" is a subject of much research, attracting philosophers, neurobiologists and others. (England had major classical composers in John Browne and William Cornysh, who lived just before More, and Thomas Tallis, who was born soon after More's generation.)

Less substantial is the brief look at formal logic in Utopia. It mainly offers satirical jabs at a popular medieval book on logic. It does not really look at logic itself, or its role in human thought. This would be left to Poe in "Mellonta Tauta".

John Skelton

John Skelton was a major poet, who was a contemporary of More. Some of Skelton's poems complement ideas found in Utopia: In addition to the above Skelton works, I'd also recommend "Phillip Sparrow" (especially Book One), "Upon a Dead Man's Head", "To Mistress Isabel Pennell".

Some of Skelton's (admittedly less successful) earlier works are in the long tradition of "dream poems": works presented as dreams of the poet. See the "Garland of Laurel" and "The Bowge of Court". Like many dream poems, these have fantasy elements. As Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out, there a large numbers of fantasy works that are not sold in book stores as "fantasy". Much of our cultural heritage in fact has fantasy aspects.

Rogue Fiction

In 19th and 20th Century entertainment, there are tales of Rogues: clever, often comic crooks and swindlers who pull off schemes and thefts. The reader is supposed to enjoy these accounts, even if viewing them as morally negative. Utopia has aspects of this. Various crooked proposals by government ministers in Book One often suggest clever swindles. From the tone, one suspects Utopia wants readers to find these schemes amusing, as well as deplorable. Similarly, the Utopians' schemes for war in Book Two also have elements of clever con jobs.

I have no idea what sort of Rogue Fiction, if any, was popular in 1516 when Utopia was published.

Please see my article on later Rogue Fiction, especially on its influence on detective stories.

Both the crooked proposals in Book One, and the Utopians' war plans in Book Two, are schemes proposed by governments. This differs from most 19th and 20th Century Rogue Fiction, in which the schemers are lone crooks. One implication: 19th and 20th Century Rogues are usually breaking the law, stealing or swindling. But these government schemes in Utopia are not strictly speaking crimes, even though they are immoral and objectionable.


Utopia strongly condemns fancy clothes as a sign of class privilege. In Utopia everyone is plainly dressed, as a sign everyone is equal.

Such plain clothes anticipate today's school uniforms, which attempt to put both rich and poor students on an equal footing. They also anticipate the plain dress of religious groups, such as the Puritans and the early Quakers.

During the Elizabethan era soon to come some decades after More, English Art would excel at portraiture: notably Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. Many portraits would show their subject in fancy clothes: a direct contradiction to the ideas advocated by Utopia.

Influence on Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin's Utopian novels The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home perhaps show the influence of Utopia: This is perhaps over optimistic. Perhaps various people would simply defy both education and social pressure to pursue anti-social ends.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was the great English dramatist and poet. Some of his works are Fantasy.

The Tempest

Fantasy Plays. There are similarities between Shakespeare's plays A Midsummer's Night's Dream and The Tempest (circa 1610): Utopia. In As You Like It, Duke Senior makes the speech beginning "Sweet are the uses of adversity". This looks at the alternative society formed by the homeless characters. (Homelessness was a big problem in Shakespeare's day, and this play and King Lear both famously examine it.) This sort of character is paralleled in The Tempest by Gonzalo. He too looks at an alternative, Utopian society. This society is in fact, spelled out in more detail than the speech in As You Like It. Gonzalo is the plays most humane, sympathetic character.

Millions. The Tempest talks of "millions" of human beings. Gonzalo says "few in millions / Can speak like us". In a simple way, this is more of the mathematics found in parts of More's Utopia.

London-based John Graunt was a founder of demography and actuarial science in the 1660's. Graunt wrote that leading experts in London thought the city had over 2 million people. His own estimate was revolutionary: a London population of 384, 000. Scholars today agree this is roughly right. (See the fascinating book Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer (2021) by Steven Johnson.)

The Masque. The masque surprised me, by how good it was. Somehow a masque on Roman mythology did not sound promising.

The masques I'm most familiar with, are by Thomas Campion or John Milton. The masque in The Tempest is much shorter than theirs. It conveys the idea of a masque, but is far less elaborate.

No Religion. The Tempest avoids discussion of religion. Unlike many Shakespeare plays, there are few mentions of Christianity, either Protestant or Catholic. And no clergy characters. One could maybe treat the mythology in the masque as religion - but one suspects that Shakespeare and his audience saw this mythology as "classical learning", not as religion. And "classical learning" was always seen as a Good Thing, in that era.

The lack of mention of religion, has a consequence. The reader does NOT see Prospero's spells, or the spirit Ariel, as having anything to do with religion. They are pure imagination - in other words, fantasy. And they are NOT a commentary on religion.

John Keats

John Keats was a major English poet. Some of his works are Fantasy.


Hyperion (1818-1819) is a narrative poem (a poem that tells a story) by Keats. It is based in Greek mythology.

Hyperion is a fantasy, by almost any standard definition. But it is based in Greek myth - so there is no magic as an organized skill. And no wizards. This makes it different from Tolkien and his successors, whose books are full of magic and wizards.

Hyperion starts out with extreme stillness, showing the defeated Titan Saturn immobilized. The poem gets more dynamic after this. Such quiet, still and slow openings recall 18th Century symphonies in classical music. Such symphonies often had a brief "slow introduction", followed by a much longer "fast section".

The most appealing part of Hyperion is the second half of Canto I, which shows Hyperion himself. The description of his palace is remarkable.

Georg Büchner

Georg Büchner was a German writer of mainstream plays and fiction.


Science Fiction. He is not normally associated with science fiction. However, his mainstream play Woyzeck (1836) has several passages with science fiction (or fantasy) imagery in the dialogue: None of these are "real" events in the story of Woyzeck. But they are quite strong considered just as imagery.

In addition, the scenes where hero Woyzeck is made the subject of the doctor's medical experiments, bring Science very much into the world of Woyzeck.

Murder Fiction. Woyzeck concludes with a murder. Despite its early date, crime fiction was already a going concern by 1836. Pelham (1828) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton contains a murder mystery. The hero finds a murdered man, bloody and half-in a small pool. Pelham thus anticipates such features of Woyzeck as a knife killing, blood on the murderer, moonlight, and a pool - although these features are combined in different ways in the two works.

Quality. In its original German, Woyzeck has a dignity, a forcefulness, a vividness and a rhythmic quality not always found in its translations.

Woyzeck is far from a favorite of mine, nightmarish and depressing. Still it is highly original.

C. I. Defontenay

C. I. Defontenay's novel Star ou Psi de Cassiopée (1854) is a detailed look at another planet and its solar system. It is one of the earliest and best looks at an alien world in science fiction. It should be much better known. It appeared in English translations as Star (Psi Cassiopeia) (1975). The best part of the book is its first half (up through page 103 in the 1975 paperback translation).

J.-H. Rosny aîné

Rosny's "Les Xipehuz" (1887) is a terrific look at alien beings.

Hugo Gernsback

Hugo Gernsback founded the first all-science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories in 1926.

Ralph 124C41+

His best known science fiction work is the novel Ralph 124C41+ (1911).

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:

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.

Influence on Asimov. Gernsback's New York City anticipates the futuristic city Trantor in Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951) and the future New York City in Asimov's "Robbie" (1940) and 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 Roosevelt Building in "Robbie" is a half-mile high skyscraper, twice as tall as the real-life Empire State Building.

The "routing goods" technology in Gernsback perhaps finds an echo in the different "routing people" technology in the opening of Foundation.

Influence on Air Wave. The article about the 1940's high-tech comic book hero Air Wave discusses Gernsback's influence on the character's technology.

Aleksandr Kuprin

Aleksandr Kuprin was a Russian author, mainly of realistic fiction, such as his novel The Duel (1905). His first name has often been transliterated as Alexander, making it confusing to search for him and his books.


His short novel Moloch (1896) looks at industry and capitalism. I have only read descriptions and summaries of this work. It is likely an early example of Lab Lit: realistic stories about science, technology and industry, set in contemporary times.

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).

Liquid Sunshine

Aleksandr Kuprin's best known science fiction work is the short story "Liquid Sunshine" (1913). "Liquid Sunshine" looks at solar technology. Elaborate machinery turns, capturing sunlight at different times of day. In this it recalls the solar farms in Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C41+ (1911). However Ralph 124C41+ depicts solar power, the gathering of energy from the Sun, while "Liquid Sunshine" has machines collecting actual solar photon particles. Still, both works show the deep interest writers in the 1910's had in solar technology.

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.

Homer Eon Flint

Homer Eon Flint's fiction is as smoothly written as that of any contemporary author. He in no sense seems to be a "primitive". His fiction recalls that of H.G. Wells, as does that of many of his contemporaries.

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.

Edmond Hamilton

Hamilton's early tales of the Interstellar Patrol of the Federated Suns, have been rightly viewed as gems of early science fiction. As Donald A. Wollheim pointed out in his critical study The Universe Makers (1971), Hamilton's are some of the earliest and most inventive tales of interstellar travel.

Murder in the Void: a short story

By contrast, Hamilton's non-series short story "Murder in the Void" (1938) is disappointing. "Murder in the Void" combines science fiction, a murder mystery, and spy thriller features. It is gruesomely violent, relentlessly filled with unpleasant horror material that takes up the bulk of the story. It does have mystery elements, looking at a series of murders, and a mystery about "who done it". The tale has a puzzle plot, with a surprising choice of villain who does not seem able to have committed the crime, until the solution shows how. The hero is mainly a secret agent, and quite a violent one, but he doubles as a detective. "Murder in the Void" shows that at this early date, Hamilton was exploring the possibility of mystery-sf hybrids.

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".

Otto Binder

Binder was a major creator of comic book scripts. These are notable for their rich science fiction imagination. He wrote for Superman, Superboy, Mystery in Space, Strange Adventures, and others.

The Teacher from Mars: a short story

"The Teacher from Mars" (1941) is an outstanding short work by Binder. It looks at the evils of racial prejudice, given in science fictional form as hatred against Martians. "The Teacher from Mars" is probably most easily found in the anthology My Best Science Fiction Story (1949), edited by Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend.

Nelson S. Bond

"Pilgrimage" (1939) is the first of a series of stories about Meg, a priestess of a future tribe. It is an example of a tale that combines a science fiction look at a far future North America, with a "primitive" tribal life. "Pilgrimage" is likely strongly influenced by "By the Waters of Babylon" (1937) by Stephen Vincent Benét, a famous story in its era.

Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash was an American author of comic poetry. Another article has my List of Favorite Ogden Nash Poems.

Ogden Nash is not usually associated with genre literature. However, quite a few of his poems have subject matter linking them to various genres.

Mystery Fiction:

Science Fiction: Fantasy: Horror: Westerns: Adventure:

John W. Campbell

Who Goes There?

"Who Goes There?" (1938) is a novella. It mixes science fiction and horror.

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. The final section of Theodore L. Thomas' "The Weather Man" (1962) has a problem-and-solution structure.

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:

While Lovecraft and Long are strictly science fictional, Campbell has even more scientific detail. Campbell approaches what we would now categorize as "hard science fiction".

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" (1935).

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.

John Berryman

John Berryman wrote numerous short stories for science fiction magazines.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (SFE) points out that science fiction writer John Berryman (1916-1988) "is not the poet John Berryman (1914-1972)".

The First Two Short Stories

John Berryman's first two published science fiction short stories have much in common. Both "Special Flight" (1939) and "Space Rating" (1939) deal with an intermediate period in space flight. They transpire after the initial voyages, but before space flight becomes routine. Instead, space travel still presents major challenges to skilled pilots and navigators, requiring extraordinary ability.

Both tales emphasize the skilled mathematical computations required to perform flight. The machines that help create this mathematics are called "calculators" by Berryman; the humans who create mathematics are called "computers". The use of the term "computer" for humans who specialized in calculations, was standard in that era. See the non-fiction book When Computers Were Human (2005) by David Alan Grier for a history of that era.

Mathematics used in space navigation will soon appear in Heinlein's "Misfit" (1939), "Space Jockey" (1947) and Starman Jones (1953). John Berryman's tales preceded all of these.

In addition to space flight, the two tales share another subject: the high tech observation of space. In "Special Flight" these are machines that detect meteors, and plot their course, so that spaceships can evade them. In "Space Rating" these are automatic observatories that photograph the stars. These "robot observatories" especially look for novas. The "robot observatories" need periodic human maintenance.

"Special Flight" also looks at how mining on the Moon might be organized in this future. Such mining forms a third subject for the tale, in addition to space flight and space observation. However, the mining is not shown in as much detail as the space travel.

The two tales are not quite "Social Science Fiction". They do NOT show how a whole society might be organized and transformed by innovation. Instead, they portray how a specific profession, space flight, might be organized in the future. This portrayal is rich and detailed. The overall effect is like Social Science Fiction - but restricted mainly to a single profession's work and organization.

Both tales have more than one man who can perform specific skilled jobs on flights. Comparisons and competitions between the two are motifs in the tales.

Arthur C. Clarke

Pre-History: British and in Clarke

Imagery in some of Arthur C. Clarke's best-known works recalls monuments of Prehistoric Britain.

One might compare the description of a prehistoric Dartmoor barrow in the mystery novel known as The Corpse With the Blue Cravat or The Coroner Doubts (1938) by R. A. J. Walling. (Walling's descriptions are near the start of Chapter 3):

In real-life Britain, such features were created by early, prehistoric residents of Britain. In Clarke, such features were also created by dimly understood prehistoric beings.

The TV series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (1980) includes an episode about megalithic structures, The Riddle of the Stones.

Against the Fall of Night

The Desert and the Forest. Against the Fall of Night (1948-1953) contrasts two societies: a Utopian city built in the desert, Diaspar, and a rural region made up of lush forests, Lys. Symbolically, these could stand for England and Sri Lanka, the two countries where Clarke mainly lived. England is hardly a desert. But it is a place where untouched nature has largely been eradicated. It would have made a stunning contrast in the 1950's with the lush rain forests in Sri Lanka.

Having a hero move out of his home region to explore a forested area, also occurs in Clarke tales like "The Lion of Comarre" and "Second Dawn".

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) has its dissatisfied hero travel from his home in a desert Utopia to a lush, fertile green area hosting a very different society. Like Clarke's heroes, he is the only member of his otherwise inward-looking society to make such a journey.

Pets. Theon has two pets, and the human-pet relationship is idealized. Similarly, "The Lion of Comarre" gets its title from the lion who adopts the hero as his human owner. Both tales' relationships are modeled on that of humans and dogs.

Like other parts of Clarke tales, an idealized viewed of dogs is deeply British. British writers and painters often depicted dogs as better morally than humans, with dogs' loyalty and steadfastness seen as morally superior to humans' behavior.

Future Cities. John W. Campbell wrote famous tales of advanced future cities, often abandoned. Such Campbell short stories as "Night" (1935) and "Forgetfulness" (1937) perhaps influenced Clarke's cities in Against the Fall of Night.

The Night Land (1912) by William Hope Hodgson depicts much of what is left of mankind gathered together in a single, isolated city on a far future Earth. The hero learns of the existence of a second settlement, and sets out to find it. This could have influenced Clarke. However, the tone of the two novels is different, with Against the Fall of Night lacking the horror and eeriness of The Night Land.

Automated Transport. SPOILERS. The automatic underground transport system recalls Clarke's "Rescue Party" (1946).

The automatic spaceship in which the hero catches a ride anticipates Childhood's End.

Such systems are very British. They recall the Underground subway system in London, and Britain's national railway system. Both of these are key features of British life.

The Computer. The main computer is known as the Associator. Central to it is what we now call a "database" or "knowledge base": a large collection of information, facts and knowledge. It also has reasoning capabilities. One suspects that the novel's concepts were influenced by earlier real life proposals for creating vast knowledge bases:

Vanamonde. Vanamonde is "born" as an infant, and slowly grows up. This anticipates the Star Child at the end of the film 2001. However, Vanamonde is "explained" in considerable science fictional detail, whereas the Star Child is a puzzling image that suddenly appears without explanation.

It is unclear to me that group minds or telepathy are superior to or an advance on the single individual minds of today's humans. This means that I have trouble seeing the ends of Against the Fall of Night and Childhood's End as progress, or improvements on today's humanity.

Religions and Movements. Against the Fall of Night (Chapter 8) has a religious movement, which worships the Old Ones. It eventually drops out of mainstream society, building an alternative society of its own.

Similarly, in "The Lion of Comarre" (Chapter 2) the Decadents movement offers an alternative to mainstream society, eventually building its own city. However, the Decadents are not a religious group, even though they have moral values differing from mainstream society.

Both groups are long-lived, and deeply committed. Neither group is purely political. Such religious or value-based groups allow Clarke to look at social dissent, but without invoking radical politics that is politically based. "Earthlight" (the short story version) makes negative satirical comments about "reformers", expressing what seems to be both distaste and disinterest on Clarke's part in dissenting political movements.

The Decadents are likely inspired by the real-life late 19th Century Decadents, and their British representatives, the Aesthetic movement, led by Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. Like many other traditions invoked by Clarke, the Aesthetic movement is deeply British. Also notable: Pater and Wilde were gay men, as was Clarke.

A Science Fiction Mystery Story. The hero of Against the Fall of Night is trying to solve two mysteries: What is beyond the city of Diaspar? What is the truth about humanity's past? The book shows him steadily answering both questions.

This gives Against the Fall of Night the structure of a mystery story: a tale in which a hero investigates and solves a mysterious situation.

However, Against the Fall of Night has little of the mechanism of traditional, non-science fiction mystery. Neither clues nor deduction play much role in finding the solution. Nor is a hidden villain revealed, unlike "Whodunit" mystery tales.

A Gay Subtext?. Five of the six main characters in Clarke's Against the Fall of Night are men. Most of the personal relationships are between men. Some of these relationships are emotionally important to the men: see Jeserac's feelings for Alvin (end of Chapter 11) and Rorden's relationship with Alvin (start of Chapter 12). The relationship that develops at the end between Vanamonde and Theon is also between two male characters, even if one of them is non-human.

The hero has no relationships with women. His sexual orientation is unspecified: he is never marked as straight or gay. This is unusual for books and films, which most frequently explicitly describe their heroes as heterosexual.

The idea that all the male characters are gay, and that their friendships have gay sexual dimensions, is consistent with the novel. However, the novel does not actually say this explicitly. It is also possible to read the book as a story which simply does not explore any of the characters' sexuality.

Poet A. E. Housman is the source of the book's title. Housman was gay, and was a favorite of gay writers of the era, also giving the title to Patrick White's mainstream novel The Tree of Man (1955), and being quoted by mystery writer Aaron Marc Stein in Sitting Up Dead (1958).

Some of the character types and kinds of relationships return in "The Wall of Darkness" (1949), a tale with all-male characters. In both works:

And the hero of "The Wall of Darkness" does not have an explicit sexual orientation given either. "The Wall of Darkness" can also be seen as a story that ambiguously might have a gay subtext.

Earthlight alternates between two groups of protagonists: a spy Bertram Sadler, and a pair of young astronomers Conrad Wheeler and Sid Jamieson. Sadler is straight, and has a wife back home on Earth. But Wheeler and Jamieson have their primary relationship with each other, and function as a team throughout the book. They are explicitly discussed as a "couple" (last part of Chapter 9). No sexual orientation is assigned to them. But they can easily be seen as a gay pair. They recall the adventurous pairs of young men protagonists in John W. Campbell and Isaac Asimov.

The Wall of Darkness: a short story

A Science Fiction Mystery Story. "The Wall of Darkness" (1949) has the structure of a mystery story: This is exactly the structure of a mystery tale. Only it is applied to a science fiction puzzle, rather than a murder or theft, as in a conventional mystery.

The end of the story explains the solution in enormous detail. Partly this is an example of Clarke's stress on clarity and communication: he is an exceptionally clear writer throughout his books. But it also reflects the way the genre of mystery fiction stresses clear solutions to its mysteries, with everything spelled out in detail during the solution at the end of the story.

Quasi-Medieval. "The Wall of Darkness" (1949) has a quasi-medieval feel:

Despite this, "The Wall of Darkness" mercifully avoids any trace of the supernatural, unlike some quasi-medieval tales. It instead sticks strictly to science.

Influence on Le Guin?. "The Wall of Darkness" might have influenced Ursula K. Le Guin:

Second Dawn: a short story

"Second Dawn" (1951) is an elaborately imagined story about alien beings on another planet. Like "Rescue Party", it is unusual in being a story entirely about aliens, with no human characters.

It has aspects of a "future history", showing the beings undergo a series of developments over time.

"Second Dawn" has links to Against the Fall of Night. In both:

In Against the Fall of Night, the civilization of Diaspar is simply abandoned, as humanity moves towards a group mind. By contrast, "Second Dawn" shows society evolving, with changes in fundamental directions and approaches, and technological innovation. I think this is a more interesting approach.

A big negative: the relentless sexism. The hero's wife is uninterested in ideas, perhaps incapable of serious thinking, and obsessed with jewels and personal display.

