In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never experienced before in order to get a feel for their style.
This month’s selection was voted on by subscribers to my monthly email newsletter from a short list I provided. Wolfe was first published in 1965, and quickly established himself as a regular in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies. (A quick word on Knight. Although I was not terribly impressed by his fiction, the man had impeccable taste when putting together original anthologies. If you ever come across an issue of Orbit do yourself a favor and give it a read.) Orbit stories tended to be avant-garde, which made them somewhat controversial among science fiction fans. (It didn’t take the advent of Star Trek, Star Wars, or the internet to make science fiction fans argumentative.) Through the 1970s, Wolfe’s style got more sophisticated and weird. His most famous work, The Book of the New Sun series, is a four book extended science fantasy novel, and is considered a stand-out of the genre.
But I’ve never read any of that.
For my first Gene Wolfe readings I picked two stories with neat sounding titles, concluded by one of Wolfe’s award winning novellas.
Originally published in Orbit 3 (1968)
Read in same
In Damon Knight’s introduction to this story in Orbit 3 he writes, “In my book of critical essays… I made a distinction between stories that make sense and those that mean something. I am unable to “make sense” out of this one – to make it add up neatly and come out even – but I strongly feel that it means something, just as Kafka’s The Trial or Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery does.” I got a kick out of that because I’ve often been confused by stories in Orbit, which was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction characterized by more “literary” stories that experimented with form and style, often focused on “soft” as opposed to “hard” science fiction elements, and overall guided by a rejection of the pulp establishment. You might think that as a scientist I prefer hard science fiction, but honestly I love them both. My favorite kind of science fiction is heavy on metaphor and social commentary (which tends to occur more in “soft” science fiction), but I also love Asimov, who was one of the “hard” science fiction adherents (and often a dick about it).
The Changeling is absolutely great. We get a nice setup of a disgraced soldier returning to his home town for lack of any better options. His parents have long since passed away, but he runs across the family of a childhood friend who insist on housing him for a while, and that’s where things get weird. I don’t want to give anything else away, because the complete unpredictability of the story was part of what I really liked, but suffice it to say that – like Damon Knight – at the end I don’t think I really understand what happened, but whatever it was I dig it.
How the Whip Came Back
Originally published in Orbit 6 (1970)
Read in same
I picked this one because I was intrigued as to what the title could mean, and was surprised at how dark it turned. Like in the first story, Wolfe drops you into a world with little introduction, and you spend a good percentage of the story just finding your footing. Even in this, his most straightforward science fiction tale of the three I read, his writing has an unsettling quality where you are always left questioning the very nature of the world. Sadly, the world he described in 1970 is shockingly similar to the one in which we all now live. The story centers around only two characters, both “observers” with ceremonial rolls at the United Nations. The main character is a woman that represents the largest international charity organization in existence. The supporting character is the Pope of the Catholic church, which is essentially the last of the dying religions. The short narrative describes a single scene with our two characters discussing a proposed global law that will turn all prisoners into slaves, available for lease until their prison sentences are up. All nations are in agreement and support of the idea, but they would like the ceremonial support of these two individuals that, quite frankly, form the moral wing of the organization. To put it bluntly, “how the whip came back” refers to how the slave trade, long since abolished, returns with enthusiasm.
It is worth noting that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the nation, reads in part, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That legal loophole has been exploited to great success to this day as prisoners are routinely forced to perform work for the profit of the state and private business, receiving a paltry wage of pennies an hour for their efforts. Despite what you might have been told, slavery is still big business in the United States, and its existence is adamantly justified by those that believe that punishment is the sole purpose of incarceration.
In all fairness, it didn’t take a great prescient mind to look at forced prison labor and extrapolate it to its logical end. What it did take was someone who gave a shit about it in 1970, and for that simple fact I’m really starting to like Gene Wolfe.
The Death of Doctor Island
Originally published in Universe 3 (1973)
Read in Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
Chronologically, this is where I suspect Wolfe had fully come into his weird (some would say “literary”) style. This story won both the Nebula and Lotus awards for Best Novella in 1974, so you’d be right to suspect that it is good. Though it does feel a bit 1970s sci-fi, I’d go so far as to say it holds up to modern standards. (As a counterpoint, How the Whip Came Back felt outdated to modern standards in that it lacked any metaphor in its oral argument, and The Changeling would read as cliché if it was published today.) Once again Wolfe throws us into a confusing world, this time one where up is literally down, and leaves us to find our own way for a good chunk of the story. Since this is a novella, that chunk is a lot of pages, and it is only through Wolfe’s skill to intrigue me that I was interested in continuing to read until more was revealed. This is a story of what lengths a society will go to in order to fix those with potential, at the ultimate expense of those with none. In that respect it is similar to How the Whip Came Back in that there is an element of society working to exploit those on the bottom to benefit those at the top, something that I suspect Wolfe touched on throughout his stories given its presence in these two (and to a small extent in the first one as well, contained in the reason for the soldier’s disgrace). The Death of Doctor Island is an outstanding novella, and definitely one of the best I’ve ever read, classic or modern.
Gene Wolfe flew under my radar for a long time, despite being well known even until his death in 2019 at the age of 87. Wolfe’s last book, published posthumously in 2020, was submitted to his publisher shortly before his death and is a sequel to his 2015 novel The Borrowed Man, and both seem to have been well received. It’s always nice to hear of a “vintage” author still finding a modern audience through new work that they are able to keep fresh.
A number of vintage science fiction writers well worthy of renown are undergoing a period of rediscovery, and Cyril M. Kornbluth is yet another example. Frequently writing with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction author Frederik Pohl, Kornbluth’s solo publications were mostly short stories. Pohl and Kornbluth had been friends since they were teenagers, when Pohl lived in Brooklyn just down the street from Isaac Asimov’s parent’s candy store; the same store where Asimov himself first read a science fiction magazine off the rack. (New York City in the 1920 was a major nexus point of science fiction, but even knowing that it’s a bit of a shock to learn that Asimov, Pohl, and Kornbluth knew each other as teens.)
Kornbluth is another example of an author I knew before I knew him, because one of my absolute favorite Night Gallery episodes was based on one of his short stories. The ability to convert a 1950 story into an early-1970s TV show gives you some idea how forward thinking Kornbluth was. The tone and quality of his stories would easily fit into the 1960s-1970s, and one has to keep in mind that he mostly wrote from 1940-1958 to appreciate his skill. Kornbluth passed away suddenly at the age of 34 of a heart attack when racing to catch a train that was to take him to a job interview for potentially taking over editorial duties for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I wonder what direction Kornbluth could have taken such a venerable publication, and it’s a shame we’ll never know what he could have accomplished, as he was clearly just getting started.
It’s hard to not assign at least partial blame for Kornbluth’s death to his personal habits. Even his friends (Pohl and Asimov among them) testify that he was a very odd man. Supposedly he never brushed his teeth, to the point that they were actually green. This fact struck me as there has long been a connection between oral hygiene and heart health. At a time of strange characters writing science fiction, Kornbluth was clearly one of the strangest.
The Rocket of 1955
Originally published in the fanzine Escape, August 1939
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This was Kornbluth’s first solo story publication, and appeared in a fanzine. Any time I have an author’s first story I like to add it to the Trifecta along with a later story to see any evolution. I might not have picked this story if I’d known how short it was – about a page and a half – but it did give me an indication of what seems to be a hallmark for Kornbluth, which is a vague hinting at what is happening rather than hitting the reader upside the head. Kornbluth wants the reader to think their way through the evidence he provides in the story to figure out what is happening, rather than putting it in plain black-and-white. This is something a lot of modern science fiction writers still don’t do (but I find is common in horror); there is always that drive to provide for the lowest common denominator of reader. Kornbluth seemed perfectly happy to swing above a reader’s head, which was definitely an uncommon approach in 1939 sci-fi. I have to admit that I was a little confused by this story and gave it a reread to pick up on it, and I think I got it the second time. Quite simply, this story tells the sordid tale of the world’s first rocket launch to space, which doesn’t go exactly as the passenger expects. Definitely worth a read, and you can do so online.