Jupiter Five: a short story

"Jupiter Five" (1953) is about a pioneering space journey to Jupiter's moon Jupiter V. (Jupiter V also known as Amalthea, although that name is not used in the story.) It extends ideas from earlier Clarke tales: I particularly liked the information about the size and geography of Jupiter's moons.

However much of the second half of "Jupiter Five" is a let-down: the tale stops focussing on the aliens, and looks at silly intrigue with a rival explorer. "Jupiter Five" would be better if it were longer and had more about the aliens.

BIG SPOILERS. The description of the huge alien construction reminds one of Simak's prior tale "Limiting Factor" (1949).

"Jupiter Five" contains witty reflexive looks at contemporary publishers, such as Life magazine and Sidgwick & Jackson. Clarke's "I Remember Babylon" will mention Clarke's involvement with the Book of the Month Club.

The art gallery recalls the paintings and carvings on display in the building in "The Lion of Comarre" (Chapter 4). Both are huge buildings filled with a vast number of art treasures, the product of an entire culture.


Earthlight (1955) is a novel set on the Moon. It is richly detailed and inventive.

Social Science Fiction. Earthlight is one of Clarke's books that comes closest to the Campbell ideal of "Social Science Fiction". It depicts a future society on the Moon in fascinating detail. Within that society, it also gives a detailed picture of the workings of a futuristic astronomical observatory.

Geometry. Curved geometry plays a role in many objects and environments:

By contrast, the apartment complex at the end is rectilinear. The apartment is part of an epilog showing changes to the Moon after thirty years. The change in geometry helps to convey such changes atmospherically.

A Science Fiction Mystery Story. Earthlight has a mystery plot fairly common in spy tales: who is the mole that is leaking information, and how are the leaks occurring technically? Such mystery puzzles already had a long history by 1955. Please see my list of Information Leaks in Mystery Fiction.

Aspects of the mystery recall the (non-science-fiction) mystery novel They Watched by Night (1941) by John Rhode:

SPOILERS. The technical approach of the signaling has some broad similarities to ideas in The Paradox Men (1949, 1953) (Chapter 9) by Charles L. Harness. Harness' ideas deal with people, while Clarke's deal with machinery.

One should emphasize that Earthlight is full of originality, and that its signaling is based on creative ideas found only in Clarke.

Short Story to Novel. Earthlight was expanded and modified from a short story of the same name (1951). Much of the actual writing is new - and much better. The ideas are more imaginative and more poetic.

The "mysterious traitor" subplot is completely new in the novel, not present in the short story. Also new is the sleuth hero whose job it is to find the traitor.

The other four main characters made their debut in the short story. They are more developed in personality in the novel.

The short story has a brief witty passage not in the novel, describing how the appearance of various characters suggests they are any profession other than astronomers. It suggests the astronomers are "presenting themselves" with various images. This is fun. But it implies a certain irony and style manipulation among the characters, that is absent in the novel. By contrast, in the novel everyone is in deadly earnest at all times.

Robert Heinlein

Future History

Robert Heinlein became famous in the early 1940's, in part because of his Future History. This was a series of short stories and novels, that together painted a historical sequence of future events. Most of the Future History series was collected in the omnibus The Past Through Tomorrow.

"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.

Four 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), "Gentlemen, Be Seated" (1948), "The Menace from Earth" (1957). Have Space Suit - Will Travel (Chapters 1, 2) also looks at what sort of technical experts get recruited to join a moon colony.

"Gentlemen, Be Seated" (1948) is a pure work of hard science fiction, being full of technological detail. But it mixes this with geometric architecture. SPOILERS. And with two things that are rare in science fiction, and rather startling: low-brow anal humor, and religious imagery (the stigma). This extreme imagery seems designed to provoke or disturb. However, the religious imagery also reflects the heroic self-sacrifice of a character.

The Roads Must Roll

"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.

The Australian visitor is explicitly interested in this. He comes close to stating the key subject of the tale: he wants to see how technological changes have affected society.

Light Shows. "The Roads Must Roll" includes light shows: the solar panels, and soon after the green arrows pointing out paths. There is a smaller light show in "Misfit", with the glowing blue dials and light from the chart hood. Such light shows:

Heinlein was perhaps influenced by the light show in Hugo Gernsback's description of futuristic New York, in Ralph 124C41+ (1911).

The mystery short story "The House of Darkness" (1935) by Ellery Queen, similarly uses glowing green arrows to indicate paths. "The House of Darkness" takes place in an amusement park fun-house, while "The Roads Must Roll" uses the arrows in serious technical infrastructure. The common use of green arrows makes one wonder, if both tales are reflecting a real-life approach of the era.

Architecture. Mystery fiction of the period was often full of elaborate architecture. Similarly "The Roads Must Roll" is full of complex buildings. These buildings often have geometric aspects.

Radicalism. The sinister Functionalism ideology claims to be scientific. The story critiques it as based on "pseudo-psychology". Similarly, the lousy ideas on high school education in Have Space Suit - Will Travel (Chapter 1) claim to be scientific, and "approved by psychologists". Heinlein is attacking both pseudo-science in general, and pseudo-psychology in particular.

Functionalism has aspects that recall the real-life Fascism:

However, there are key differences between Functionalism and Fascism: The tale's most important perspectives on Functionalism come from it being a dangerous radical movement:

Looking at Functionalism as a work of science-fictional imagination: From this perspective, the depiction of Functionalism is an artistic success. Heinlein has shown a lot of imagination and creativity in coming up with all the details of this original idea. (Note: this does NOT mean approving of Functionalism. It is clearly morally and politically rotten.)

Functionalism is quite different from real-life Fascism. So the story cannot be used to make a depth analysis of real-llfe Fascism.

Race. "The Roads Must Roll" (1940) deals with race and Civil Rights in many ways:

The hero Libby of "Misfit" is blond, and therefore white racially. But none of the numerous other characters has any race specified.

For a strongly pro-Civil Rights tale of the era, see "The Teacher from Mars" (1941) by Otto Binder.

Women. The treatment of women follows the strict gender roles of 1940. Heinlein would soon offer feminist challenge to these, in "Delilah and the Space Rigger" (1949). There are plenty of working women in "The Roads Must Roll", and they are skillful and good at their jobs. But they are restricted to what 1940 saw as women's professions: telephone operators, secretary, restaurant manager. These women are also deferential to the big-shot hero.

And He Built a Crooked House

"And He Built a Crooked House" (1941) is a brilliant extravaganza.

Construction. "And He Built a Crooked House" is another Heinlein tale with a contraction project. The emphasis is far more on the completed house, than the actual construction, unlike some Heinlein tales.

Modern Architecture. The tale evinces knowledge of real-life Modern Architecture, especially in Southern California.

The architect hero gives a genuinely stirring plea for innovation in architecture. He couches much of his statement in terms of "Modern Art is in favor of innovation", a standard part of the theory of Modern Art. But his plea can also be seen as related to the world of technological innovation, the subject of "The Roads Must Roll".

The opening of the tale seemingly takes the opposite point of view. It locates the hero among the crackpots and eccentrics of Southern California. It discusses oddball architecture in Hollywood, stuff that has little relation to Modernism. However, when the architect himself shows up, both his opening plea for innovation, and the actual house he builds, seem mainly admirable. And linked to Modernism, rather than eccentricity.


"Universe" (1941) is a novella. It is an early work in the Generation Starship topic, and highly influential on the many Generation Starship tales to follow. It was published shortly after the excellent "The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years" (1940) by Don Wilcox, a Generation Starship tale that explores many different plot possibilities of the premise.

I long since had read such later stories as Simak's "Target Generation" and Le Guin's "Paradises Lost". Both are earnest, serious-toned looks at moral choices faced by people on such starships. By contrast, "Universe" startles by its playful, comic, satirical tone. "Universe" also seems more experimental in its literary techniques, with its inclusion of verse.

Ideology. "Universe" refuses to endorse any historical group as Good Guys:

"Universe" is especially disturbed by the prospect that religion or atheism might be the basis of a government. It shows the horrendous consequences of both theocracy, and public policy run by atheism. Implicitly, it strongly prefers the separation of church and state. It makes one thankful for the American system, in which the government stays completely out of religion, and allows the public to freely pursue their own religious approaches.

No one's beliefs in "Universe" are a matter of private conviction - instead, a viewpoint immediately links one to a political-and-social group. The religious are out to preserve the (lousy) traditional society; the young atheists are out to take ever the Ship, and plotting a genocide of the mutants. Both groups are seen as scientifically false and socially rotten.

The religious-government authorities such as the Captain, have their ideas implicitly compared to the way the Catholic Church treated Galileo:

The real-life atheist-government most prominent in 1941 were the Communists led by Stalin. They were indeed engaged in mass murder - like the mass killing planned by the young atheists in "Universe".

Heinlein was a Methodist. He was raised in a strongly Methodist family, and he still self-identified himself as a Methodist in his non-fiction travel book Tramp Royale (1953-1954).

Ignorance. "Universe" is another Heinlein work where knowledge is NOT passed along through written form. One of the "root causes" of problems aboard the Ship is that there is no print or electronic transmission of ideas. There are old books, but apparently no new books or documents. And few people can read, or count. As in Starman Jones, knowledge is mainly passed along through apprenticeship: a highly inefficient route, in my judgement.

However, Have Space Suit - Will Travel (Chapter 1) looks at a contemporary US high school, where the curriculum and attitudes are so dumbed-down that its graduates are not college-ready. The teenage hero has to stand consciously outside of his society, and pursue a vigorous course of self-study, just to be qualified to enter a university engineering program. Here is a whole society, filled with books and literate members, that in spite of these advantages has dumbed itself down nearly to the level of the Ship in "Universe".

Methuselah's Children

Methuselah's Children (1941, 1958) is a novel-length part of Heinlein's Future History series. Parts of the opening (Chapters 1, 2) develop topics found earlier in the Future History: Foundation. Methuselah's Children was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, in issues marked July 1941, August 1941, September 1941. All three issues would likely have already hit the newsstands, when Isaac Asimov and editor John W. Campbell had a key meeting on August 1, 1941. At that meeting the concept of Asimov's Foundation series was developed.

The Psychohistory of Asimov's Foundation, might have been influenced by ideas in Methuselah's Children (Chapter 1). These ideas include scientific "mass psychology" and "psychodynamics" practiced by scientists known as "psychometricians". Such scientists are good at "mathematics and human behavior". The description makes clear they at least sometimes use advanced mathematics in their analyses. These ideas are all present in the original 1941 version of Methuselah's Children.

Heinlein's expanded 1958 version of Methuselah's Children adds that the scientists "describe mathematically the interplay of social forces". It talks about "social psychodynamics".

There are differences between Heinlein's ideas and Asimov's Psychohistory:

Race. The story deals with a future in which racial discrimination against African-Americans has come to an end (Chapter 1). This is an amazingly bold prediction for 1941.

Ordeal in Space

"Ordeal in Space" (1948) is a short story.

Race. The hero praises Martians, while the "louse" of a brother-in-law attacks them. The Martians are compared to Native Americans. Their "rights" are also defended. This is a forceful episode in favor of Civil Rights.

Life on Earth. I thought the parts showing life on a future Earth, were more interesting than the tale's outer space episode.

We especially learn about places where people live. This recalls the home in "And He Built a Crooked House", which is also a dwelling for a couple.

Window. A window opening onto a frightening height, earlier played a comic-but-thrilling role in "And He Built a Crooked House".

Starman Jones

Starman Jones (1953) takes place in the future, in a universe set forth in great detail. It is richest in science fiction ideas in its opening third (Chapters 1-7). Many aspects echo and develop ideas that Heinlein earlier set forth in short tales, most of them part of his Future History: The versions and details of these ideas in Starman Jones are new. They are variations and developments of previous Heinlein ideas, not simple re-uses. They give Heinlein's worlds a unique mental basis, a grounding in a series of personal approaches.

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! ("Gentlemen, Be Seated" also lacks safety features, such as alarm bells, or routine checks over who is in the tunnels.)

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.

Have Space Suit - Will Travel

Have Space Suit - Will Travel (1958) takes place in the near future.

The elaborate description of the hero's space suit (Chapter 3) builds on and greatly extends the portrait of the hero's space suit in "Misfit". This chapter is the best thing in the novel: detailed science fiction.

The hero thoroughly restores the old, used space suit (Chapter 3). This recalls:

The hero is moved around by others, while unconscious (start of Chapter 4). This recalls the finale of "Gentlemen, Be Seated".

Square dancing classes are seen as part of the sinister dumbing down of the high school curriculum (Chapter 1). I agree that schools should be strong in science, math and engineering. But I personally loved being taught square dancing in grade school.

Rick Raphael

Rick Raphael is an American science fiction writer, fairly obscure today.

Code Three

"Code Three" (1963) is a novella, about futuristic police vehicles patrolling the superhighways of tomorrow. The future in "Code Three" is refreshingly normal: this is not a dystopia like that in the Mad Max films, and the motorists on the road are also normal human beings, much like those in 1963. The actions of the cops are also normal: basically they resemble a typical episode of the TV series CHiPs, helping stranded motorists, dealing with accidents, etc.

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:

There was a syndicated US television police series Code 3 (1957). While the popular Drganet centered on true tales of the LAPD, Code 3 drew on the records of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

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.

Cyril M. Kornbluth

Cyril M. Kornbluth is an American science fiction writer and mystery writer. Both genres are discussed in the book C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary (2009) by Mark Rich.

A Ghoul and His Money: a Short Story

"A Ghoul and His Money" (1946) is a brief, nicely done mystery short story.

Like some of Kornbluth's science fiction tales, "A Ghoul and His Money" shows contemporary science. In this case, the science is the technology surrounding ceramics. As usual in Kornbluth, the science is depicted in rich detail. It gives the reader an inside look, at part of the contemporary world.

Science is used both by the narrator-detective, and by a woman in the story. This gives "A Ghoul and His Money" an aspect of Scientific Detection.

For such a brief tale, there is a surprising amount of mystery in "A Ghoul and His Money". All the mysteries are resolved by the tale's end.

"A Ghoul and His Money" deals with women's issues, long before they became prominent in the 1970's. Woman's employment, equal attitudes to women, and spousal abuse are all examined trenchantly. Kornbluth manages to cover the core of these issues concisely, without watering down their content or significance. He also injects notes of satire and dark humor, not surprisingly in an author whose science fiction is famous for its satire.

"A Ghoul and His Money" is also typical of Kornbluth, in that it shows us economically struggling people.

Zenna Henderson

Zenna Henderson wrote numerous short stories. Many were about The People.

Ararat: a short story

"Ararat" (1952) is the first short story about The People.

Social Science Fiction. "Ararat" is Social Science Fiction. In other words, it creates a new society, run on different principles from our own.

Unlike much is Social Science Fiction, "Ararat" is not set in the future or another planet. Instead its new society takes place in contemporary times a remote desert area of the US Southwest, isolated from most of contemporary society and culture.

Unlike some Social Science Fiction, the society "Ararat" does not all follow from a single social or ethnological change. SPOILERS. It has such a change (refugee aliens crash land on Earth, must build new life there). But it also incorporates a multiplicity of ideas unrelated to this. These have to do with:

Mystery Plot. Like much science fiction, "Ararat" includes a mystery plot. The new teacher's behavior is mysterious, and needs an explanation. Like many mysteries, there is a full solution to this mystery puzzle near the end of the story. The solution is logically sound, and explains all the aspects of the mystery.

I think Henderson wants readers to solve this puzzle, long before the narrator does. At the end, the narrator kicks herself for not figuring the puzzle out sooner.

The mystery puzzle helps bring plot and structure to the tale.

A similar mystery puzzle, this time about a little boy, is in "The Indelible Kind" (1968). Both puzzles involve explaining the behavior of a new character who has just moved to an area. Both puzzles have similar solutions. Both puzzles seem intended to be simple for the reader to solve.

Feminism?. There is discussion about whether or not Henderson's works have feminist aspects, or whether they embody stereotypical roles for women.

The women schoolteachers in "Ararat" and "The Indelible Kind" are hard-working professionals, who do well in a demanding job. This is consistent with feminist views. Admittedly, teaching school was stereotyped as woman's work in the 1950's - so "Ararat" does not offer a challenge to job-norms of its era. But the way "Ararat" depicts a woman working hard and succeeding at her job is nothing to be ashamed of either, from a feminist standpoint.

The Old Ones who lead the alien society include both men and women. This can also be seen as feminist.

Influence. "Ararat" anticipates ideas in John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955).

Alice Eleanor Jones

Alice Eleanor Jones published a handful of science fiction short stories.

Created He Them: a short story

"Created He Them" (1955) is a gem of science fiction.

Social Science Fiction. "Created He Them" is Social Science Fiction. In other words, it imagines a new society, based on innovative scientific and social events that have transformed our contemporary world.

Influence. A plot idea in "Created He Them" anticipates Philip K. Dick's The Game-Players of Titan (1963), one of his best novels.

Robert Abernathy

Robert Abernathy published nearly 40 science fiction and fantasy short stories from 1942 to 1956, but no novels.

Science Fiction Short Stories

Abernathy's "Junior" (1956) is a gem. It combines two approaches, and succeeds with both: "Junior" is so good, that it seems likely there are some other good stories in Abernathy's oeuvre. However, most of them are not available.

"When the Mountain Shook" (1956) has its moments, and is quite readable. It's a creditable tale, but doesn't reach the level of "Junior". It suffers from too much emphasis on psychic powers. On the plus side, it has plenty of plot and science fiction situations.

"Single Combat" (1955) is an odd, paranoiac fantasy. It never becomes at all believable, even by the indulgent standards one applies to the Fantastic. I think it is a bad story.

Andre Norton

Andre Norton was the pseudonym of the American woman author Alice Mary Norton.

Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D.

Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. (1952) shares a plot idea with "All Cats Are Gray" (1953). Both have a hero moving through dangerous science fiction obstacles, to reach a treasure. The treasure has been left behind by a long departed group. This plot likely influenced Roadside Picnic (1972) by the Strugatsky Brothers. The Strugatskys translated some Norton into Russian.

Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. shows strong pro Civil Rights subject matter, with its white hero forming an alliance with a black man. This was before the film The Defiant Ones (1958), which also featured a black-white pair of heroes.

It also might have influenced Ursula K. Le Guin, and her novels featuring black-white paired heroes: Planet of Exile, The Lathe of Heaven. The "Star Men" explorers group anticipates a similar group in Le Guin's Always Coming Home. And the Native American-inspired Plains people anticipate the Native American-like culture in Always Coming Home.

Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. anticipates the Young Adult novel My Side of the Mountain (1959) by Jean Craighead George. Both deal with young men who leave home to lead an outdoors life in remote areas.

Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. often seems like a succession of images. Scene after scene is described in visual terms. The approach recalls that of comics. So does the use of color imagery in the tale, such as the various colored pencils (Chapter 6).

The hero wears a fancy outfit: a lace-up jerkin made out of hide. Please see my article on lace-up shirts in comic books. Fancy leather jerkins were worn by the farmer hero of the silent film Lorna Doone (Maurice Tourneur, 1922). The rural heroes of Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. and Lorna Doone might not be city dudes, but they wear glamorous clothes that out-do current heavy metal rock stars.

People on Goodreads compare Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. to James Fenimore Cooper. I might add:

Murray Leinster

Science Fiction Short Stories

"The Ethical Equations" (1945) shows its hero investigating a mysterious space-ship. The techniques the hero uses surprisingly anticipate modern technology, such as the Internet. "A Logic Named Joe" (1946) would take Leinster's computer and Internet predictions much further.

"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" (1919) is a minor mystery short story, sound enough in its way, but no classic. It is a mystery set at an inquest. A local character serving as amateur detective manages to deduce the real killer. The clue he uses is sound, and fairly unusual. But this clue is not shared with the reader until the story's finale, and the tale thus lacks "fair play".

"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.

Hal Clement

Hal Clement had personal ties with elite Boston area educational institutions. He graduated from Rindge, a technical public high school in Cambridge, and then from Harvard. He spent 38 years teaching high school science at Milton Academy, an elite (and expensive) private prep school. These schools have links with Modernism: E.E. Cummings went to Rindge, and T.S. Eliot and Buckminster Fuller went to Milton. And political leadership: Bobby and Teddy Kennedy went to Milton, and Bill de Blasio to Rindge. Both of these high schools are often "feeders" to Harvard, sending their graduates there to college.


"Proof" (1942) is Hal Clement's first published short story. It already shows features in common with Mission of Gravity to come:

Mission of Gravity

Mission of Gravity (1953) has features that anticipate Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Both tales create entire new alien planets, whose civilization is adapted to cold weather. In both novels, the planet is visited by human space explorers, who largely remain in orbit in satellites around the planet, only occasionally sending single men down to the surface. In both, the space explorers are technologically far more advanced than the inhabitants of the planet. In both, the single human on the planet surface has to form alliances with the complex societies of the planet. Both tales are pitched at a precise moment: after First Contact, but before any deep integration of planetary and galactic civilization.

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 gravitational 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. The opening is the part most closely linked with Clement's essay "Whirligig World".

Landscape and Influences. The section about the cliff (Chapter 9) recalls an episode in the film The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930), a Western movie about a wagon train. The cliff section is something of a return to the mood of the opening (Chapters 1-6).

As a science fiction novel depicting adventure among oceans, islands and dramatic landscapes, Mission of Gravity has a bit of the feel of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).

The bay (Chapter 11) recalls landscapes in Poe's "The Domain of Arnheim" and "Landor's Cottage".

Perhaps Mission of Gravity in turn influenced the later Riverworld books of Philip Jose Farmer. Mission of Gravity (Chapter 10) shows advanced beings boating down a river, and attacked by a warlike tribe who live on the nearby shore: something that returns in the Riverworld. However, Riverworld reportedly originated in an unpublished novel Owe for the Flesh written in 1952, a year before Mission of Gravity was serialized in 1953.

Arthropods. The main alien group in Mission of Gravity is clearly inspired by the Arthropods: the widespread real-life group of animals that includes arachnids, insects and crustaceans. A terrific documentary on Arthropods is The Incredible March of the Spiny Lobsters (1976), an episode of the TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

Features of the aliens that recall Arthropods:

Names. The alien hero's name Barlennan recalls the French words "le nain", which mean "the dwarf".

The human hero's last name Lackland recalls Lackland Air Force Base, named in 1948 for Brigadier General Frank Lackland. Hal Clement had a long career with the US Air Force. Lackland Air Force Base plays a major role in Air Force training, reminding us that Clement was a teacher both in the Air Force and his civilian job. And that humans spend much time training aliens in Mission of Gravity.

Science: Need for Unconventional Innovation. Science, as an intellectual discipline, is a topic that runs through Mission of Gravity.

The astronomy of the Mesklinites, and their bowl-model of their planet, is at a similar scientific level to the real-life ancient Greek astronomy of Ptolemy. Both are at a similar stage of scientific development:

However, human scientists turn out to have some views that need replacing as well (middle of Chapter 6). Human meteorologists have a hard time accepting at first, that the variable gravity on Mesklin might lead to variable sea levels. This concept is alien to their science. They are also shown at first as disbelieving the alien Barlennan. Here it is humans who need to improve conventional scientific ideas, learning from the knowledge of aliens. Mission of Gravity thus implies that no one racial group has a monopoly on truth, and that every group's ideas can be improved by better science.

"Whirligig World", Clement's article on the creation of Mission of Gravity, depicts him as challenging conventional science fiction truisms in the basic premises of his novel. Such a challenge to conventional ideas also underlies the depiction of science in Mission of Gravity. Both the Mesklinite view of their planet, and human meteorologists' ideas on the sea, need to be replaced with improved models that challenge conventional ideas.

Sociology and Race. Mission of Gravity can be read as an allegory, about the present and near future relationships between Westerners and the Third World. The human hero and allies are humans with advanced technology; the alien is a highly intelligent and hard-working member of alien group with a much lower level of technological and scientific development. The book ultimately shows scientific knowledge flowing to the alien society, which will use it to advance. The humans in the novel can stand for the West, with its advanced science; the aliens might stand for Third World countries in Asia and Africa, who will be learning science from the West, and developing into high tech societies in the near future. And just as the aliens are equally as intelligent and capable as the humans in Mission of Gravity, so, the book implies, Asians and Africans are just as intelligent and capable as whites.

As best one can tell, this parallel is not explicitly made in the novel. But it forms such an exact parallel to the real-life situation of the West and the Third World in 1953, that it seems likely that Mission of Gravity has such implicit meaning.

Mission of Gravity is strongly admiring of its alien heroes, and strongly supportive of their quest to advance technologically. Looked at as an allegory, Mission of Gravity is similarly strongly in favor of the Third World, and its struggle to advance in science and technology.

Hal Clement's real last name, Stubbs, is one with roots in British history: there is a major English painter George Stubbs. One suspects that Hal Clement was a New England WASP. He was friends with the Jewish Isaac Asimov, with whom he brainstormed Mission of Gravity. One sees parallels with the human hero Charles Lackland of Mission of Gravity. Lackland is also an English-sounding name. And he works with biochemist Dr. Rosten. Rosten is a Jewish name. Human society in Mission of Gravity is thus typified by WASPs and Jews working together: a anti-racist portrait of the United States and Western society in 1953.

Diplomat. We learn human hero Charles Lackland is a diplomat (Chapter 5). This suggests a hidden background and agenda to the character.

Government: A Positive View. The science project on which all the human characters work is important to governments (middle of Chapter 5). Although the book doesn't say explicitly, it is likely government-funded or somehow government-sponsored. Both the project and the humans are portrayed in a mainly positive light. Implicitly, so are the governments that fund or sponsor the project. They all seem to be mainly benevolent.

Mission of Gravity implicitly depicts these future governments and the people who work for them as mainly good, practical and effective. Mission of Gravity is NOT a libertarian work. It shows none of the anti-government attitude that drives today's conservative libertarians.

The governments concerned with the project are "the governments of ten planets". This phrase suggests that these are world-governments: governments who run entire planets. Mission of Gravity thus shows humans developing world-government in the future. World-government was a cause advocated by H.G. Wells.

On the other hand, the alien governments seen are mainly portrayed negatively: the forest people (Chapter 10), the island people (Chapter 12). The forest people are a "primitive" society with a dictatorial king, and the book's disdain seems mainly a distaste for dictatorial rule. However, the islanders are more advanced. The negative view of the island people might thus be more relevant as a critique of contemporary society.

Economics. The aliens have a trading system, that looks capitalistic. Clever traders who take risks and make money were much admired by Astounding Science Fiction. See also Simak's "The Big Front Yard" (1958).

The "port fees" assessed by the island people are seen negatively, essentially as extortion (Chapter 12). This might, or might not, be a negative look at government taxation in general.

But we actually learn almost nothing about the humans' economic system. Cost is important to them: we hear about how valuable the lost rocket is, and how much it cost to produce. But otherwise economics is invisible among the humans.

This means that Mission of Gravity does not make any predictions about the future of humanity's economic systems.

The positively portrayed alien traders might be interpreted as an endorsement of capitalism as a system. But the evasiveness in Mission of Gravity about the future of humans' economics suggests interpretation should proceed with caution.

Whirligig World

"Whirligig World" (1953) is an article Clement wrote, describing the science ideas behind Mission of Gravity. It has been included as a supplement in a number of editions of Mission of Gravity. (It is called "Author's Afterword" in some editions.)

The opening of "Whirligig World" describes structural aspects of the "problem" science fiction tale. Although Clement does not make this explicit, or even mention mystery fiction, his ideas seem like well-known concepts about the mystery story genre, modified by him to analyze science fiction:

The metaphor of science fiction as a game, is also often used to describe mystery fiction, especially the puzzle plot detective story.

Cordwainer Smith

The Instrumentality of Mankind: Short Stories

The sheer originality of Cordwainer Smith's ideas seem to astonish most people who read his works, especially the great sequence of science fiction short stories about "The Instrumentality of Mankind".

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 Underpeople and Civil Rights

"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 an admiring 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 Dead Lady of Clown Town" shares subjects with the later "Under Old Earth":

"The Dead Lady of Clown Town" recalls such classic films as The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson, 1962). Both of these films restrict themselves to Joan's trial and execution, the way "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" does. Both of these films have a fierce intensity, as does "The Dead Lady of Clown Town".


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.

Scanners Live in Vain

"Scanners Live in Vain" (1948) is one of Smith's greatest works. The story starts out, first inside the hero's emotions, then expands out from there to the hero's body. Then it encompasses his wife, then his friends, then his coworkers, then finally the whole galaxy. It is a steadily expanding, and very unusual structure. Everything in the story is entirely original; it is not taken from other sf authors, or from common sf conventions of what space travel or the future should be like.

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 Scanners eventually launch an attack on science and a scientist. Today this recalls right-wingers and their attacks on Global Warming science. When scientists reveal news that people find unpleasant, people should accept the bad news as reality, and try to figure out constructive action. Instead, the Scanners, like today's radical conservatives, tell lies denying the reality. It is a frightening picture.

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).

"Scanners Live in Vain" shows the influence of "The Roads Must Roll" (1940) by Robert Heinlein:


Cordwainer Smith's novels seem much more minor than his short stories. Nothing in the mainstream novel Ria (1947) is as interesting as the author biography on the jacket, in which Smith says that he has lived in so many cities, that wherever he is, he is homesick for somewhere else. A genuinely Smithian observation!

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.

Under Old Earth

"Under Old Earth" shows a singer musician having a hypnotic effect on his listeners. This is clearly a reference to the rock and pop singers of the day.

Earlier, the comic book Jimmy Olsen included such tales. Especially close: "The Rock 'n' Roll Superman" (Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #32, October 1958). This tale was written by Otto Binder. Please see my article for details: Jimmy Olsen tales about Music.

In "The Rock 'n' Roll Superman", Superman himself dances helplessly while stage sensation Jimmy sings and plays the guitar. Perhaps unexpectedly, this is seen as a good thing, an expression of forbidden joy in the Jimmy-Superman relationship. By contrast, the dancing of the singer's followers is sinister in "Under Old Earth". In both "The Rock 'n' Roll Superman" and "Under Old Earth", the situation is eventually seen to have science fictional dimensions.

"Under Old Earth" also links its musician to classical music: atonal music, and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (1721). "Atonal music" inevitably evokes the founder of atonal music, Arnold Schoenberg. There were comic book stories about the hypnotic power of classical music, such as "The Cavern of Deadly Spheres" (Justice League of America #16, December 1962). Its villain Maestro makes people dance helplessly to his music. This is seen as bad - like "Under Old Earth". And like both "Under Old Earth" and "The Rock 'n' Roll Superman", the story has science fictional dimensions.

Later, romance comic books (1972-1973) featured non-science-fiction stories of rock stars and athletes being able to invoke and compel such attention. See my discussion.

The character named Sun-Boy recalls a series character in the Superman comic books called Sun Boy. The two characters have very different backgrounds and personalities, however. Sun Boy the comic book super-hero debuted in "Supergirl's Three Super Girl-Friends" (Action Comics #276, May 1961), nearly five years before "Under Old Earth".

Did Cordwainer Smith read Superman comic books? My impression is that except for parents reading comic books with their kids, that few over-25-year-olds read comic books in the 1960's. But Cordwainer Smith might have been an exception.


Atomsk (1949) is a now forgotten spy novel: mainly a routine book. It shows that cliché of plotting: the hero first infiltrates an enemy base, then breaks out of it and escapes, with important information.

The hero is unusual in that he is an Aleut. He spent World War II undercover posing as a Japanese civilian, and now is fishing for Soviet secrets in Siberia.

Only some details about a crashed pilot in the early chapters seem especially Smithian. (This thriller is my excuse for including Cordwainer Smith in this Mystery Guide. Mainly, I just wanted to discuss this major author.)

Charles L. Harness

Charles L. Harness is a science fiction writer, whose tales sometimes have elements of spy fiction. An Ornament to His Profession is a large omnibus collecting Harness' short stories and novellas.

The Rose

Humanity Evolving. "The Rose" (1953) looks at a new stage of humanity evolving. It differs from most such tales, from Van Vogt's Slan (1940) to The X-Men, in that it has little interest in political conflict between traditional humans and mutant humans. Instead, it is concerned with the new mutations themselves, both their biology, and what potential impact they have.

Thinking. "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.

Campbell era sf took an interest in cognition. Heinlein's "Gulf" and Asimov's "Jokester" are examples. "The Rose" is one of the deepest dives into cognition in Golden Age sf. Please see this article's section on Cognition.

Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes (1840) contains six lectures. The third, "The Hero as Poet" investigates the idea that Nature and humans are music, when looked at deeply. Quotes: "All deep things are Song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song" and "The Greeks fabled of Sphere-Harmonies: it was the feeling they had of the inner structure of Nature; that the soul of all her voices and utterances was perfect music." and "See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it." This is perhaps a related idea to the depiction in "The Rose" of mathematics and music being translatable into each other. Orson Welles cited Carlyle in his documentary film Filming Othello (1978). Welles claimed that the film medium is musical, when looked at deeply. This is another equivalence between two modes of thought, film and music.

Please see my picks of Classical Music.

Anticipating Kornbluth. "The Rose" anticipates Cyril M. Kornbluth's short story "Gomez" (1954). Both deal with scientists trying to create unified theories. "The Rose" describes attempts to unify nearly all of science. By contrast, Gomez is trying to unify physics, a more restricted but still vast domain. Gomez is trying to create a unified field theory in physics: still a goal of much real life physics.

If "The Rose" compares science and mathematics to classical music, "Gomez" uses a metaphor of a chess grand master to suggest the mental workings of its scientific genius.

"Gomez", like "The Rose", shows a state security apparatus surrounding the genius scientist.

Anticipating Le Guin. "The Rose" anticipates subjects in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974). SPOILERS. Both works:

Both works are notable for their settings among purely "modern" societies, without any sort of primitivism or medieval flavor. They perhaps can be seen as explorations of what literary theorists call "modernity".

References. "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 Paradox Men

The Paradox Men (1949, 1953) is Charles L. Harness' first novel.

Mystery. The Paradox Men introduces mysteries right away. SPOILERS:

However The Paradox Men is NOT structured like a traditional detective story. In particular, there is no detective figure systematically investigating these mysteries to solve them.

Future History. The life story of Muir (Chapter 2 of The Paradox Men) has elements of a Future History. His life milestones are linked to key moments in the development of this future society.

Social Science Fiction. There is much discussion of the sinister economics of slavery (Chapters 2, 5, 6). This is in the Campbell tradition of Social Science Fiction: a detailed look at a systematically different society. Slavery is relentlessly seen as horrifying in The Paradox Men.

The Paradox Men places much emphasis on the origins of slavery, the economic and political forces that sustain it, and solutions that might bring it to an end. This look at "origins, causes and cures" is somewhat different from much other Social Science Fiction.

Slavery in The Paradox Men is not linked to race. Instead it is compared to slavery in the Ancient World.

Links to "The Rose". The Paradox Men has subjects in common with "The Rose". Usually these subjects are transformed between the two works, however:

Some of the ideas in The Paradox Men are looked at more systematically in "The Rose", including Thinking/Cognition, Mathematics, Women Mathematicians and Music. These are all interlinked concepts related to Thought.

Cognition. The use of microfilm to present "the sum total of human knowledge" (Chapter 3) recalls the proposals in H.G. Wells' non-fiction book World Brain (1936-1938).

The Microfilm Mind can only present partial knowledge to those who give him queries. This is a good device for moving the plot forward. It also recalls the cryptic answers of the Oracle of Delphi, in Ancient Greece.

Mathematics. Concepts in The Paradox Men are often presented in terms of mathematics. SPOILERS:

Mathematics also plays a key role in "The Rose".

Toynbee. The Paradox Men cites British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and discusses his ideas in some detail (Chapter 6). I'm not a historian, have not read Toynbee, only summaries of his work, and am thus not qualified to discuss his work.

The Wikipedia article on Toynbee implies Toynbee's most influential book was the 1947 one-volume abridgment of Toynbee's A Study of History. This "sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S.", an astonishing number for an academic scholarly work. It quotes Michael Lang: "Toynbee was perhaps the world's most read, translated, and discussed living scholar." The article also states "The press printed innumerable discussions of Toynbee's work". Toynbee was thus at the peak of his influence when The Paradox Men (1949, 1953) was published. The Toynbee ideas included in The Paradox Men are indeed from A Study of History.

Despite being a non-historian I'm going to risk a comment. Toynbee's systematic, comparative method might be seen (accurately or not) as an attempt to write history using scientific methods. Toynbee's work thus might appeal to science fiction writers, always looking out for advances in science.

Toynbee's ideas can be seen as a way of thinking about history. They are thus part of Harness' interest in methods of thinking and cognition.

Economics and Rivalry. Stingingly negative comments are made about "free enterprise" (end of Chapter 6). This must have been a controversial opinion in the anti-Communist 1949-1953 era. Capitalism is still an official system in America Imperial (or Imperium) in 2177, the year in which The Paradox Men is set.

The hero is masquerading as a professor from the rival Eastern Federation. He is allegedly from Kharkov in Ukraine. In one of his French speeches he uses the word "tovarich" (Chapter 7). Tovarich means "Comrade", the traditional Communist greeting. This suggests that the Eastern Federation is heir to 20th Century Communism.

The 2177 rivalry between America Imperial and the Eastern Federation thus recalls the real-life 1949 contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

HUAC?. Among the sinister officials of the evil government, is the Minister of Subversive Activities (Chapter 2). This perhaps recalls the real-life House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), then at the peak of its activity. The Minister is seen negatively - and if this is a reference to HUAC, it means that HUAC is also seen negatively.

Thurmond. The head of the sinister government police is Thurmond. In 1949, this would have recalled the real-life Governor Strom Thurmond, who ran for President in 1948 on a racist anti-Civil Rights platform. The Thurmond in The Paradox Men is a vicious villain. Likely this is also a negative comment on the real-life Strom Thurmond.

The Ball. The big 2177 diplomatic and government ball (Chapters 6, 7) bears an odd resemblance to a 1940's Washington party. Big shots there include a Senator, a banker and Ambassador: figures one could meet at a real-life 1949 Washington fete. The whole thing recalls the Washington society galas in the 1940's mystery novels of Leslie Ford, such as The Murder of a Fifth Columnist (1941), Murder in the O.P.M. (1942) or The Woman in Black (1947). As in Ford, such parties allow women to attend socially, and mingle with male government officials and businessmen. (The evil society in The Paradox Men is sexist and male-dominated.)

The ball also recalls fancy balls in tales of international intrigue. For example, the German Embassy Ball in Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent (1912) (start of Chapter 22) by John T. McIntyre. McIntyre emphasizes the brilliant color of the spectacular dress uniforms of various nations worn by men at the ball. Similarly, The Paradox Men talks about "the bright-plumaged males" at the ball (start of Chapter 7). It also cites "the brightly uniformed reception master" (Chapter 6). By contrast the sinister police at the ball are in gray. This gives them a serious, ominous edge.

It is possible that Harness was directly influenced by Ford or McIntyre. But it is also possible that all three writers are simply part of a long tradition of depicting such government fetes.

Stockton. "The Lady and the Tarsier", the title of Chapter 2, echoes the famous story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" (1882) by Frank R. Stockton.

The barbaric cruelty of court life in "The Lady, or the Tiger?" anticipates the lifestyles of the sinister government officials in The Paradox Men. Unfortunates being forced into life-or-death wagers by powerful officials occur in both "The Lady, or the Tiger?" and The Paradox Men (first part of Chapter 3).

The Chessplayers

"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.

Links to The Paradox Men. The animal in "The Chessplayers" recalls the tarsier in The Paradox Men. SPOILERS. Both animals have some capabilities of human thought. This gives them a science fiction dimension.

The way the chess club treats members the same despite their outside rank or wealth, echoes in a comic way the democratic finale of The Paradox Men. And it shows equality happening in the contemporary USA, rather than in a future society as in The Paradox Men. Both tales are inspiring.

Science Fiction and History

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.

The finale of The Paradox Men (Chapter 21) looks at a series of famous scientists from the past. But NOT with a suggestion that they had ideas now lost. This passage in The Paradox Men does have a bit of the same feel as "The New Reality".

Lethary Fair

"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.

"Lethary Fair" echoes Harness traditions, in its own comic way:

Cyberpunk Spoof. There are moments in "The Rose" that foreshadow cyberpunk, especially some of the intrigue in the street.

"Lethary Fair" sometimes seems to be parodying cyberpunk, 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.

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is a science fiction writer, whose stories often have elements of crime, mystery or detection.

The Minority Report

"The Minority Report" (1956) is a novella about a future world where crime has been largely abolished, through high tech means.

"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".


Ubik (1969) is a science fiction novel, with mystery and thriller elements.

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:

The homeostatic devices, such as the talking door, also appear in earlier Dick novels, notably The Game-Players of Titan (1963).

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.

Edgar Pangborn

A Mirror for Observers

A Mirror for Observers (1954) is a science fiction novel.

Ellery Queen. A Mirror for Observers shows the influence of mystery writer Ellery Queen.

Ellery Queen set many works in the fictitious New England city of Wrightsville. Latimer, the Massachusetts city where A Mirror for Observers is set, resembles Wrightsville. Both are industrial cities of around ten thousand people. Both have the rich living on a hill. Both authors emphasize parks.

In the first Wrightsville book Calamity Town (1942) Ellery comes to town under a pseudonym, telling people (truthfully) he is a writer looking for a place to write his new book. The hero of A Mirror for Observers goes to Latimer, posing as an author looking for a room to write his new book. This is a false claim, unlike Ellery in Calamity Town.

Queen's The King Is Dead (1952) offers a cautionary look at the possible rise of Fascism in contemporary America. So does A Mirror for Observers.

The Wrightsville books include dancing and drama teacher Emmeline DuPré. A Mirror for Observers has Mrs. Agnes Mapp who taught art and music.

Ellery Queen wrote four novels about actor-turned-detective Drury Lane (1932-1933). Drury Lane has the ability to impersonate almost anyone, taking over their identity. So do the Martian characters in A Mirror for Observers. Drury Lane and other characters with impersonation ability are surveyed in section 9 of my article on Doubles.