The Little Black Bag
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This one probably has to be Kornbluth’s best based on its accolades. It won the 2001 Retro-Hugo Award for Best Novelette (of 1951), and has been adapted into at least three television episodes, including one of my favorite episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. This is the story of a drunk, disgraced doctor and a medical bag from the future so advanced that it is almost magical. The story is fairly similar to the Night Gallery episode, except that the sidekick character is a woman in the original story, which I think actually plays a lot better. Both the story and the episode are worth your time, especially since the episode stars the incomparable Burgess Meredith as the protagonist. It looks like Escape Pod has the story available online, as well as an audio version, if you’re into that kind of thing.
The Marching Morons
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1951
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
I came across several mentions of this story when researching Kornbluth, and it is cited as a sequel to The Little Black Bag, so I had to give it a read. This story is notable because Kornbluth not only revisits the future world that created the titular “black bag” of the previous story, but he also utilizes the same vague hinting around that he did in The Rocket of 1955, though he makes it a bit clearer at the last moment here. I don’t know if Kornbluth originated the idea at the core of the film Idiocracy (I suspect he didn’t), but it is too similar to not have been an inspiration for the film. Kornbluth latches onto the idea that idiots have more kids than well educated people do, to the point that evolution basically splits the human species. The vast majority of the world is populated by barely functioning morons who are fooled by the super-intelligent, but numerically inferior, super-humans, into thinking that they run the world. Meanwhile the super-humans are at the mercy of the idiot masses, working themselves to death just to try to keep the world from going boom. In walks a cryogenically preserved “average man” of our time (yeah, it’s almost verbatim the same setup as Idiocracy) who the super-humans hope can find a solution to The Problem. Mild spoiler here, but The Problem they struggle to solve is essentially “How the fuck do we get rid of all these morons?!” Our man-from-the-present has a way, and it’s something none of the super-humans would ever think of. It’s an interesting read, and is considered by some to be one of the best science fiction novellas published before 1965. Since it first appeared in Galaxy this is yet another story you can read for free online. (See, I take good care of you, fine reader. All three stories this month are available just a click away.)
I think Pohl described his friend best when he wrote “Cyril was a wise as well as a talented man. He was also a sardonic soul. The comedy present in almost everything he wrote relates to the essential hypocrisies and foolishness of mankind. His target was not always Man in the abstract and general. Sometimes it was one particular man, or woman, thinly disguised as a character in a story – and thinly sliced, into quivering bits. Once or twice it was me.”*
I have a feeling I would have got along really well with Kornbluth. Except maybe for his epically bad breath.
*From Pohl’s introduction to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, published 1976.
Early this morning China successfully launched the core module of their new space station into Earth orbit. This station is the focus of the entire Chinese manned space program, at least for the near future, and represents the culmination of years of development and planning. Like all modern space stations, the massive installation will be assembled in orbit utilizing multiple launches, but the Chinese government expects the station to be completed by the end of 2022. There is no reason to expect that target can’t be met given their modest plans. Apart from expanding manned access to space, this station represents one more part of the Chinese government’s soft power exercise over the global scientific community.
A nation exercises soft power anytime they use some form of cultural influence on another nation, and this is a form of power that the United States practically invented during the Cold War. One might rightly ask why the United States government allows foreign scientists to conduct research at US government laboratories, and one justification is the exercise of soft power. A more straightforward term might be “good will.” It helps to have scientists on your side because scientists create new technologies and capabilities that governments want to exploit for economic or defense ends. Since the early 20th century the USA has been the go-to nation for scientists. That is a big part of why the US led technological innovation in the last century. The USA has a reputation for being the place where scientific innovation happens. It’s not a guarantee that reputation will continue.
With the launch of their space station, and the expectation that it will be fully operational within two years, China has offered up the opportunity to fly experiments to the international community. In fact, nine international experiments have already been selected to fly on the station through a program run in collaboration with the United Nations. It is no coincidence that China is opening up room on their station for international collaboration now, given that the US-led International Space Station will reach end of life in 2028. This isn’t the only place where China is looking to pick up the slack that America has dropped.
The recent unceremonious collapse of the beloved and iconic Arecibo telescope represented a major loss to radio astronomy. Many international researchers had built their entire careers at Arecibo, and many of these same researchers were left holding the bag when it collapsed. But fear not, astronomers, because China coincidentally announced that they would be opening their newer and larger radio telescope to international cooperation shortly after the collapse. The Chinese government will be granting 10% of the FAST telescope to international collaborators, with the remaining 90% going to Chinese researchers. Competition for that 10% will be fierce, as will attempts to get Chinese colleagues to submit proposals as co-authors to grab some of that 90%. (This is all above board, and is, quite frankly, how this form of soft power functions. You create a system to draw in foreign talent to boost your native talent, which means that you win, but everyone feels like they win something they want.)