Ellery Queen included a child prodigy in The Tragedy of Y (1932).

A hard-working Italian-American woman keeps a rooming house in Queen's "Money Talks" (1950). Ellery goes undercover as one of her roomers. She anticipates Rosa in A Mirror for Observers. The hero goes undercover at the rooming house in A Mirror for Observers too.

The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) anticipates A Mirror for Observers. Both have human-looking aliens who move into a rooming house and befriend a boy who lives there.

Teen Gangs. Sinister Billy Kell leads a teen gang in A Mirror for Observers.

A Mirror for Observers was published in early 1954. See also the teen gang in Step Child (Budd Boetticher, May 27, 1954), an episode of the TV series Public Defender.

Schools. A Mirror for Observers (Part one: end of Chapter 2) anticipates Robert Heinlein's Have Space Suit - Will Travel (1958) in criticizing education at public high schools as worthless.

Fred Hoyle

The Black Cloud

Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957) is an interesting sf novel with an astronomy background. The book eventually develops plot surprises. Logical-but-surprising developments regularly take place in mystery fiction; The Black Cloud is perhaps a science fiction novel whose plot structure of logically-prepared-twist has some broad similarity with a mystery.

Theodore L. Thomas

Theodore L. Thomas was an American science fiction writer, mainly of short stories.

The Weather Man

"The Weather Man" (1962) is a novella about a future Earth run by scientific weather control. It stresses the importance of weather: something that seems even more relevant in today's age of Global Warming. It talks about rising sea levels: something casual in 1962, sinister today.

SF Traditions. Theodore L. Thomas began his career with a collaboration with Charles L. Harness. "The Weather Man" embodies some Harness traditions:

"The Weather Man" also recalls Isaac Asimov: "The Weather Man" contains a vivid portrait of a woman scientist, Anna Brackney. This too recalls Asimov's robotics scientist Susan Calvin in I, Robot, and the woman science genius in Harness' "The Rose" (1953). "The Weather Man" is one of the most feminist stories of its era.

The weather science in "The Weather Man" is highly mathematical. So is Asimov's psychohistory. And see the emphasis on mathematics and thinking in Harness' "The Rose".

As noted, the "cognitive" aspects of "The Weather Man" recall Harness, and the "new science" approach echoes Asimov. However, Thomas' specific ideas are original. And any writer who develops a "new science" faces extraordinary challenges. Thomas' approach may echo sf traditions from Asimov and elsewhere. But it is an important achievement in its own right.

Diverse Characters. "The Weather Man" has diverse characters:

The diverse characters and feminist heroine likely reflect ideas of the Civil Rights era.

None of the characters in "The Weather Man" are perfect. Most have flaws, as well as considerable virtues and accomplishments. Discrimination against the heroine as a female scientist, has clearly left her mildly neurotic at the start of the tale. But as people began to accept her brilliant scientific work, she becomes more able to reach out to other people, in turn.

Gardner Tongareva is explicitly described as Polynesian. But many other characters get no racial description. In much American fiction, one can simply assume such undescribed characters are intended to be White. It's a bad convention - but one unfortunately very widespread in US fiction. But I am much less sure about this assumption in science fiction of this era. Characters like Jonathan Wilburn, Anna Brackney, Jim Eden get no physical description either. There is in fact nothing in "The Weather Man" that allows one to specify their race. One can see similar approaches in some works by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

A Story Sequence. In many ways "The Weather Man" is a series of three short stories. The three sections share a common background of a future Earth of weather control. But each one has new characters and a different setting and locale. Story sequences are common in science fiction and mystery fiction. "The Weather Man" is unusual in that its three stories were all published together, as a single work.

However, the science fiction plots and background of the three sections are closely linked.

Three Kinds of SF. The three sections embody three standard kinds of science fiction tales:

All three of these kinds of science fiction have strong roots in Campbell-edited science fiction. Thomas was following Campbell tradition by working in these modes.

The Lighted Globe. A globe used by the weather scientists shows information using color lights. This recalls a non-science fiction novel, McKee of Centre Street (1933) (Chapter 1) by Helen Reilly. The New York City police in that book have a "radio room", using brilliant light, color and sound, that is their communication center.

Today, there is the real-life "Science On a Sphere". These are large globes that can be lit up in hundreds of ways, showing maps of different kinds of planetary phenomena. The maps are kinetic, with light patterns in motion. The maps are essentially animated films, crafted to be displayed on a sphere.

The Lead Suit. The sun pilots wear lead suits to protect themselves from solar radiation. Before this, Superman wore lead suits to protect himself from Kryptonite radiation. Please see my list of tales written by Otto Binder about Superman in a lead suit.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) is a post-apocalyptic novel.

Ancestors?. The core premise of A Canticle for Leibowitz recalls H.G. Wells' film Things to Come (1936), another post-apocalyptic tale. Both are future histories, in which:

Concerns that the development of advanced civilization leads inexorably to apocalyptic war were found earlier in Arthur C. Clarke's "Second Dawn" (1951).

Other works in the post-apocalyptic tradition include Lewis Padgett's Mutant (1945, 1953) and John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955).

A Lack of Science Fiction Ideas. I have mixed feelings about A Canticle for Leibowitz. Among its virtues: it is highly readable and has good storytelling. Among its faults: it has few original science fiction ideas. It sticks closely to the above standard paradigm of the post-apocalyptic tale. It introduces few other science fiction concepts.

Miller certainly knew how to develop a Campbell-style science fiction story, with original science fiction ideas, and which shows how these new ideas lead to a different, innovative society. Examples: his short works "Crucifixus Etiam", and especially "The Lineman". However, he mainly chose NOT to use such a Campbell approach in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

You could easily get the impression reading A Canticle for Leibowitz that it is the work of a naive, mainstream writer, who knew little about traditional science fiction techniques or structures. Not so: Miller's short fiction shows his skill with Campbellian science fiction techniques. And Miller regularly published in Campbell's magazine Astounding.

A Canticle for Leibowitz does in fact read like an almost mainstream novel: One that takes a science fiction premise, the post-apocalyptic tale, and then writes a mainly mainstream novel about it, with few sf ideas.

Underground. Some of the most vivid settings in the novel are underground chambers:

Both are sites of technological progress and discovery. Both sites are also "wired" in ways that much of the rest of the desert is not.

Other works by Miller include high-tech underground sites. Examples:

Electrical Engineering. The arc-light built in the monastery basement is a simple example of electrical construction. "The Lineman" shows people building the electrical infrastructure for a Moon colony.

Space Colonization. The final third emphasizes how difficult it is for humans to live in colonies on other planets. The difficulties of space colonization are a central subject in Miller shorter works like "Crucifixus Etiam" (1953), "The Hoofer" (1955), "The Lineman" (1957).

Such Miller short works emphasize the horrible psychological difficulties, faced by workers in such inhospitable, stress-filled environments.

Miller had been a member of a bombing crew during World War II: a notoriously stressful work environment. One wonders if this helped inspire such short stories. A mainstream work that offers insights about bomber crews: Irwin Shaw's short story "Gunners' Passage" (1944). It shows originally virile young men on such crews undergoing complete physical and psychological collapse, due to pressures of their job.

Mutants and Color. Mutants in this post-atomic world are sometimes described in terms of body color:

Brother Fingo and similar mutants are accepted by society. There is probably a subtext of the Civil Rights movement of the era. "The Lineman" explicitly looks at racial equality, with a white southerner trying to atone for racial oppression of black people.

Right to Life. The Catholic Church insists on mutants' right to life (start of Chapter 1). This makes a contrast to John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955), in which religious fundamentalists try to exterminate mutants.

Thon Taddeo's struggle to flourish as an illegitimate child (first half of Chapter 13) also perhaps has a subtext of Catholic teachings on "right to life".

Collectives: Alternatives to Capitalism. The monks live collectively. Their monastery is a form of economic organization, that is non-capitalist. A Canticle for Leibowitz is thus a look at non-capitalist, collective social organization. The book is sometimes critical of the monastery, especially in Part I. Throughout Parts II and III, it is largely sympathetic to the monks. By contrast, the book is mainly critical of the world outside of the Church, offering scathing looks at war lords and outside governments.

The monks are not entirely separate from capitalism. They sell monastery products, such as the books they copy, thus having them take part in commerce. The commercial demand influences what sort of books they copy (Chapter 7). While the novel makes no explicit comment, it is hard not to feel that it disapproves of this commercial influence, implicitly suggesting that it leads to the copying of less worthwhile books.

Miller short works discuss economics:

Catholicism: Piety+Culture. Today, many Americans equate religion with theology. They see religion as theology and theology as religion. But historically many people over the centuries have stressed non-theological issues as central to their religion:

A Canticle for Leibowitz stresses "piety+culture" as the central part of its portrait of Catholicism. The monks are shown practicing a wide variety of pious religious devotions, as part of their daily lives. And they are the main ones saving culture and knowledge, with their preservation and copying of manuscripts and documents.

Among the music mentioned in "The Lineman" are Palestrina and plainchant: two key examples of Catholic sacred music.

Mathematics. A discussion of math equations, from a document written by a 20th century physicist, is interesting (Chapter 19). But it is hard to interpret, and to relate to concrete real-life math ideas. Here are some guesses - that may not be accurate.

A contracted derivative actually stand for a whole set of derivatives. Guess: this refers to tensors. Tensors were employed by Albert Einstein for the equations he developed in General Relativity. Einstein fell in love with tensors, admiring their power to compactly note complex mathematic concepts. Thon Taddeo expresses a similar enthusiasm, finding the idea downright "beautiful". Another guess: the unspecified 20th Century physics in this chapter, is actually an account of Einstein's General Relativity.

Next Taddeo talks about equations that stand not for "quantities", but which express a system of equations about a system of quantities. Guess: These equations deal with vectors or perhaps matrices. A further guess: Taddeo had never seen vector equations or matrix equations before. He had only seen equations dealing with isolated quantities: what mathematicians call "scalars". By contrast, vectors and matrices deal with whole systems of numbers simultaneously.

Origin of Humans. A discussion of the origin of humanity is tongue-in-cheek, with elements of satire. SPOILERS. First Taddeo rejects evolution, which the monks propose (Chapter 20). Here are religious people advocating evolution, and a secular scientist rejecting it: a role reversal of the real-life 19th Century development of the theory of evolution.

Next Taddeo proposes an idea which is clearly wrong. The monks suggest he is basing his concepts not on historical fact, but on a play whose fictitious events he has mistaken for fact (Chapter 22). This play is unnamed: but likely it is R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (1920), a science fiction play by Karel Capek.

Allegorical Interpretation. The priest in A Canticle for Leibowitz suggests that the Creation account in Genesis should be interpreted allegorically, rather than literally (Chapter 22). This shows him accepting science rather than fundamentalism.

This view of evolution is widespread, almost universal among contemporary real-life Catholics. They see evolution as offering literal, scientific truth, and are whole-hearted supporters of evolution. And see Genesis as offering an allegory, while not literally true, that has spiritual and cultural value. Given the sympathetic treatment of the priest here, one strongly suspects that A Canticle for Leibowitz is advocating precisely this view.

The anthology Is God a Creationist?: The Religious Case against Creation-Science (1983) edited by Roland Mushat Frye, documents the views of many religious scholars who support evolution. The book includes Catholic, Protestant and Jewish scholars. One is Pope John Paul II.

The priest's advocacy of "allegorical interpretation" has deep roots in Catholic thought. Saint Thomas Aquinas recommended both literal and allegorical interpretations of Scripture.

Two Eras of Catholicism. Part I and Part II of A Canticle for Leibowitz take place around 600 years apart years apart. Knowledge and science greatly advance between the two Parts. Catholicism changes too:

In both Parts and eras, monasticism is shown as a courageous response to the eras' horrific politics - and something that saved civilization and knowledge.

The Coming of War. The final third of A Canticle for Leibowitz shows the coming of possible total war. It can be compared to Miller's brief but vivid short story "Way of a Rebel" (1954) (available free on-line at

Both tales "deconstruct" noble-sounding government statements, that make the war sound admirable. The tales make clear that this is manipulative propaganda.

"Way of a Rebel" gives its hero the option of taking part or refusing to take part in the war. This is a greater choice than most of the characters in A Canticle for Leibowitz have. "Way of a Rebel" spells out in intelligent detail, the various moral and practical issues involved. It thus gets to explore important ideas not found in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Silvina Ocampo

"The Waves" (1959) is an excellent short story. For a brief tale, it packs in a remarkable amount of material: "The Waves" is reprinted in The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer.

Stanislaw Lem

The Investigation

The Investigation (1959) is a combination detective and science fiction novel.

British Police Mystery. The Investigation is set in Britain. It features an investigation by Scotland Yard: the approach pioneered in the 1920's by Freeman Wills Crofts. The Investigation also resembles Crofts in that we learn the ideas of the detectives throughout the story, rather than only at the end. However, The Investigation is not otherwise close to Crofts traditions or approaches. For example, The Investigation emphasizes cars and trucks, while Crofts loved trains, boats and motorcycles. And the police in The Investigation seem odd, eccentric or emotionally disturbed, while the Crofts School emphasizes how normal and everyday its policemen are.

SPOILERS. Aside from the hero's landlords, most of the characters in The Investigation are police, who serve as suspects. A British mystery novel with a cast of police suspects is Murder in Blue (1937) by Clifford Witting. (The title refers to the blue police uniforms worn by the book's suspects.) However Murder in Blue does not much resemble The Investigation.

British mysteries that like The Investigation study footprints in snow are less common than one might think. Dancing Death (1931) by Christopher Bush is an example.

Links to Solaris. The Investigation anticipates Solaris. In both:

Events in The Investigation reappear in Solaris as metaphors: Hitchcock. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) is a silent film concerning a serial killer in London. The police establish that when the killer's crimes are plotted on a map, that they move towards a region of London. This anticipates the way the crimes "move" over geography in The Investigation. As best as I can tell, this idea is not present in the original novel of The Lodger (1913).

The film The Lodger also anticipates The Investigation in emphasizing the lodging house where the hero rents rooms. And in showing British fogs.

Resurrection: Ancestors?. Long before Lem, resurrection was a regular theme in comic book writer Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman. Please see my list of Siegel's Resurrection tales.

Characters who are seemingly dead, but who come back to life, are a recurrent theme in the films of director Joseph H. Lewis. And in Murder Is My Beat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1955). Please see these articles of mine for details. Murder Is My Beat especially anticipates The Investigation in the scene where a woman recognizes a living man, as a man who is supposed to be dead. In both Murder Is My Beat ands The Investigation this scene involves trains. Both also have scenes in the snow.

In prose mystery fiction the subject appears in Craig Rice, and in Margery Allingham's "The Case of the Late Pig" (1937).

There are many mysteries, often comic, about corpses that are kidnapped or moved about. Craig Rice wrote The Corpse Steps Out (1940), Frank Gruber The Mighty Blockhead (1941-1942), Robert Reeves Cellini Smith: Detective (1943). Alfred Hitchcock brought this tradition to the screen with The Trouble with Harry (1955). The Disappearing Corpse (1957) by James Warren is a comic mystery novel in this tradition. It resembles The Investigation in taking place in a remote area of rural Britain, and in emphasizing driving in heavy fog. Please see my list of Fog in Mysteries.

Multiple Solutions. The Investigation presents many tentative solutions throughout the novel. At the end, we get a naturalistic solution, "naturalistic" in the sense that it does not depend on science fictional ideas. Is this the "true" solution? Maybe, maybe not. I think The Investigation holds open the possibility that some of the earlier science fiction solutions might actually be correct, instead.

Adaptations. The Investigation was filmed at least twice for Polish television. The 1974 version directed by Marek Piestrak has been praised. It is part of a 2017 retrospective of Lem film adaptations screened at the prestigious Anthology Film Archives in New York City.


Solaris (1961) is about the quest to understand a super-human alien intelligence.

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.

Complexity. "Complexity" as a metric, a way to measure the depth of a thought or idea, was perhaps more popular in the 1960's than today. Classical music and jazz are distinguished from popular music by being far more complex. This was often cited as a virtue, and as a reason we should listen to classical music and jazz. Poetry was also seen as often highly complex.

The intelligent ocean in Solaris makes patterns that are too complex for humans to understand. Measured by the metric of complexity, these ocean thoughts are more advanced than human thought - because they are more complex.

Simplicity: Algorithms?. Seemingly the opposite of Complexity is Simplicity. Occam's Razor is the principle that if two rival scientific theories explain some aspect of reality, that the simpler theory is more likely to be true.

Martin Gardner pointed out that there is no explicit algorithm, that would precisely measure exactly how simple a theory is. I've seen research on some very restricted kinds of theories, that rigorously measure their simplicity. But I think that Gardner's point is still true: so far, there is no general algorithm that can measure how simple any theory is. And thus we cannot be rigorously sure that one theory actually IS simpler than another.

And similarly, there is no general algorithm that can precisely measure how complex an idea is.

Much Classical music and jazz are so much vastly more complex than many pop songs, that we can be sure they are more complex. But for closer cases, we still have no more than a "gut feel" for how complex a given idea is.

Please see my picks of Classical Music.

The Cyberiad

The Cyberiad (1965) is a sequence of stories set against a shared background: a common structure in both mysteries and science fiction.

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 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.

The Cyberiad was made into an opera (1970) with music by Krzysztof Meyer. The opera seems mainly based on one section, "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius".

Ancestors?. Clifford D. Simak had long written about both robots, and the ability of machinery to enhance/influence artistic creativity. Simak's "Limiting Factor" (1949) anticipates some ideas in the middle section of Lem's "Altruizine".

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.

Poland's national literature remembers its medieval era. A book like Krzyzacy ("The Black Cross" or "The Teutonic Knights") (1897-1900) by Henryk Sienkiewicz is filled with sinister knights, kings and fighting. This novel was widely taught in Polish schools. A hugely popular hit film was made of it by director Aleksander Ford in 1960: a film seen by nearly every person in Poland. So the evil kings and regimes in The Cyberiad are grounded in realistic looks at the region's past. They are not simply fairy tales.

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).

The cubical planet in "Altruizine" recalls the Bizarro World in Superman comic books, first seen in the comic book tale "The World of Bizarros" (Action Comics #263, April 1960).

Ancestors?: Burlesques. 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 Space Child's Mother Goose (1958) by Frederick Winsor presented science-fiction variants on traditional nursery rhymes. It's a delightful book, and surprisingly deep in its mathematical and scientific ideas: also anticipating The Cyberiad.

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 tale shows various political authorities cowering in fear, refusing to tell the truth or help the truth-tellers. This too seems like a political allegory.

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).

The Divine is transformed into the original-to-this-tale idea of the "Universal Matrix of Transfinite Transformations". Seeing the divine in an all-inclusive collection of all transformations is indeed a mathematically creative view of infinite possibility and structure.

Dragons can "hypercontiguate", a kind of multiplication. This allows dragons to take part in "algebra", such as group theory. Mathematicians love group theory and are eager to find such algebraic structures, in everything from matrices to Lie Algebras to knots. Dragons also have inverses: also a group theory concept. The multiple kinds of inverses perhaps invoke the mathematical theory of quaternions.

Probabilities of dragons have become something other than integers (whole numbers). Such non-integral values recall spin in particle physics. More distantly, they invoke non-integral dimensions in Hausdorff theory.

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".

Altruizine. I disagree with the fundamental thesis of "Altruizine", that idealistic social reforms or innovations are doomed to failure. However, the colorful details of this story are inventive, making it enjoyable reading.

The final section is a story-within-the-story. SPOILERS. Its subject of information shared between minds, is broadly related to the mind-switching in "The Mischief of King Balerion". And both are related to ability of the ocean in Solaris to read minds and create things based on what it reads there.

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 LGBTQ 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.

Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (2006) is a novel. Its original Chinese title is simply Three Body.

Video Game. The video game sections total around 54 pages (but would be shorter if printing were not so expansive in the book). They form a separate novella or long short story embedded in the novel.

The video game episodes resembles a series of linked short stories, based on common themes. The game format allows for unusual story telling approaches. They are "experimental" in their literary techniques.

They contain a science fiction puzzle (set forth in Chapters 7 and 11, solved in Chapter 15). Puzzles are a standard element in some science eviction. Such puzzles have some affinity with mystery fiction. The way Wang solves the puzzle, makes him analogous to the detective in traditional mystery fiction.

The video game sections recall Lem's The Cyberiad. Both works have a series of "artificial" events, that have symbolic relevance to the real world. This is an experimental approach, different from standard fiction techniques. The section on the computer (Chapter 17) recalls a bit "The Trap of Gargantius" in The Cyberiad.

These sections also resemblance Lem's novel Solaris somewhat. The planet in Liu's novel is called Trisolaris, evoking Lem. (I am not sure how close this parallel of names is in the Chinese original.) And the "three-body problem" from physics is presented as a conundrum that is nearly impossible for science to analyze or understand, recalling the ocean in Solaris.

The video games sections also recall "Reiko's Universe Box" (1981) by Kajio Shinji:

However, what is going on inside the Universe Box seems to be "real", not a simulation like the video game.

The opening episode of the video game (Chapter 7), somewhat recalls Arthur C. Clarke's "The Lion of Comarre", with travelers converging on a mysterious pyramid.

The multiple civilizations recall Harness' The Paradox Men. The Paradox Men is based on historian Arnold Toynbee's ideas of successive civilizations, and features a new such Toynbee-style civilization in the future. The Three-Body Problem differs from The Paradox Men in that it contains multiple civilizations instead of one, and in that it does not explicitly invoke Toynbee. It also differs from Toynbee in that civilizations fall in The Three-Body Problem because of astronomical factors, while in Toynbee historical forces cause the decline of civilizations.

The emphasis on suns in both the video game and non-video-games parts of The Three-Body Problem, also recalls the solar setting of parts of The Paradox Men.

Hard Science Fiction. Some non-video-game episodes are steeped in science and scientists. They fall squarely into the tradition of "hard science fiction" (often abbreviated as "hard sf"). Likely, the author consciously intended these sections as hard sf:

Both of these center on astronomers (and related fields) and astronomical research sites. This is a traditional locale for much American hard science fiction.

There are also hard sf aspects to some of the video games episodes.

The Countdown. The numbers sent to the hero form a countdown from some alien messenger (Chapter 6). This recalls J.G. Ballard's "The Voices of Time".

Pentecost. The Three-Body Problem invokes the Christian doctrine of Pentecost. with the hymn to the Holy Sprit (end of Chapter 9). This links the Christian Pentecost-concept of messages from the divine Holy Spirit, to the messages from aliens in The Three-Body Problem. Pentecost is often symbolized by tongues of fire descending on the disciples; some of the messages in The Three-Body Problem take the form of changes to the universe's background radiation (Chapter 9).

Pentecost is repeatedly invoked in the film Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005).

The Poetry Cloud: a short story

"The Poetry Cloud" has features that anticipate The Three-Body Problem. SPOILERS: The specific ideas are quite different in the two works. But the ideas fall into the same categories, as listed above.

The subject of technology vs art in "The Poetry Cloud" recalls science vs art in "The Rose" by Charles L. Harness.

Hao Jingfang

Hao Jingfang is a Chinese science fiction writer.

Folding Beijing: a novella

"Folding Beijing" (2014) won the Hugo Award.

Philip José Farmer's short story "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" (1971) has a related conceit to "Folding Beijing". In Farmer people are only awake one day each week, allowing seven times the normal capacity to inhabit a city. Farmer's concept is nowhere as dramatic as the one in "Folding Beijing".

Near Future: Utopia and Dystopia. "Folding Beijing" recalls Utopian and Dystopian fiction of 100 years ago:

Revolving City. The image of visually rotating cityscapes echoes imagery in the film Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010). The actual story content of the scenes is drastically different in the two works, however.

Ray Nelson

Ray Nelson is an sf writer noted for his off-trail approaches. His Blake's Progress (1975) is a delightful science fiction extravaganza.

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.

Avram Davidson

Avram Davidson was a prolific short story writer in both the mystery and science fiction and fantasy fields. He wrote over 200 short tales.

The Investigations of Avram Davidson

The Investigations of Avram Davidson collects many of the author's best crime stories.

Davidson's crime fiction often attempts to evoke a society, a locale or a milieu. Some of his works are historicals: the novella "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. "The Cost of Kent Castwell" (1961) shows many details of a traditional New England small town obsessed with frugality, saving money and "making do" with less. This is one of the least sympathetic portraits of a New England town since "The Lottery" (1948) by Shirley Jackson.

The locale's infrastructure plays a role in some of these tales. "The Cost of Kent Castwell" looks at maintaining the town's roads. "The Importance of Trifles" looks at the new-in-1830 omnibuses riding up Broadway. We also learn about the newspapers of the era. Above all, there is a detailed look at the city's harbor and shipping trade.

Jacob Hays in "The Importance of Trifles" expresses the same penny-pinching philosophy at the tale's start. But he also laments this tightness in the city's officials.

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.

"The Importance of Trifles" is a good work from a historical fiction perspective. It was published at a time when historical mysteries were rare.

"The Importance of Trifles" has an important subplot, dealing with race relations before the US Civil Way. The tale is written from a pro-Civil Rights point of view. "The Necessity of His Condition" also examines the history of race relations.

Doctor Eszterhazy

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".

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin writes fantasy, science fiction and mainstream fiction, poetry and essays.

Science fiction constitutes nearly half of Le Guin's published fiction. That number does NOT include fantasy like Earthsea. Nor does it include Orsinia, which I claim should be categorized as realist mainstream fiction, even if it is set in an imaginary Central European country. When I say science fiction is half of Le Guin's fiction, I'm talking about strict outer-space-and-the-future science fiction, as the term has been understood since 1926.

What is best in Le Guin's writings?

I am a big admirer of science fiction. It has a special place in literature, with creative possibilities not open to other genres. I admire the science fiction of Le Guin and many other sf writers in a straightforward way, considering them good books. This article tries to justify this admiration, through detailed analysis and criticism.

But many admirers of Le Guin are mainly specialists in mainstream realist fiction: which in itself is fine. Unfortunately, many despise science fiction: which is not fine. You can see them tying themselves into pretzels to say something nice about Le Guin, without endorsing that Dreadful Evil Science Fiction Genre. This approach is so self-inconsistent that it is doomed to logical failure. People need to abandon it, and revise their aesthetics so that they recognize the merits of science fiction.

The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed (1974) is one of Le Guin's most prestigious books.

A book of essays about it, mainly by Political Science professors, is The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (2005) edited by by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman. It is available for free on-line here. The Dispossessed is linked to a large number of key social questions: environmental, economic, anti-consumerist.

Le Guin's speech to the National Book Foundation is related to ideas in The Dispossessed.

Social Science Fiction. John W. Campbell and his magazine Astounding emphasized what Campbell writer Isaac Asimov called "Social Science Fiction". This is science fiction that looks at some innovation, whether scientific, technological or social, and depicts how a whole society and way of life would logically follow from this innovation. The more detail about how this society would function, the better: as long as the detail is logically based on the innovation.

Two aspects of The Dispossessed build up elaborately detailed portraits, in the manner of Social Science Fiction:

Unlike the portrait of anarchism on Anarres, the physics aspects of The Dispossessed do not seem to all follow from a single premise. But they do form a systematic portrait of an institution and/or a way of life.

The enormous richness, creativity and inventiveness of the portraits of Anarres and Cetian physics in The Dispossessed are major reasons why this book is so admired.

Much of Le Guin's science fiction, including The Dispossessed, is centrally in the tradition of Social Science Fiction. Although Le Guin is not a "Campbell writer", never working with Campbell or publishing in his magazine, her conception of science fiction follows the same paradigms as Campbell. Like Philip K. Dick, she is a writer of Social Science Fiction, a tradition firmly linked to Campbell, without being a writer with a personal connection to Campbell.

Scientific Research. The Dispossessed offers a detailed portrait of scientific research. This subject is traditionally viewed in science fiction as a topic of deep interest. It appears in countless science fiction novels and short stories. One reason that The Dispossessed is widely regarded as a good novel, is that skillfully imagines a scientific research program.

In its science The Dispossessed bears some resemblance to "The Rose" (1953) by Charles L. Harness. Both center on unified theories of physics or science. Both draw parallels between physics or mathematics, and music.

The Dispossessed also recalls Cyril M. Kornbluth's short story "Gomez" (1954). SPOILERS:

The treatment of physics in The Dispossessed contains many original ideas and approaches not found in Harness or Kornbluth. But the three writers are part of a "cultural tradition". Also relevant to this tradition: sf tales of new, made-up sciences, such as Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy and Theodore L. Thomas' "The Weather Man".

A Western. The Dispossessed has features that recall Westerns, especially the Television Westerns of the era. The resemblance is especially strong in the opening chapter. An angry mob threatens to lynch the hero; the forces of authority have to stand up to them, and try to quiet the crowd. This situation appears in endless TV Westerns of the 1950's and 1960's. It was hugely popular.

A key character in the opening is the foreman of the local crew. Foreman characters were widespread in TV Westerns: The hero of The Virginian was foreman of the Shiloh ranch.

A doctor is prominent in the opening: doctors were ubiquitous in Westerns, usually sympathetic and idealistic, as is the doctor in The Dispossessed. Doctors in Westerns are often shown as independent thinkers, people who stand outside the sometimes flawed social order of their communities. Similarly the doctor in The Dispossessed tries to relate to Shevek "man to man", rather than as someone he wants to manipulate for society.

We meet Pae, a slick, upper crust and charming looking man of the upper classes, who is secretly corrupt. This was a type regularly found in Westerns. William Bishop often played such well-tailored menaces in movie Westerns, as did Ed Nelson on TV. In Western films and TV, audiences usually learned right away that these villains were no good, despite their charming, respectable appearance. Similarly The Dispossessed tips readers off early on that the hero finds Pae untrustworthy.

The rest of The Dispossessed is less Western-like, but it still has aspects recalling Westerns, especially the chapters on Anarres:

In my experience, educated contemporary people just don't watch TV Westerns, unfortunately. If they did, they would discover a remarkable world of skillful drama and progressive social commentary in the best episodes of Cheyenne, The Rifleman and The Virginian. Comparisons of The Dispossessed to Westerns are meant as praise: strong praise.

Classic Russian literature (Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, etc.) famously often deals with financially ordinary people. The same is true of the Western: a point not often appreciated. The archetypal Western hero is a wandering cowboy who owns nothing but a few simple items in his saddle bags. So Le Guin works that deal with poor working people such as The Dispossessed and "Brothers and Sisters" reflect the traditions of Russian Literature. But at the same time, they also can be seen as embodying traditions of the Western.

Postmodernism. The Dispossessed has features characteristic of postmodern fiction:

Some postmodern fictions incorporate science fiction into a mainstream work. The Dispossessed is a full-fledged science fiction tale. It doesn't incorporate science fiction - it is science fiction.

The narration in The Dispossessed has a regular, if complex, two-track time progression. This is a bit different from quite a few postmodern fictions, that jump all over in time.

While The Dispossessed has elements of postmodernism, it seems far from "typical" or standard postmodern in its approach.

Mobiles. The heroine Takver makes mobiles. Some of these include wires and beads. These recall:

The pathetically run down working class woman Shevek sees is wearing big spherical glass earrings (Chapter 9). This recalls the beads in one of Takver's mobiles. We also learn about the fondness of people on Anarres for ornamentation.

Architecture. The old city of Rodarred is notable for its many towers (start of Chapter 11). This is an "ancient city with an imaginative architecture". It recalls another such metropolis, the opening city in The Left Hand of Darkness. That town was built to withstand spring flooding. Compare: The Case of Jennie Brice (1912) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a mystery tale which also shows people coping routinely with floods in Pittsburgh.

Atmosphere and Light. The Dispossessed is full of descriptions of the sky, light and atmosphere.

One associates such descriptions with Robert Louis Stevenson. And with writers influenced by Stevenson:

Le Guin is an admirer of the painter J.M.W. Turner, and has stated that his paintings and the music of Beethoven have had a central influence on her writing. Partly one suspects that Le Guin is talking about the fundamental structures of her work, and the presence of deep, complex logical structures in Turner and Beethoven. But one also notes that Turner's paintings are full of depictions of atmosphere, the sky, light and weather.

Cooperatives. The Dispossessed shows a society run entirely by cooperatives, which have replaced for-profit business, government and other legal institutions. This society is a would-be Utopia, a complete transformation of existing society.

In real life here on Earth, cooperatives have been highly successful, for hundreds of years. Such cooperatives are usually part of a mixed economy. co-existing along with for-profit business, government institutions, non-profits, charities, etc. (Although the United States and Western Europe are often described as "capitalist societies", this is an over-simplification. They are in fact mixed economies.)

Consequently, one does not have to depend on the idea of a Utopia-exclusively-run-by-cooperatives, to feel enthused about cooperatives and their potential. Or to be interested in the vivid depictions of cooperatives in The Dispossessed. Whether or not the Utopia shown in The Dispossessed would work in real life, or whether it would be a good thing, thus become side issues. Cooperatives work well in the here-and-now, and without a Utopian transformation of society. This gives The Dispossessed a deep interest, independent of any Utopian ideas in the novel.

Please see my list of Cooperatives and Worker-owned Businesses in Mystery and Science Fiction. The list has links to my articles on the writers mentioned. A vivid look at real-life contemporary cooperatives is the documentary film Shift Change (Melissa Young, Mark Dworkin, 2012).

Challenge. The Dispossessed is a book that challenges us to rethink our own lives. How should we live? What work should we do? With what institutions and organizations should we be affiliated? What public policies should we support? This challenging quality is also found in the films of Roberto Rossellini.

In both Le Guin and Rossellini, this challenge is seen as combining both personal character and social institutions and choices. It is far from fully private. It involves changing and shaping society, too.

Motivation to Work. One of the weakest ideas in The Dispossessed is its repeated insistence that people will work simply for the satisfaction they get out of their jobs, rather than money. In real life, many people will work hard without pay at science, the arts, raising children, and for causes in which they believe. But most jobs people only do if they are paid money. Most work at hard demanding jobs people do for pay. Admittedly, large numbers of people also have an interest in their work, and take pride at doing a good job. Still, their work is only performed if they can get wages.

In real life, many, maybe most people who work at cooperatives draw a salary. So the success of cooperatives does NOT depend on the willingness of people to work purely because they find their work interesting, as in The Dispossessed.

So while I do not believe this aspect of The Dispossessed is accurate, this does NOT invalidate the novel. It makes it uncertain that the Utopian social organization in The Dispossessed would actually work. But it has no affect on the novel's portraits of cooperatives, or the fact that cooperatives have a major role to play in real-life society and economies.

Preserving Cultures. We briefly learn about the survival of a song originated by the miners, the only group of people on Anarres not part of the anarchists who settled the planet later (middle of Chapter 2). This is a relic of an earlier culture, one that has survived.

Le Guin would look at the attempts to preserve earlier knowledge in one of the best of her early science fiction tales "The Masters" (1963). Preserving threatened cultures and their knowledge and fiction would become a major subject in long works of her later career: The Telling (2001), the novella "The Finder" (2001) in Tales from Earthsea, Voices (2004).

The Road to Serfdom?. A-Io is a country much like the contemporary United States. Among other things, it is a prosperous capitalist society; it has freedom of the press. But it is often viewed negatively in The Dispossessed.

A-Io has features associated with horrible societies. It has bad medical care for the poor, systematically having the poor die off needlessly in filthy "hospitals". Troops of the A-Io government massacre protesting citizens and dissidents. It has extensive political prisoners.

All of this has happened on A-Io without any external cause, such as a totalitarian coup or conquest. The Dispossessed thus seems to express a viewpoint widely held by libertarians: Western-style governments are going to degenerate into monstrous regimes. The Le Guin work that chronologically follows The Dispossessed, and widely seen as linked to it, "The New Atlantis" (1975) makes this explicit. It looks at a future United States whose government is full of bureaucrats actively promoting evil. One gets a similar portrait of Western democracy degenerating all by itself into evil bureaucracy in the film Brazil.

I have a big problem with this. It does not seem to be true. It is now over 40 years since The Dispossessed and "The New Atlantis" were published, and nothing in their predictions about the US government have come true. The point of view expressed in Le Guin's books and Brazil seems to be a lot of bunk. This idea, central to libertarians, is just plain false.

Global Warming. The Dispossessed describes a future Earth ruined by environmental catastrophe. It is very hot (Chapter 11).

The linked story "The New Atlantis" (1975) is more explicit. It shows a future Earth hit by the "greenhouse effect". Sea levels have risen, and much of Manhattan is under water. This 1975 story is describing Global Warming at an astonishingly early date.

Unlike their portraits of government bureaucracy which I don't like, these tales' look at Climate Crisis have proved remarkably prophetic.

Let me reiterate what I've always said elsewhere too: Climate change is real. It is caused by humans. It is extremely dangerous. We need to take drastic action immediately, to prevent huge catastrophes in the future. And we need to start accepting what "mainstream science" and 97% of climate scientists are telling us about Global Warming as the truth.

Philosophy. Cetian physics incorporates philosophy and metaphysics. The hero thinks this is a good thing, an example of the "tearing down walls" between subjects that he advocates. By contrast, I'm skeptical of the heavy emphasis on philosophy and psychology in the real-world study of literature and film over the last fifty years. Literary and cinematic criticism might be better off without incorporating philosophy and psychology.

The Wall. In general, however, I'm impressed with Le Guin's concept of "the wall". It refers to people refusing to examine ideas or think about subjects, because it would contradict their preconceptions, or what society tells them they should think. This is in fact common in real life.

Brothers and Sisters: a short story

"Brothers and Sisters" is a long short story in the collection Orsinian Tales. It is not science fiction, being a realistic story set in the imaginary Eastern European country of Orsinia. "Brothers and Sisters" is a bit unusual among Le Guin's Orsinian stories in that politics and history play apparently little role in the tale.

"Brothers and Sisters" has neither the anarcho-syndicalism nor the Cetian physics so prominent in The Dispossessed. But otherwise its setting strongly anticipates the planet Anarres:

The hero Stefan of "Brothers and Sisters" is a genius who wants to leave his limited town. This anticipates Shevek, a scientific genius who winds up leaving Anarres for another planet. Both works feature networks of young friends, all of whom are slowly groping towards adulthood, and finding their adult roles and jobs.

There is a gay character in both works.

"Brothers and Sisters" is one of Le Guin's best mainstream works.

A Western. The locale of "Brothers and Sisters" has a Western feel, like The Dispossessed. The dry setting, the quarrying, the railroads, the mountains contribute to this Western effect. The story takes place in 1910: close to the time period of many Westerns. Foremen are typical characters in Westerns: Kostant is a foreman at the quarry in "Brothers and Sisters".

"Brothers and Sisters" has some Western-like features not found in The Dispossessed:

A Week in the Country: a short story

"A Week in the Country" is a short story in the collection Orsinian Tales. Although a sequel of sorts to "Brothers and Sisters", as a piece of fiction and work of story telling it resembles The Dispossessed less than "Brothers and Sisters" does. Points of similarity to The Dispossessed: "A Week in the Country" also feels much less like a Western than do "Brothers and Sisters" and The Dispossessed. But the events in its finale somewhat recall a TV Western: The Stand-In (1961), an episode of the TV series The Rifleman directed by Joseph H. Lewis. A variant on these events appears in "Dawodow the Innumerable", one of the "Woeful Tales from Mahigul" in Le Guin's collection Changing Planes. (One might note that the Mahigul tales are not really science fiction. Instead, they resemble the Orsinia works in that they are realistic stories set in imaginary countries or regions.)

"A Week in the Country", "Imaginary Countries" and "Hand, Cup, Shell" are all set at country homes; they are all group portraits of a family that owns the home. I confess I don't like this subject in Le Guin's work very much. As fiction these country house works seem drastically inferior to "Brothers and Sisters" and The Dispossessed. "A Week in the Country" picks up whenever it gets away from the country house subject and starts criticizing Communism. The anti-Communist parts are both politically meaningful, and embedded in memorable imagery.

The lyric quoted is by Thomas Campion. It is the finale of verses that begin "Silly Boy!", from Campion's The Third Book of Ayres (1617?). Campion is a gifted poet, a contemporary of Shakespeare. I've read his complete poems, and you would enjoy them too. They are available in The Works of Thomas Campion (1967) edited by Walter R. Davis.

Unlocking the Air: a short story

"Unlocking the Air" (1990) is a sequel to "A Week in the Country". It directly continues the anti-Communist concerns of the earlier tale, as its main subject.

As a subsidiary theme, the criticism of the West for materialism also persists. We do not learn the actual politics of the revolutionaries, but we do learn that they want to develop a society that is both utterly non-Communist and which avoids the materialism of Western capitalism. This avoidance of both Communism and capitalism is also present in the anarcho-syndicalism of Anarres.

"Unlocking the Air" is also a portrait of a revolution, like the revolution that led to Anarres in The Dispossessed. Both works' politics center on a woman revolutionary thinker: Stefana Fabbre in "Unlocking the Air", Odo in The Dispossessed.

The huge rally recalls the big protest in A-Io in The Dispossessed.

The Author of the Acacia Seeds: a short story

"The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics" (1974) is a short story in Le Guin's collection The Compass Rose. It is one of Le Guin's best science fiction tales. It shares subjects with The Dispossessed, which was published the same year. Both: Like The Left Hand of Darkness, "Brothers and Sisters" and "Sur", "The Author of the Acacia Seeds" examines worlds of extreme cold and ice.

A statement by the author-of-the-acacia-seeds seems Taoist. It seems like a witty transcription of Taoist views into that author's language and world view.

Rocks. The end of the story discusses rocks. Geology as a science appears in "Hand, Cup, Shell", and a poetic treatment is found in "The Bones of the Earth" in Tales from Earthsea. Gahheya Rock seems to talk in "Stone Telling, Part One" in Always Coming Home. The Karst in "Brothers and Sisters" is memorable. Small stones become symbolically important to people in Very Far Away From Anywhere Else and "Solitude".

Solitude: The Squid. A brief episode in "Solitude" reads as if it were another section of "The Author of the Acacia Seeds". This is the bit about the zoologist studying the squid. This episode has little to do with the rest of "Solitude": it is a change of pace.