China is not guilty of anything that the USA hasn’t been doing for years, namely exercising soft power to attract scientific talent and prestige. If anything, China is acknowledging that they recognize the importance of soft power and want to apply it in the realm of science and technology. When it comes to soft power China is a pro, and they coordinate across multiple efforts to get what they want. China looks to the USA and the way it has led the world for decades, and wants that role for itself, and is doing what it thinks it has to in order to achieve that goal.
Think I’m being paranoid? Allow me to introduce you to panda diplomacy.
I’ve written about how Star Trek struggles to handle the concept of religion, but that doesn’t mean that Star Trek can’t be interpreted through the language of religion. In fact, the greatest messianic figure in all of Trek lore is undoubtedly Zefram Cochrane.
First off, we should establish that Star Trek can be interpreted as a system of mythology, with myth being defined as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people,” with those “people” being devout Star Trek fans – Trekkies or Trekkers. The idea being that the future-history of Star Trek shows us where our world can go if we put aside our hate; a future of racial integration, and a world without poverty or hunger. An alternative definition of myth is as a synonym for parable, being “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude,” which is a good description of how a lot of fans I grew up with thought about individual episodes of Star Trek.
According to Trek mythology, Zefram Cochrane was the human being that invented warp drive. He accomplished this task in a post-World War III apocalyptic waste, and almost single handed, with only the help of a Black woman that future-history has largely forgotten (which says a lot more than I can unpack here). As the story goes, Cochrane piloted the human race’s first faster-than-light spaceship, which attracted the attention of a passing Vulcan spacecraft. The Vulcans, learning that humans had discovered warp travel, land on Earth to introduce themselves.
These events are shown in the film Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Next Generation crew have to travel back in time to make sure the aforementioned first contact event happens as it is supposed to. Events force the crew to confront Zefram Cochrane and tell him who they are and what he has to do to bring about the human utopia portrayed in the rest of Star Trek lore. But the man they meet does not match up with the historical figure. This is not the visionary scientist they learn about in school. This man is a womanizer and an alcoholic. Cochrane later admits that he never built the ship for the reasons future generations think he did.
"I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity… I built this ship so that I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women. That’s Zefram Cochrane. That’s his vision. This other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will."
Cochrane clearly asserts that he is not a saint, and from our perspective he certainly isn’t. But according to the parable of first contact that’s okay, because he hasn’t yet been spiritually transformed.
Star Trek is fairly unique among science fiction stories in that it portrays first contact with an alien race as an almost universally positive societal transformation. A lot of science fiction views first contact as a threat leading to annihilation, drawing parallels to historical “first contacts” between societies on Earth (i.e. Native American Indians and Columbus, or almost any country and the British). Still more science fiction views first contact in more mundane terms, being just another amazing thing that happens to technologically advanced societies that they learn to live with (the television series Babylon 5 comes to mind). First contact is different in Star Trek. At least for humanity, the knowledge that we are not alone in the Universe sparked a spiritual awakening and a golden age. The crew of the Enterprise tell Cochrane that his warp flight will “change everything.”
"It is one of the pivotal moments in human history, doctor! You get to make first contact with an alien race, and after you do, everything begins to change… It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible when they realize they’re not alone in the Universe. Poverty, disease, war, they’ll all be gone within the next fifty years. But unless you make that warp flight… none of it will happen."
Warp drive is a transformative technology in Star Trek. It is the point in a species’ technological development where it becomes okay for other alien races to introduce themselves. In the same way that the atom bomb resulted in mass societal change, faster-than-light travel magically unites a species for the common good. As a result, Zefram Cochrane is a messianic figure for the humans of Star Trek. Once a man consumed by hedonism, alcohol, and greed, when he became the first human to shake an alien’s hand he was spiritually transformed. Within him resides all of humanity, because they too will set aside their petty conflicts and stand together to feed the hungry, sooth the poor, and bring about true peace on Earth. They can do this not because of