Margaret Atwood made a notorious comment about science fiction dealing with "talking squids in outer space". Somewhat startlingly, this episode in "Solitude" actually is about "talking squids in outer space"! I have been unable to find the exact date of Atwood's quote, but it seems to be post-2000, long after Le Guin's tale.

The Ire of the Veksi: a short story

"The Ire of the Veksi" (2003) is a short story in Le Guin's collection Changing Planes. It recalls Le Guin stories about humanoids with aggressive rage: "The Matter of Seggri"; and with anti-social, living alone patterns: "Solitude". All of these works are Social Science Fiction. The social/sexual organization in "The Ire of the Veksi" seems directly modeled on that in "Solitude".

At first the Veksi seem just nasty and brutal, likely even evil. This is certainly an aspect of their lives. But eventually the story begins to tell something odd about them: they have no dominance goals, or superior-inferior relations. So this aspect of their lives becomes a Utopian tale. Like the anarchists of The Dispossessed, it shows a society without hierarchy.

The weird anger-based grief of the Veksi, perhaps extends the mother's dubious lament at the start of "Brothers and Sisters".

The Veksi's hooves recall the aliens in Arthur C. Clarke's "Second Dawn" (1951). Le Guin has come up with new ideas that build on and further develop Clarke's original concepts. Science fiction writers are regularly in this sort of "dialogue".

Seasons of the Ansarac: a short story

"Seasons of the Ansarac" (2002) is a short story in Le Guin's collection Changing Planes. It is most closely related to Le Guin works about humanoids with non-standard, modified sexuality, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, "Coming of Age in Karhide" and "The Matter of Seggri". All of these works are Social Science Fiction.

The conflict with the Bayderac at the end is richly imagined, in its science fictional detail. It offers a new dimension to Le Guin's stories about non-standard humanoids. Politically it anticipates the conflict in Voices.

"Seasons of the Ansarac" shares subjects with The Dispossessed. Both:

Communicating through dancing in "Seasons of the Ansarac" recalls "The Author of the Acacia Seeds". In both tales, this is linked to birds or bird-like beings.

Social Dreaming of the Frin: a short story

"Social Dreaming of the Frin" (2002) is a short story in Le Guin's collection Changing Planes. It shares subjects with The Dispossessed. Both: "Social Dreaming of the Frin" is structured as a work of "Social Science Fiction". That is, it explores in detail what kind of society and way of life logically follows from an innovation. In "Social Dreaming of the Frin", the innovation is the communal dreaming of the title.

The subject of dreaming links this tale to The Lathe of Heaven. However the treatment of dreaming is quite different in the two works.

The picture of life on farms and in small towns recalls a bit "Brothers and Sisters".

The Nna Mmoy Language: a short story

"The Nna Mmoy Language" (2003) is a short story in Le Guin's collection Changing Planes. It shares subjects with The Dispossessed. Both: The elaborate outpouring of verbal culture in this world, recalls Le Guin's The Telling. Both works vividly convey some of the richness of real-life human cultures.

As best as I know, the tale's invented language and its treatment of meaning have no exact real world analogues. But the branching nature of meaning in the language is interesting. The complex branching of the language reminds one of some non-linguistic media of sharing ideas, which employ branching:

In real life, one suspects that thinkers wanting to communicate branching ideas have used one of the above forms, or something related. They have not tried to invent a new language, as in "The Nna Mmoy Language". Probably using one of the above forms or structures is a more practical approach, rather than changing language itself.

"The Nna Mmoy Language" is a favorite story of mine. One wishes it were better known.

The Building: a short story

"The Building" (2001) is a short story in Le Guin's collection Changing Planes. It has elements of mystery: why are the Aq building?

It has links with The Dispossessed. Both:

The building has a non-linear, branching structure, like the language in "The Nna Mmoy Language". Both are interesting, complex embodiments of human creativity.

The Matter of Seggri: a short story

"The Matter of Seggri" (1994) is made up of a long series of tales and accounts, like Always Coming Home. And as in Always Coming Home, we learn about different genres of literature in the society. We get an example of a short story, just as we got a play an ad mystery story in Always Coming Home.

There are elements of dark satire in "The Matter of Seggri". The restricted life of men in the tale, actually recalls many of the restrictions typically put on straight men in real historical societies. Men can fight, do sports, compete and procreate, but little else. Only the emphasis on straight men as dancers is quite different from traditional male roles.

The account of Ittu incorporates feature of Le Guin's writing:

Isaac Asimov wrote several tales, showing how people are pressured to accept cultural norms. The tale of Ittu has aspects of this.

We learn a bit about different regions of the planet. This recalls the different parts of Orsinia. A district that specializes in pottery recalls the Five Towns novels of Arnold Bennett, set in England's real-life pottery manufacturing area.

The Hainish series as a whole is a Future History. But "The Matter of Seggri" is itself a Future History in miniature. The tale takes us through many historical stages: first discovery of the planet, contact with the Ekumen, the Mutiny, the Open Gate law. The tale greatly benefits from this Future History approach. It makes the tale's science-fictional events rich and complex.

The Birthday of the World: a short story

"The Birthday of the World" (2000) shows aspects of a science fiction story: On the other hand, the way the future is prophesied, seems more fantasy than science fiction.

However, much of the tale's material recalls Le Guin's fantasy, rather than her science fiction:

A guess: what the heroine calls the men's boot-like suits are actually spacesuits. And their "mask with one eye" is actually a helmet with a face-plate.

Always Coming Home

Always Coming Home (1985) is a large fictional work, composed of many linked tales, poems and plays, set against a common future background.

World Building. Among the best episodes in Always Coming Home are those that tell the reader about the key features of the book's future world. In sf and fantasy as a whole, tales like these are said to engage in world building, the literary creation of an imagined world. World building is of interest in many authors. Le Guin is skillful at it, and these sections benefit from her imagination.

These sections include:

In addition to their world building, these sections benefit from their pure science fictional, rationalist approach. They do not include any of the supernatural elements that run through many other parts of Always Coming Home.

These sections also benefit from their strong storytelling.

"The Trouble with the Cotton People" reminds one of the Earthsea books, with its landscape one can follow on a map, and its sea and island voyages. Its finale, where the characters negotiate their way to a solution of a complex dispute, anticipates the end of Voices. These finales show non-violent approaches solving serious conflicts.

"The Trouble with the Cotton People" and especially "The Train" include the locomotive transport that Le Guin loves. The trains are in isolated regions, recalling the trains in "Brothers and Sisters" and The Dispossessed. See also the end of Very Far Away From Anywhere Else.

"White Tree" offers an interesting look at science and a scientist - subjects central to The Dispossessed. The footnote to the tale makes a thoughtful point about the nature of science. The financial poverty of the scientist's life, and his ability through work to make a contribution to science despite it, also recall The Dispossessed. A related look at a poor but gifted composer is in "An Die Musik". The hero "White Tree" moves from his home town to a place where he can conduct his research, then back to his home town: paralleling the movements of the scientist hero in The Dispossessed.

"The Keeper" offers a folk tale critique of the temptation towards private property. This too recalls The Dispossessed. The opening of "The Keeper" provides an understanding of the scope of the arts in the future world of Always Coming Home.

SF Mixed with the Supernatural. Always Coming Home is strange in its combinations of subject matter. It mixes science fiction with fantasy and the supernatural. The future world is explained in scientific terms: pure science fiction. Yet within this world, people often have visions, encounter supernatural beings, or meet the spirits of the dead. This mix of science fiction and the supernatural is uncommon in literature, to the best of my experience.

I intensely dislike and disapprove of the supernatural. I do not want to read books about it. The supernatural doesn't exist in the real world, is a bunch of hooey. And fiction books that promote it seem to me to be anti-reason. I have long felt this way in general, and see no reason to change my convictions, even for an author as talented as Le Guin. I mainly don't like the supernatural aspects of Always Coming Home.

Flicker. With this said, even I have to admit there are imaginative elements in "The Visionary: The Life Story of Flicker of the Serpentine of Telina-na". The visions of the electrical grid are fascinating. While presented as supernatural visions, their actual content seem science fictional: a way of thinking about technological networks.

In broad terms, one wonders if Le Guin had read and been influenced by Vernor Vinge's "True Names" (1981). "True Names" has a worldwide computer grid; so does Always Coming Home. And Flicker's visualizations of networks are a bit related to the visualization technique in "True Names". Such grids and their visualization in "True Names" led to the later concept of cyberspace.

Flicker sees the grids and other processes "as a whole". This recalls the cosmic view of the stars as a whole, by the huge plant in "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow".

Stone Telling's Name. Stone Telling gives an explanation of her name at the start of Part One. But it also echoes her supernatural encounter with the rock Gahheya that seems to talk, midway in Part One. Rocks play roles in "The Bones of the Earth" and the finale of "The Author of the Acacia Seeds".

Poetry. A plus in Always Coming Home is the poetry. Much of the verse is creative.

Le Guin points out the different genres and meters of the poems, showing us various literary traditions of this imagined future culture. The plays are also in verse, and they too fall into (fictitious) literary genres of this future society.

Some of the plays involve a chorus, recalling Greek drama. And "The Plumed Water" has a plot whose approach recalls Greek Mythology.

Some of the plays are little anecdotes, recalling traditional Japanese drama.

The syllabic meters of some of the poems, with four syllables or five syllables per line, also recalls Japanese verse.

Dangerous People: The First, Shorter 1985 Version. The "Dangerous People" section is one of the few mysteries anywhere in Le Guin. It is explicitly labeled a mystery in the introductory "A Note about the Novel".

"Dangerous People" is presented as an early chapter excerpted from a novel. We get no solution to the story's mystery in this excerpt. And I have been unable to see that any one solution is conclusively hinted at in the tale. So "Dangerous People" is in that small category, mysteries without solutions. Some famous films had earlier propounded mysteries they did not solve: L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1974). "Dangerous People" resembles both of these works. In all three:

The introductory "A Note about the Novel" refers to the ungiven solution to the disappearance as where she has "in fact" gone. The scare quotes around "in fact" in "A Note about the Novel", perhaps suggests a disbelief in fact, and a suggestion that "Dangerous People" regards a factual solution to the mystery as somehow low brow, politically oppressive or deluded. This approach might have been trendy in 1985, but it has worn very thin in today's constant war on facts from the conservative Right.

"Dangerous People" itself makes a much better, more valid point about the unsolved mystery. It suggests people's laziness or vanity urges them to give glib explanations of situations that are in fact mysterious or unknown. This seems like a valid critique. It is also part of a long tradition in mystery fiction as a whole, urging people to think deeply and critically about mysteries, unsolved problems and the unknown.

There is no explicit detective figure in most of "Dangerous People". I kept hoping that someone would take active steps to solve the disappearance, but maddeningly, most characters don't. SPOILERS. Only at the tale's end, in a surprising and dramatic development, do two detective figures emerge. The emergence of the detectives forms a climax to the tale. It plays a role in the tale's formal structure as well as being interesting in its own right as an event.

"Dangerous People" depicts the heroine's family as suspicious: they perhaps have killed her or had her abducted. And the tale leaves open the possibility of the husband's guilt: he might have murdered her.

"A Note about the Novel" explicitly discusses the formal structure of "Dangerous People". It says the tale is constructed out of conversations between two people, followed by the departure of one, and the arrival of a new person to start a new conversation with the remaining one. This structure is linked to the hinge imagery that runs through the book. This analysis of the tale's form is consistent with the formal analyses of poetry in the book. Always Coming Home repeatedly tries to make its formal literary patterns explicit.

"Dangerous People" is full of moon imagery. From moonlight to a visionary staring at the moon, to such names as Moon Creek and Moondog, the story is filled with it. Why? It is unclear.

"Dangerous People" is one of the few sections of Always Coming Home to suggest explicitly there might be systematic prejudice among the Kesh. Husband Kamedan complains that his wife's family looks down on him because he is a Miller, and devalues him and his son because they are male. However, one wonders if the problems Stone Telling has with being the child of a foreign father, also constitute prejudice. And Flicker's grandmother does not approve of her Miller son-in-law, and does not want Flicker practicing her father's profession of Miller. So "Dangerous People" perhaps calls for a re-interpretation of earlier sections of Always Coming Home. Part Three of "Stone Telling" concisely discusses this, suggesting the end of the war with the Condor people has also led to a merciful decline in prejudice against foreigners among the Kesh.

Just before "Dangerous People", "The Cats Here Don't Care" in the section "Some Brief Valley Texts" offered a negative view of hunters. This seems extended in the hunter character in "Dangerous People". His hurting the dog seems especially offensive.

Le Guin gave a blurb for a Barbara Wilson mystery, and praised Tony Hillerman mysteries set among Native Americans. But otherwise she seems unsympathetic to the mystery genre, as a reader.

Dangerous People: The Expanded 2019 Version. Le Guin published an expanded version of "Dangerous People" (2019). Unfortunately, this version still does not offer a solution to the mystery.

Stone Telling: Politics. The political situation in Stone Telling's narrative anticipates Voices. Both pit a peaceful, settled, religiously pluralistic, literate, female-favorable culture against an evil army of a militaristic, nomadic, monotheistic, illiterate, patriarchal invader.

One notices that life among the militaristic, patriarchal Condor people is unfortunately not much mentioned in contemporary discussions of Dystopia. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) came out later the same year as Always Coming Home, and has been treated as a cultural treasure. Meanwhile Always Coming Home seems mainly read by Le Guin specialists and a few determined science fiction fans. The idea that Always Coming Home might have anything to say to the broader culture is not widespread in the contemporary USA.

Part Three of "Stone Telling" is especially well done as science fiction. It offers a detailed look first at the Condor people and their neighbors, and then at life among the Kesh, seen from an adult's point of view.

I am not convinced by the way these books explicitly link monotheism to problems like misogyny and populations that can't read. History contradicts this:

"Stone Telling" emphasizes the use of straight lines in the architecture of the militaristic Condor people. This echoes the "lineal" Yang motorcycle trip image in Le Guin's essay "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" (1982). This essay on Utopia is called ancestral to Always Coming Home by Le Guin. By contrast, everything among the sympathetic Kesh people is based on a double-spiral.

Stone Telling: The Opening Journey. The journey at the start of Part One is more comprehensible when read with the map at the end of Part Three. The map shows the towns visited. The lack of the map obscures what is happening in the journey.

I'm not sure why Le Guin delayed the map till the end of the tale in Part Three. This delay adds to the effect of strangeness in Part One, plunging the reader into a strange not-too-explained future. It also suggests a child's point-of-view, a view of events without maps.

We learn more about the towns in the second half of "The Long Names of Houses". This too maybe should be read before "Stone Telling" Part One. The second half of "The Long Names of Houses" has info on two towns not much discussed in the Part One journey: Tachas Touches and Wakwaha. So the second half of "The Long Names of Houses" and the journey are complementary, together forming a picture of the book's towns.

"The Town of Chumo" offers much info about Chumo. We only learn a little about it in the Part One journey. The two works are consistent, however.

"White Tree" has a life story whose movements echo the Part One journey. The hero moves from Sinshan to Kastoha, then ultimately back to Sinshan. This is the overall pattern of the Part One journey.

Messages Concerning the Condor. "Messages Concerning the Condor" is appended to Part Three of "Stone Telling". It gives a science fiction background to the events of the story, telling what happened to society as a whole while the events of "Stone Telling" were transpiring.

At the end of Le Guin's The Eye of the Heron (1978), the population evades the dictatorial bad guys by dispersing: spreading out geographically so that the villains can't control them. Always Coming Home shows a similar strategy. The Kesh populations are already dispersed and decentralized. And populations who are directly attacked by the Condor people flee even further. The technologies used by the good guys are decentralized as well.

About a Meeting Concerning the Warriors. "About a Meeting Concerning the Warriors" is also appended to Part Three of "Stone Telling". It continues a subject found in a number of parts of "Stone Telling": how Kesh society has been infected with militarism due to contact with the Condor people. These passages recall the finale of The Lord of the Rings, where even good people who have carried the ring are corrupted and emotionally damaged by it. Always Coming Home shows a whole section of society similarly corrupted by Condor ideology. In both Always Coming Home and The Lord of the Rings, the corruption is a lingering, long term problem, and one that weighs heavily on people.

"About a Meeting Concerning the Warriors" features the sorts of public debates about an issue also found in The Dispossessed, especially the Anarres sections, and in "Unlocking the Air". These debates are full of oratory and rhetoric. They often focus on appeals to fundamental principles. Le Guin tries hard to make the debates dramatic and interesting as story telling.

Essays. The best of Le Guin's essays linked to Always Coming Home are "World-Making", "Text, Silence, Performance", "Legends for a New Land". "World-Making" and "Legends for a New Land" benefit from including examples of Native American literature. Some outstanding Le Guin poems open "Legends for a New Land".

Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny was a prolific writer of fantasy and science fiction.

Lord of Light

Lord of Light (1967) is a famous novel that mixes fantasy and science fiction.

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 early section reflects the Campbell tradition of science fiction. Not only does it draw on a famous work published by Campbell, "Universe". But more importantly, it follows the Campbell tradition of an alternate future society, organized on different lines from the present.

Reproduction. 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 Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) and 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).

In real life, 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 recalls 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.

24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai

"24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai" (1985) is a long novella.

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.

Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is a prolific author of science fiction and fantasy.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus: a novella

"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" (1972) is an unusual science fiction story. It describes the life of a youth growing up on a strange planet. Neither the youth himself nor the reader knows very much at first about the planet, or the background of the youth himself and his family. Only throughout the story do we get facts, as background secrets are revealed. As Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove point out in their critical book Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, this gives "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" something of the structure of a mystery tale. First there are mysterious situations; then there are revelations that "solve" and explain those mysteries.

"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" perhaps shows the influence of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light:

"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" possibly influenced Ursula K. Le Guin:

Edward Wellen

Edward Wellen is a science fiction writer, whose works sometimes include elements of mystery fiction. A post at MYSTERY*FILE discusses his work, and has useful links too, including bibliographies.


"Mouthpiece" (1974) is a novella, that combines a hard-boiled setting among tough Greater New York City crooks, cops and hangers-on, with science fiction about intelligent computers. The "smart computer with a human personality" working with a human, anticipates a bit Dave Zeltserman's stories about Julius Katz and Archie, such as "Archie's Been Framed" (2010).

"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:

The ravings that open "Mouthpiece" also embody Modernist literary approaches, such as those used by James Joyce or T.S. Eliot. They are designed to be modernist "poetry", as a character in the story suggests. The inclusion of Modernist passages in science fiction is a tradition. It is especially associated with works by Cordwainer Smith, such as "Drunkboat" (1963). Their elaborate prose style also reflects the way that complex prose styles are valued in science fiction. Such Modernist passages would have been much less likely to be published in a regular, non-sf mystery novel or mystery magazine.

Meanwhile, the story's events trigger thriller elements. These seem modeled on The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) by Eric Ambler.

Angélica Gorodischer

Angélica Gorodischer is an Argentinean science fiction and fantasy writer.


Trafalgar (collected in book form in 1979) is a series of science fiction tales. They are linked by being narrated by one Trafalgar.

Some of the tales in Trafalgar recall Jack Vance. As in Vance, with have a conventional human narrator going to an alien planet, and discovering the odd customs and life of the planet's inhabitants. There can be enough of an atmosphere of menace, to enable suspense elements and a certain frisson.

The start of Trafalgar lists "Lafferty" as among Trafalgar's favorite writers. The tales in Trafalgar recall R. A. Lafferty in being tall tales, which derive comedy from extravagant premises. However, the feel of the stories in Trafalgar seems quite different from Lafferty.

Strelitzias, Lagerstroemias, Gypisophila. "Strelitzias, Lagerstroemias, Gypisophila" has the form of a detective story, once it goes to another planet. The heroine serves as detective, using clues in the tale to figure out the truth. Being the detective gives the heroine stature. This is true of almost all detective stories: the sleuth is an important person. It is something built-in to the structure of detective fiction.

The mystery is a science fiction mystery. It does not concern a crime or involve the characters, unlike most non-sf mystery fiction. Instead, it s a mystery about the science fiction situation on the planet.

The flowers in the title of "Strelitzias, Lagerstroemias, Gypisophila" are real. But they have almost nothing to do with the plot. Strelitzia and Lagerstroemia are famous flowers. Gypisophila is obscure - but one suspects this might be gardener's shorthand for "Agave gypisophila" from Brazil. It also might be a misspelling of the flower "Gypsophila".

Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge is an American science fiction writer.

Social Science Fiction

Vernor Vinge began his career by selling short stories to editor John W. Campbell. Vinge is very much a writer in the Campbell tradition: like other Campbell writers before him, Vinge develops detailed future worlds, logically based in a series of scientific and technological innovations. This Campbellian approach makes for a sound foundation for science fiction. It is widely employed by sf writers who wrote for Campbell. Campbell author Isaac Asimov called it "Social Science Fiction": sf that develops future worlds or alien planets, organized with logical consistency along both innovative social and scientific lines.

One can see such logically developed, highly detailed future societies in Vinge:

Much of the best science fiction is in fact "Social Science Fiction". It seems to encourage imagination, complexity and logic: key traits of good creative art.

Hard Science Fiction

"True Names" and "Fast Times at Fairmont High" are loaded with genuine computer science concepts. This links them, at least partially, to the tradition of "Hard Science Fiction" tales that center on science.

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".

True Names

"True Names" (1981) has links to mystery fiction as well as sf. It propounds a mystery of identity: who is the identity of the villain lurking behind the pseudonym the Mailman? Such mysteries of identity have a long history in mystery fiction. Edmond Hamilton often specialized in them.

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 in "True Names" 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.

Both "True Names" and Earthlight (1955) by Arthur C. Clarke, end with a visit to a huge, futuristic apartment project. In each tale, this finale has a different atmosphere from the main earlier part of the story.

The Cookie Monster

"The Cookie Monster" (2003) is another novella blending science fiction and mystery. Like "True Names", the mystery begins with a mysterious unknown person sending e-mail. But unlike "True Names", this is not primarily a "mystery of identity". We eventually do learn who is sending the e-mail. But this is less central to the plot than in "True Names". The big mystery in "The Cookie Monster" instead centers on explaining the science fictional situation behind the heroine's situation.

"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.

Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons is an American science fiction, horror and crime writer.


Hyperion (1989) is Dan Simmons' best-known science fiction novel.

The Priest's Tale. "The Priest's Tale" in Hyperion shows the influence of J.G. Ballard, especially in its first half. The links are especially close to Ballard's "The Illuminated Man" (1964) and the novel it was expanded into The Crystal World (1964, 1966). Common features:

Simmons' emphasis on lush descriptive writing and color imagery recalls Ballard.

The opening of Hyperion recalls Ballard too, especially Ballard's The Drowned World (1962). Both take place in a world of prehistoric jungles. In Hyperion, this includes reptiles and gymnosperm trees.

Early in "The Priest's Tale", we learn about islands named after a cat with nine tails. The book makes ambiguous references to such a legend not actually existing. But it does! The book jacket of the mystery novel Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen, shows such a cat. The cat symbolizes the serial killer in Cat of Many Tails.

John Keats. Simmons' novel Hyperion has formal aspects that recall John Keats' poem Hyperion (1818-1819):

The Detective's Tale. "The Detective's Tale" in Hyperion has many scenes of one-on-one combat. Structurally, these resemble fight scenes in 1930's mystery "pulp fiction". However, Hyperion updates this fighting with lots of high-tech science fiction weapons.

A big fight takes place all over an apartment. Such apartment settings recalls pulp mystery writer George Harmon Coxe.

"The Detective's Tale" has some structural elements of traditional mystery fiction:

However, "The Detective's Tale" is far from a standard mystery in structure: A planet has recreations of Old Earth cities, such as Rome and New York. This recalls the Krypton Memorial World in Superman comic books. The Krypton Memorial World recreates the now vanished planet of Krypton. Please see "The One Minute of Doom" (Superman #150, January 1962), written by Jerry Siegel.

Greg Bear

Greg Bear is an American science fiction writer.

Petra: a short story

"Petra" (1982) perhaps shows the influence of Robert Heinlein's novella "Universe". Both:

Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo is a prolific science fiction writer.

Stone Lives: a short story

"Stone Lives" (1985) shows the future of visual imaging technology. It is predictive of many things technology can do today, such as visual editing, photography and wireless transmission of images to computers.

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.

Ken Liu

Ken Liu is a prolific creator of short stories.

Ken Liu's Preface to The Paper Menagerie says he paid little attention to differences between fantasy and science fiction. However, the stories themselves each clearly fit into standard paradigms of either fantasy or science fiction (and never both). I think that is fine: these paradigms developed because the standard paradigm for science fiction is full of artistic possibilities. Ditto for the standard paradigm for fantasy. Working within these paradigms is great.

The Paper Menagerie

"The Paper Menagerie" (2011) is fantasy, not science fiction. That is made clear in the letter, which refers to the paper figures as "magic". However, during much of the story I wondered if the tale would turn out to be science fiction, with the animals being robots.

"The Paper Menagerie" recalls Tennessee William's play The Glass Menagerie (1944). Both:

However, these parallels does not constitute the meaning of "The Paper Menagerie". It is overflowing with ideas and events that have no parallel in The Glass Menagerie.


In the Preface to The Paper Menagerie Ken Liu says that fiction stories are metaphors for human experience. It's an interesting idea. I'm not sure it's universally true for all stories, however.

Some of Ken Liu's tales are structured as series of metaphors:

Some caveats are in order. The embedded sf tales in "Cognition" are interesting in their own right, as science fiction. One could claim, in fact, that the tales-as-themselves are more creative, than their use as metaphors in the frame tale.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel

"A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel" (2013) is an Alternate History story. The history is richly detailed, and logically thought through.

This story is clearly defined as science fiction, rather than fantasy. There is no magic or other fantasy elements. Nothing paranormal or supernatural happens either. Instead the tale sticks strictly to plausible technology, in a way familiar from science fiction.

Elements recall Robert Heinlein:

Pneumatic tubes recall Hugo Gernsback's novel Ralph 124C41+ (1911).

The underground transport system recalls Arthur C. Clarke's "Rescue Party" (1946) and Against the Fall of Night (1948-1953).

The look at various countries in the 1930's, and their politics and social systems, recalls Karel Capek's War with the Newts (1936).

The Regular

"The Regular" (2014) is a detective story, with near-future science fiction elements.

The detective does not use guess work to solve the crimes. Instead she reasons from evidence, a process we see in detail in the latter sections of the tale. This sort of detective work is known in the mystery field as "sound detection". It is always considered as a plus in detective fiction.

SPOILERS. An ingenious use of motion detectors helps visualize the crime. This is a use of technology to aid in detective work. Tales in which the sleuth or crooks use science and/or technology are known as Scientific Detection. They have a huge, long history in mystery fiction.

Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks was a Scottish writer of science fiction and mainstream novels.

The Player of Games

The Player of Games (1988) is the second novel about the Culture.

The Culture: Predecessors. Elements of the Culture recall Cordwainer Smith:

The Culture also resembles the Utopian future in the middle section of Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. Both are wealthy, hedonistic societies where everyone has wealth, leisure and plenty of casual sex. Both societies seem superficial.

The Culture has aspects that recall the Hainish tales of Ursula K. Le Guin:

The sense of boredom and meaningless aristocratic life in the long opening of The Player of Games evokes Anton Chekhov.

Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is an American science fiction writer.


Both "The Evolution of Human Science" (2000) and "Liking What You See: A Documentary" (2002) look at cognition. They show how thinking, reasoning and perception might be changed by innovations in technology and society. Stories about cognition are an important subgenere in science fiction. Please see the section of this article, dealing with Cognition, to see other examples.

"Exhalation" deals with a scientist trying to discover a physical basis for storing memories. This too is a tale dealing with an aspect of cognition.

SPOILERS. "The Great Silence" deals with animal thinking and communicating. This too is about cognition. The story might be read along with a tale about animal artistic creativity, Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics" (1974).

I think "The Great Silence", "The Evolution of Human Science", "Liking What You See: A Documentary", and "Exhalation" are Chiang's best stories.

Social Science Fiction

Two of Ted Chiang's best short stories are "The Evolution of Human Science", and "Liking What You See: A Documentary". Both follow a classic science fiction paradigm: looking at a technological innovation, and how it might systemically change a future society. This is a good paradigm that often enables and leads to good results. It certainly works well in these two tales. Years ago, Isaac Asimov dubbed tales about how innovation changes human society "Social Science Fiction".

Some later Chiang tales also explore how technological innovation might change human life and society: "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom". Another tale somewhat fits into this category: "What's Expected of Us". These stories have lots of original detail, about possible implications, with "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" being especially well-developed. However, I don't think they reach the heights of "Liking What You See: A Documentary".

Seeing the Past

T.L. Sherred's "E For Effort" (1947) and Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past" (1956) look at the negative consequences of technology that lets one view the past. The Remem technology in "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" has some similarities.

SPOILERS. And the prisms in "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" let one see, not the past, but alternate worlds.

Chiang depicts plenty of negative consequences to these devices, but he also shows some positive ones, making him more optimistic (in this instance) than Sherred and Asimov.


"Exhalation" is set in a small universe with just one planet, and different organizing principles from our own. Such a "small universe" recalls "The Wall of Darkness" (1949) by Arthur C. Clarke.

The changes in timings can be seen as a "change in the laws of science". Please see the section of this article, dealing with Science Laws Changing, to see other examples.

"Exhalation" deals with experimentation on an intelligent volunteer subject (in this case, the scientist himself). Another example: Yellow Jack (1934) is a play by dramatist Sidney Howard and medical researcher Paul de Kruif. The play deals with the scientific fight against the disease Yellow Fever. It's a classic of the American theater.


A number of Chiang's tales are set in worlds in which pre-scientific ideas or cosmologies, turn out to be the organizing principles of their worlds. In theory, I am uncomfortable with this. I prefer science fiction to be based on science, and not on superstition.

However, in practice, it turns out that "Tower of Babylon" and "Omphalos" are two of Chiang's most absorbing works of storytelling. Both are full of inventive detail, often linked to their pre-science world views.

Early world-views appear in some Charles L. Harness sf stories: "The New Reality" (1950), "The Alchemist" (1966).

Perhaps oddly, the medieval alchemist in "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" does NOT seem to be using traditional alchemy, or any other pre-scientific world-view. Instead, he has somehow developed ideas that are based in modern science, such as "wormholes". (One might argue that is implausible that anyone way-back-when would have discovered such modern scientific ideas. Still, the ideas are sound science.) "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" thus has little in common with such pre-science tales as "Tower of Babylon" and "Omphalos".

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a tale of intricate, complex time travel. In this overall approach, it recalls Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" (1941).


"Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" (2019) stresses character, as the key influence on behavior. It sees character, in practical terms, as the foundation of morality: people's good and bad choices are determined largely by their character. It also depicts character as something that people can improve, through regular effort, and a conscious attempt to elevate themselves.

An emphasis on character is deeply associated with Mainline Protestantism. On can say that Mainline Protestant religious practice centered on promoting and improving character. Character was seen as the source and cause of behavior. There is now a huge literature on "The Protestant Ethic".

Chiang's notes on "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" cite Martin Luther. Luther founded both Protestantism in general, and Mainline Protestantism in particular. Chiang's notes do not explicitly say that "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" is actually based on Luther's ideas, however.

Similarly, the narrator's many prayers in "Omphalos" (2019) stress her attempts to improve her character and attitude. They frequently cite lessons she learns from her experiences, and how if she applies them correctly, that they can improve her character.

Mainline Protestantism was the dominant religious group for centuries, in the Northern half of the United States. Many US science fiction writers had backgrounds in it: Heinlein was a Methodist, Simak a Lutheran, Cordwainer Smith an Episcopalian, Philip K. Dick "was raised a Quaker but converted to Episcopalianism very early in my life."

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is an American writer of mainstream fiction that often includes science fiction elements.

The Intuitionist

The Intuitionist (1999) is Colson Whitehead's first published novel.

Science Fiction. The Intuitionist incorporates two key science fiction traditions:

The Intuitionist also shares a subject matter with much science fiction: a scientific research project (in this case, James Fulton's research).

Mystery Plot. The Intuitionist has a well-constructed mystery plot. It has two good plot surprises, one coming half-way through the book at the conclusion of the Down segment, the other the solution at the book's finale.

The Intuitionist includes much technology, making it part of the long, vast tradition of Scientific Detection.

Not Much Detection. Somewhat unusually, what The Intuitionist lacks is a detective figure. The heroine tries to get at the truth, but she does little actual detective work, and discovers little through her efforts. Instead the book's two main plot surprises are simply told her by other people: the first by Natchez at the end of the Down section, the revelation at the finale by Ben Urich.

Usually in mystery fiction finding things out through detective work is considered admirable; simply being told facts is considered an inferior approach. Unfortunately The Intuitionist mainly opts for this second approach.

Reporter Ben Urich does the book's only real detective work, when he photographs suspects and then investigates their identity using records. This is a sound, but brief, detection episode.

The heroine is brainy, and very good at any scientific or technical work involving elevators. But she is not a detective.

Cornell Woolrich. The Intuitionist sometimes recalls Cornell Woolrich, the best known writer of noir fiction.

Cornell Woolrich's "After-Dinner Story" (1938) is a suspense tale about a tragic elevator crash.

Woolrich's "The Dancing Detective" is the most famous story set in a taxi-dance hall. The dime-a-dance sequence in The Intuitionist seems like an homage to Cornell Woolrich.

Crime Films. The Intuitionist recalls some crime films, set in New York City in the 1950's:

Le Guin. Aspects of The Intuitionist recall Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974):

Postmodernism. The Intuitionist has features characteristic of postmodern fiction:

See the Wikipedia on Postmodern literature for a detailed discussion of these features, in postmodern fiction in general.

Civic Corruption?. There is a long tradition in hard-boiled fiction of looking at civic corruption: crooked police and crooked government officials. Private eye writer Raymond Chandler is an archetypal example, with his crooked town of Bay City. At first The Intuitionist looks like it is going to be another instance. The elevator inspectors are employees of the city - and they look crooked.

BIG SPOILERS. But near the book's end Ben Urich reveals the real culprits: the elevator companies. These big corporations are the book's true villains. It is Big Business, and perhaps Capitalism as a whole, that is behind the book's sinister events.

Truth. Aspects of The Intuitionist echo ideas that were fairly popular among humanities academics of their era. (See a long paragraph in the discussion between the heroine and Mrs. Rogers, pages 239-240 in the paperback edition.) Empiricism (reasoning from facts) is seen as a failed method of finding truth. The Intuitionist says it fails because people are corrupt and can be "bought" to lie constantly, thus obliterating truth.

This sounds fairly similar to various, very dubious, Postmodern Theory assertions that objective truth does not exist, and that everyone simply lies to promote their position in the class structure.

These ideas about the alleged impossibility of finding truth through empirical means have been widely and justifiably reviled. This whole approach is now seen as discredited.

Instead, convincing cases have been made that empirical methods, reasoning from facts and evidence, do indeed lead to the truth. And that despite failings and mistakes, that scientists, teachers, journalists and non-fiction writers are generally successful at finding truth and sharing it with the public.

The paragraph also says that Empiricism judges things purely on the basis of "what things appear to be". I don't agree: empirical methods can take a deep dive into facts and evidence, going far beyond surface appearances.

The Intuitionist instead embraces Intuitionism, a mystical discipline that reveals truth. This Intuitionism seems to be made up for the novel.

I am also uncomfortable with the book's apparent embrace of mysticism, in the form of Intuitionism. I just don't think mysticism can uncover facts about material objects like elevators.

Despite my disagreement with the apparent content of this section, I admire its form. The storytelling succeeds. The book weaves together many of its subjects, Intuitionism, race, passing, reasoning. The successive stages form into a successful storytelling pattern. They make a grand design. This works as a flowing, ongoing development of the book's ideas.

Is This Science Fiction?. Aside from the mysticism in Intuitionism, The Intuitionist is strictly science fiction. Everything in the book, Intuitionism excepted, falls within the paradigms of science fiction.

However, the mysticism complicates things. It is hard to see mysticism as reflecting a "universe run on scientific laws": part of my definition of science fiction. The mysticism instead seems like an example of Fantasy.

However, the book often treats Intuitionism, however mystical, as part of science. Intuitionism is the subject of research projects, written about in books, and taught in universities. Sociologically, this sounds like science, rather than any sort of fantasy.

I don't think there is any quick or easy way to resolve these issues. Instead, the book's treatment of Intuitionism seems like a mosaic of differing approaches, some science-based, and thus science-fiction, others involving mysticism and thus fantasy.

Speculative Fiction. In recent years it has been common to use the term "speculative fiction" as an umbrella terms to include any sort of non-realistic fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, paranormal and anything else.

Descriptions of The Intuitionist as "speculative fiction" are widespread. They are accurate: the combination of science fiction and fantasy in The Intuitionist, certainly falls within the broad umbrella term of "speculative fiction". I'm completely comfortable with describing The Intuitionist as "speculative fiction": it's an accurate categorization.

However, everyone should be aware that this does not solve the problem of specifically categorizing the Intuitionism in the novel. It simply postpones any discussion or analysis of Intuitionism, to a later date.

Intuitionism in Mathematics. There is a real-life philosophy called "Intuitionism". It is part of the philosophy of mathematics. It was invented in the early 20th Century. This real-life Intuitionism is completely non-mystical.

As far as I can tell, the Intuitionism in The Intuitionist, and the real-life Intuitionism in mathematics, have nothing in common but their name. They are two completely separate concepts.

China Miéville

China Miéville is an English writer of fantasy and science fiction.

The City & The City

The City & The City (2009) is a combined science fiction novel and murder mystery.

"I was climbing up a mountain path / with many things to do, / important business of my own, / and other people's too, / when I ran against a Prejudice / that quite cut off the view." - Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "An Obstacle" (1893).

"Peace, daughter of Righteousness, thou that makest cities great" - Pindar, "8th Pythian Ode".

Mystery Plot. The book follows the strict paradigm of the who-done-it murder mystery: there is an opening mysterious murder; the detective heroes investigate for the rest of the book, at the end the detectives figure out who committed the crimes.

Two pieces of detective reasoning by the Inspector are first rate:

Both of these detection episodes involve investigating series and patterns. An interest in series recalls Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and Kelley Roos. However Miéville's specific approaches are different from any of these.

The motive for the crime, and the identity of who-done-it, were unexpected surprises to me: a good thing.

The Thefts. The thefts are clever (Chapter 25). These fall into a category of mystery fiction with a long tradition: the "ingenious theft". They also come close to a linked tradition: the "impossible disappearance of an object". Objects are vanishing from the archaeological site, in a way that seems impossible, since the site is fenced and guarded.

Such impossible disappearances are traditions in Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and Stuart Palmer.

Mystery Plot: Limitations. Twice the Inspector learns key ideas, not through any detective work, but through an informant on the phone (first half of Chapter 4, Chapter 16). This is not considered an admirable approach in mystery fiction. Sleuths are supposed to learn things through reason-based detection, not through informants simply telling them stuff. On the positive side, the plot revelations in these sections are well done.

There are mysteries about the history of the cities that the novel never explains: the origin of the cities during Cleavage; the strange mixed stratigraphy of the archaeological sites; why most artifacts are in Ul Quoma. In traditional mysteries, any mystery subplot not explained by the finale is considered a defect. But perhaps Miéville is saving up such explanations for a sequel.

Mise-en-crime. The opening crime scene investigation refers twice to "mise-en-crime" (Chapter 1). It is unclear exactly what this means. Is it is a police technique used by the cops in Beszel? Is it merely their term for "crime scene"?

An Internet search for "mise-en-crime" turns up few references, all after 2009 when The City & The City was published. This implies that Miéville invented the term "mise-en-crime" for the novel.

My guess: "mise-en-crime" is a variation on the much-used real-life term "mise-en-scène". Mise-en-scène is a term used in the theater and film. It refers to the atmosphere, staging and visual style added to a play or film by the director, used to create a visual, emotional experience for the audience, often to highlight the story and characters. It's an important concept: one often seen as central to the art of film.

Sightlines. The detective hero investigates "sightlines" at the crime scene: who could have seen what from where (Chapter 1). Such sightlines appear in some early detective stories. Please see my list of mysteries involving Line of Sight. It is possible that Miéville independently reinvented the concept of sightlines for The City & The City.

Sightlines have thematic links to the novel's key ideas of seeing and unseeing.

The Detectives. The approach to the detective characters recalls Golden Age mystery fiction (roughly 1910-1960), rather than contemporary mysteries:

Just as science fiction techniques in The City & The City reflect the Golden Age of Science Fiction, so do mystery approaches recalls Golden Age mystery fiction.

Van Dine School. Mystery aspects of The City & The City recall the Van Dine School, a major tradition in American mystery fiction. Shared features:

As noted previously, specific mystery plot techniques such as "series" and "impossible thefts" are associated with such key Van Dine School writers as:

Raymond Chandler. The opening "Acknowledgments" records a debt to Raymond Chandler. However, I am not seeing much concrete influence of Raymond Chandler on The City & The City:

Chandler did excel in descriptions of Los Angeles. Perhaps these helped inspire the rich depiction of the cities in Miéville.

Noir? Hard-Boiled?. The words "noir" (dark, gloomy, pessimistic) or "hard-boiled" (tough) have sometimes been used by critics to describe The City & The City. I disagree. After the opening chapter, little in The City & The City can be called noir or hard-boiled:

Instead we get a mainly civilized cast: archaeologists, an author, politicians, political dissidents. Most of them seem well-educated, even intellectual. These intellectual characters recall more Golden Age writers like Christie and Queen, rather than hard-boiled or noir fiction.

The opening (Chapter 1) is set in a drug-ridden slum area. It can accurately be called "hard-boiled". But drugs are barely mentioned again in the novel. And the main plot of the book plot relentlessly shifts towards the more educated characters just mentioned.

Political and social issues give The City & The City seriousness and gravitas. But these are different from what is meant by "noir" or "hard-boiled". One notes that quite a few Golden Age mystery novels also discuss politics: see Christie's One Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) and Queen's The Glass Village (1954), for example.

Social Science Fiction. The City & The City reflects the Campbell tradition of Social Science Fiction. As in this Campbell tradition, it involves a single change to society, (two cities in the same location), with the social implications of that change set in forth in enormous, logical detail.

This Campbell tradition of Social Science Fiction was especially prevalent during the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Ursula K. Le Guin. Aspects of The City & The City recall Ursula K. Le Guin:

Avram Davidson. Another possible predecessor to The City & The City is Avram Davidson. His The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy are mystery story / fantasy combinations, set in his imaginary 1900-ish Eastern European city of Bella.

Otto Lowy. Otto Lowy was the host of the long-running CBC Radio program The Transcontinental. This program nostalgically recreated the world of traditional pre-1950 Central Europe (and other parts of Europe too). It was a non-fiction show: it mixed reminiscences and factual accounts by host Lowy, with authentic musical recordings of the era. This non-fiction premise made it different from the fictional works of Le Guin, Davidson and Miéville. All four of them do share a rich atmosphere, however.

Archaeology. The Archaeology in The City & The City links up with two traditions:

Cultural References. The phrase "Holy Light" used by people in Ul Quoma recalls Milton's Paradise Lost (start of Book 3).

An exhibit of the real-life artist Jannis Kounellis is being held in Ul Quoma (last part of Chapter 10). Kounellis' grim minimalism perhaps represents the sterile, uncreative side of Modernism. It thus can symbolize the routine, uncreative Modernism of Ul Quoma.

Words and Names. Besz words and first names often seem to have analogues in English or other real-life languages. This makes their meaning easy to read:

Ezra Claytan Daniels

Ezra Claytan Daniels is an American creator of graphic novels.

Upgrade Soul

Upgrade Soul (2018) is a graphic novel, written and drawn by Ezra Claytan Daniels.

Upgrade Soul is science fiction, looking at the impact of futuristic biotechnology.

Upgrade Soul restricts its scope to the impact of that technology on a dozen or so characters. It is thus not social science fiction: i.e., it does not create a whole new society based on that technology.

Postmodernism. Upgrade Soul has features characteristic of postmodern fiction:

The first hundred or so pages of Upgrade Soul jump around in time, in the postmodernist fashion. But after that, the jumping stops. The narrative then proceeds in a straightforward, linear manner, typical of traditional fiction. This mixing of postmodern and traditional narrative strategies is unusual, in my experience. I'm more familiar with works that are either postmodern throughout, or traditional throughout.

Skin Color. The hero's comic book hero Slane has blue skin. This was seen by both the creators and readers as a metaphor for Black Americans.

This subplot accurately reflects real-life comic book practice. 1950's and 1960's comic books edited by Julius Schwartz regularly included aliens with bright red, blue, yellow or green skin. These indeed were intended to suggest multi-racial casts of characters. See super-hero Green Lantern, and science fiction comic books Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures, One difference: most of these aliens in real-life comic books are supporting players, while Slane is the star of his series.

Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri is a contemporary American science fiction writer.


Finna (2020) is a novella.

Science Fiction vs Fantasy. Everything in Finna is based on science: especially quantum mechanics and the theory of multiverses. So by definition, Finna is science fiction.

By contrast, there is NO magic in Finna, and no strange unexplained powers. So Finna is NOT fantasy.

There is a tendency for some people to label any comic, whimsical work a "fantasy". It's a bad approach! Finna is comic and whimsical, alright. But it is science fiction, not fantasy.

Similarly, the Finna is a high-tech machine, not a magic wand. This too makes it science fiction, rather than fantasy. (The Finna recalls a bit such helpful information devices as the Omni in Voyagers! (1982). Both the Finna and Omni are handheld, work on mysterious but scientific principles, and give color-coded advice.)

With that said, a premise of Finna - a passageway to another dimension - is perhaps more commonly encountered in fantasy than in science fiction. Finna itself (end of Chapter 1) compares its passageway to Narnia, the fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis.

The framework of Finna in broad ways recalls another fantasy novel, The Beginning Place (1980) by Ursula K. Le Guin. Both books have a young couple in the early stages of adulthood discovering another dimension, in a coming-of-age tale. The hero of The Beginning Place is a cashier in a grocery store, and copes with routine work. The grocery is ordinary, not a baroque place like the store in Finna.

Nonbinary. One of the two main characters in Finna is nonbinary. It is really good to see explicitly nonbinary characters in fiction.

Reverse Prejudice. I don't approve of the book labeling a video "obnoxiously heterosexual" (Chapter 2). By first principles of ethics, heterosexuality is good. So is homosexuality. Everybody should be accepted.

Corporate Satire. By contrast, it is fine for the book to say that corporate spokesman Mark in the video, is "vapidly heterosexual". This is a satire on how corporations often treat heterosexuality: something they really want present, but in a toned-down mode. It is NOT a criticism of heterosexuality itself.

The Rooms. Strictly speaking, the display rooms at the store have no science fiction content, and might be considered "mainstream literature". But the rooms resemble the alternate Virtual Realities characters can move into and inhabit, in much science fiction. Each room has its own sociology and psychological characteristics in its style: just like Virtual Realities.

Lost. The novel does little to clarify the layout of the store. One suspects the book wants readers to feel lost in its complex corridors. In this it resembles the mystery novel Murder in the Maze (1927) by J. J. Connington. Murder in the Maze is set in a large garden maze. It too wants readers to feel lost and have no understanding of the geographical layout.

Finale. The subplot about the couple's relationship comes to a genuine finale, near the tale's end. So Finna exemplifies the traditional storytelling idea, that a story is supposed to come to a big dramatic climax in its ending.

The two other big plots are also resolved (Ursula; the heroine's relation to the store). These are not quite full dramatic finales, but they DO resolve the story solidly. Finna exemplifies Aristotle's dictum that a tale should tell an action with "a beginning, a middle and and end". All of this is a Good Thing.

J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard is the world's greatest contemporary writer, and the finest contemporary prose stylist in the English language. His reputation would be much higher, were it not for the prejudices shown against science fiction writers.

The best place to start reading Ballard, is the short story "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D". (It is one of his Vermillion Sands stories.) After that, the short stories "The Voices of Time" and "The Illuminated Man" would be good to read next. A good place to start with his experimental fiction, is "The Atrocity Exhibition".

Ballard had a great period in 1981-1984 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).

SPOILERS. Its climactic image of the station filling the universe recalls:

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 interior of the station recalls airport lounges. Images of modern-day leisure run through Ballard. The lounges were built so that people could sit down and take it easy.

The transportation system aspects of the station, recall a Ballard book set in a transportation area, Concrete Island.

The space station is a large constructed object. Such objects appeared earlier in works by by other writers. SPOILERS. See "Limiting Factor" (1949) by Clifford D. Simak, and "Jupiter Five" (1953) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke.

"Report on an Unidentified Space Station" comes to a big finale at the tale's end. Such finales are a key part of traditional storytelling. In this Ballard tale, the "big finale" involves dramatic new ideas being introduced. These ideas make the finale have the richest science fiction imagination of the story.

The reference to the island galaxies at the end recalls "The Illuminated Man".

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 gallery 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 forces 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:

"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. Geometry in Ballard:

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 5, The Stars. The landscape of "The Waiting Grounds" would essentially reappear in the Vermilion Sands series, starting with the third tale, "Studio 5, The Stars" (1961). This tale, with its elaborate description of Vermilion Sands, is in some ways the real start of the series.

"Studio 5, 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.

"Studio 5, The Stars" refers to a myth of "Melander and Corydon". Ballard likely made up this myth for the story. Internet searches for the myth only return Ballard's tale. The names Melander and Corydon sound like an ancient Greek myth. So does the reference to the Muse. But the knights and court sound instead like an Arthurian legend.

The sand-rays are some of Ballard's surreal "evolved animals", as in "The Voices of Time". "Beach fatigue" is a comic variant on the mysterious malady in "The Voices of Time".

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.

Clifford D. Simak

Clifford D. Simak's science fiction work, sometimes has a plot structure related to mystery fiction. A novella like "The Trouble with Tycho" (1960) has a hero who goes to the Moon, to investigate a mysterious situation there. As in a conventional mystery, we have a complex set-up full of mysterious, unexplained events, a thinking-man's hero who investigates the situation, and a final explanation of all the mysterious events. The story is far from being any sort of murder mystery however. There is no murder - the mysterious events are purely science fictional: what is going on in remote craters of the Moon? And the solution is science fictional, as well.

"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".

Rural Wisconsin - and the Stars

Simak's best stories are rich in science fiction concepts. He is a writer who is easy to caricature as a slinger of cornpone fantasies. This ignores the breadth of thinking in his tales. A story like "The Big Front Yard" (1958) is indeed folksy, with its opening among ordinary people in rural Wisconsin. But it develops into a wildly imaginative and detailed science fiction situation. The vistas of alien landscapes seem like something out of a dream. The treatment of the tale's "simple" character anticipates the young woman in Way Station. These characters exhibit the value of the virtue of humility. So does the memorable finale of All Flesh Is Grass (1965).

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".

The Cold War

The short story "Galactic Chest" (1956) and the novel Way Station (1963) deal with the Cold War. Simak views the tensions between East and West as frightening - and insists that mankind look for ways to get through the impasse. Simak has science fictional deus ex machinas solve the problem. This might be a bit of a cop-out. But it also underscores the gravity of the situation.

"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.

Instant Transportation

But "Project Mastodon" is inventive when it thinks about the technical issues in time travel itself (such as the use of the helicopter), and why the experimenters chose this particular location for their time travels. Also, in some ways the time travel to the past, anticipates the teleportation to different planets in "The Big Front Yard" (1958). Both take characters instantly to another locale: a locale that is exploited for trade or gain.

"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".


Robots in some Simak stories stand in allegorically for both the exploited working class, and exploited racial minorities, especially African-Americans. "Skirmish" (1950) and "All the Traps of Earth" (1960) show robots and machines taking alternative responses to this exploitation, violent and non-violent. Time and Again (1950) is a novel which similarly deals with androids, rather than robots, standing in for real-life oppressed groups.

"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".

Mystery Planets

Plot ideas in "Limiting Factor" (1949) are used again in "Construction Shack" (1973). Both involve human teams exploring new, mysterious planets. Both planets are deserted, but filled with technology. "Limiting Factor" is nearly an essay-in-form-of-a-short-story, with the characters little more than mouthpieces to set forth ideas about the planet. The storytelling in "Construction Shack" is much better: it has a lively readability lacking in the earlier tale. The ideas in "Limiting Factor" have dated, and are partly obsolete, whereas those in "Construction Shack" are still a bit more plausible. However, the sf concepts in "Limiting Factor" have more relevance to human life.

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:

By 1949, when "Limiting Factor" appeared, pulp magazines and their mystery fiction had been going on for over forty years. "Limiting Factor" itself appeared in an sf pulp magazine.

A similar mystery planet turns up in "Jackpot" (1956), but this tale is perfunctory.

SF and the Arts

Simak turned his science fictional imagination loose on the act of writing itself. "Shadow Show" (1953) is a strange but too cornball and conventional account. But the impressive "So Bright the Vision" (1956) is a genuine look at a future in which technology might affect the act of writing. It anticipates J. G. Ballard's "Studio 5, The Stars" (1961).

"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.

Future Societies

A Utopian story, "Univac: 2200" (1973) depicts what Simak feels would be an ideal future life for humanity, two centuries hence. It includes computer-aided thinking: not writing per se, but a related concept. Like many authors' Utopian works, "Univac: 2200" is more an essay in story form, than any sort of narrative. But it is carefully thought through, and has some substance as an Utopian vision. It stresses ecological ideas, such as designing objects that will last and not become obsolete. "Univac: 2200" is found in the aptly-named anthology Frontiers 1: Tomorrow's Alternatives, edited by Roger Elwood.

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.

The Cosmos

"The Creator" (1935) deals with an alien scientist who created our universe in his laboratory. It was considered religiously daring in its day, and in fact, has not been much reprinted. This central idea of the tale is impressive: it is what Hollywood calls "high concept", a work built around a new, striking idea. But like quite a few "high concept" works, the concept itself is the best part of the tale. Especially dull is the opening ten pages of mumbo-jumbo, depicting the occult research and philosophizing of the heroes.

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's Reputation

Simak published sf from 1931-1986. He was widely admired as an outstanding sf writer during most of that long period. Simak was admired and endorsed by a especially wide diversity of sf types: pulp magazine readers and editors, Golden Age sf fans of the 1940's, hardback publishers, paperback publishers, sf reviewers of many different schools, teenagers who read sf paperbacks in the 60's and 70's, academics who specialized in sf. He was the darling of the academic sf journal Extrapolation; he also won the field's major awards from the 1950's through the 1980's. Simak's books were widely available for decades, wherever paperback sf books were sold in the U.S. He was also a mainstay of public libraries.

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.


A Simak bibliography is at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Films

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. And my list of best Science Fiction TV Commercials.

Informative books on Science Fiction films:

"Bookmarks" that will take you right away to sections of the list:

Science Fiction

Space Travel:

Aliens Come to Earth:

Science Fiction, General:

Dystopia and Warnings about the Future:

Time Travel:

Virtual Reality:


Ordinary People Who Want to be Super-Heroes:

Science Fiction Adventure:


Science Fiction Comedies:

Whimsy and Movement: Worlds of Animated Objects

The Future (works that show a future period, but without much science fiction):


Fantasy (often by artistically prestigious directors):

Alternate Paths:

High-Brow Films that use Time Travel:

High-Brow Films that Visualize Dreams, Fantasies or Literary Works:

Film Noir Crime Films with Dream Sequences:

Fantasy Musicals:

Fantasy Comedies, often about Magical Beings:

Christmas Fantasies:

Strange Depiction of Life or Society (borderline fantasy):

Science, Technology and Industry

These are non-science fiction films, that offer a "realistic" view of science and technology.

Science or technology in contemporary or historical settings:


Cognitive Science:

Medicine, Medical Research and Public Health:






Motion Pictures:

Industry and Labor:

High-Tech Manufacturing:



Environmental Dramas and Mysteries:

Global Warming (see also my list of recommended documentaries):


Anthropology, Collectors and Information Gatherers:


Strange Houses:

Under the City:

Mysteries about Strange Animals:

Trains (see also Railroad Crime Fiction):

Semi-Documentary Film:

Semi-documentary films are mainly crime films, that combine a fictional story about the Government hunting crooks, with documentary aspects. They typically depict 1) an elite Government team or agency 2) advanced technology used by the team or by the crooks 3) a big finale set in some spectacular industrial or technological area.
Film Director Year Team Technology Finale
Radio Patrol Edward L. Cahn 1932 City Police Radio Cars Stockyard
They All Come Out Jacques Tourneur 1939 US Federal Prisons Medicine, Machinery Machine Shop
Crime Does Not Pay:

Know Your Money

Joseph M. Newman 1940 Treasury: Secret Service Lab, Dictaphone
Crime Does Not Pay:

Respect the Law

Joseph M. Newman 1941 Doctors, police, city officials Plague suits Isolation ward
The House on 92nd Street Henry Hathaway 1945 FBI Radio
Kiss of Death Henry Hathaway 1947
T-Men Anthony Mann 1947 Treasury: Secret Service Counterfeiting, Lab analysis Ship
He Walked By Night Anthony Mann 1948 LAPD Ballistics, Identikit,

Radio, Hollerith machines

LA Storm Sewers
Call Northside 777 Henry Hathaway 1948 Reporter Photo transmit by wire
The Street With No Name William Keighley 1948 FBI Heliograph, Communications,

Hollerith machines

The Naked City Jules Dassin 1948 NYPD Williamsburg Bridge
Walk a Crooked Mile Gordon Douglas 1948 FBI, Scotland Yard Bugging, UV light, math formulas
Canon City Craig Wilbur 1948 Colorado State Penitentiary Funicular
Berlin Express Jacques Tourneur 1948 Allied Occupation in Germany Agriculture, Train Brewery
White Heat Raoul Walsh 1949 Treasury Tracking Devices Oil Tanks
Homicide Felix Jacoves 1949 LAPD Wires for Bookmaking, Lab Analysis
The Undercover Man Joseph H. Lewis 1949 Treasury: IRS Photo blowup
Follow Me Quietly Richard Fleischer 1949 Police Profiling, Dummy Waterworks
Trapped Richard Fleischer 1949 Treasury: Secret Service L.A. Trolley Barn
Slattery's Hurricane André de Toth 1949 US Weather Bureau Planes Hurricane, Control Tower
Panic in the Streets Elia Kazan 1950 Centers for Disease Control Epidemiology New Orleans Docks
Mystery Street John Sturges 1950 Barnstable Police Pathology Trinity Station
Armored Car Robbery Richard Fleischer 1950 LAPD Airport
Side Street Anthony Mann 1950 NYPD Radio, Pathology Wall Street
A Lady Without Passport Joseph H. Lewis 1950 Immigration officers Planes Everglades
711 Ocean Drive Joseph M. Newman 1950 Wires for Bookmaking Boulder Dam
The Tattooed Stranger Edward Montagne 1950 NYPD Botany, Ballistics Monuments Workshop
The Man Who Cheated Himself Felix E. Feist 1950 San Francisco Police Ballistics, Police Radio Fort Point
The Sleeping City George Sherman 1950 NYPD Homicide Medicine Bellevue Cellar, Roof
Where the Sidewalk Ends Otto Preminger 1950 NYPD Amphetamines Garage and Car Elevator
Appointment with Danger Lewis Allen 1950 US Postal Inspectors Observation windows
I Was a Communist for the FBI Gordon Douglas 1951 FBI Listening Devices Pittsburgh Rail Bridge
On Dangerous Ground Nicholas Ray 1951 LAPD
Never Trust a Gambler Ralph Murphy 1951 LAPD Homicide Forensics San Diego Docks
Red Skies of Montana Joseph M. Newman 1952 US Forestry Service Fire Fighting, Parachutes
Diplomatic Courier Henry Hathaway 1952 US State Department Coded teletype
Code Two Fred M. Wilcox 1953 LAPD Motorcycles Chemical Pool
99 River Street Phil Karlson 1953 Taxi drivers Taxi Radio Jersey City Docks
Crime Wave André de Toth 1954 LAPD Bank Alarm, Airport, Police Radio Glendale Bank Robbery
The Human Jungle Joseph M. Newman 1954 Police Microphone in Wall Beer Factory
Them! Gordon Douglas 1954 LAPD, FBI,

Government Scientists

Entomology LA Storm Sewers
The Scarlet Coat John Sturges 1955 US Secret Service Secret messages
Death in Small Doses Joseph M. Newman 1957 Food and Drug Administration Amphetamines, Trucks
The Lineup Don Siegel 1958 San Francisco Police Police Lab Unfinished Freeway
The FBI Story Mervyn LeRoy 1959 FBI FBI Lab, Paint Samples
Highway Patrol: Framed Cop Jack Herzberg 1959 State Troopers Keys store, Teletype Train Station
Highway Patrol:

Diversion Robbery

Derwin Abrahams 1959 State Troopers Explosives Fire Roads
The Detectives:

The Hiding Place

Joseph H. Lewis 1959 LAPD-like Police Radio Phones, Police Sketches,

Lie Detector

Ruined Buildings
Diagnosis: Unknown Various: TV show 1960 Forensic Scientists Pathology Lab
Naked City: C3H5(NO3)3 William A. Graham 1961 NYPD, Bomb Squad Explosives School Basement
87th Precinct: Lady Killer Dick Moder 1961 NYPD Fingerprints, Police Sketches Alley
The New Breed:

The Compulsion to Confess

Walter Grauman 1961 LA Metropolitan Squad Psychiatry Electronics Factory
The Police Dog Story Edward L. Cahn 1961 Canine Police Animal Psychology Warehouse
Naked City:

Beyond This Place There Be Dragons

George Sherman 1963 NYPD Bus Station
The Rifleman: The Bullet Joseph H. Lewis 1963 Marshal, deputy Ballistics
The Satan Bug John Sturges 1965 SDI Virology Lab, 16mm Film Dodger Stadium

Chronology in the above chart of Semi-Documentary Films:

  1. 1932-1941. A few early examples that fit the Semi-Documentary Film paradigm.
  2. 1945. "The House on 92nd Street". For all its flaws, the film which established Semi-Documentary Film as a popular Hollywood approach.
  3. 1947-1954. Many Semi-Documentary Films made as feature films, for theaters.
  4. 1959-1963. Television series episodes adhering to the paradigm. I found these by chance. Likely there are quite a few others.
  5. 1965. "The Satan Bug". David Vineyard at Mystery*File points out that this is an example of the Semi-Doc genre. I didn't realize this. Thank you!
More categories of movies with relationships to the Semi-Documentary Film:

Crime Films shot on location, with documentary features:

Westerns with undercover heroes, influenced by T-Men (1947): Ancestors of the Semi-Documentary. Films with undercover hero marked *: Police films, perhaps influenced by the Semi-Documentaries, but without undercover cop plots, or much location filming:

Please see my: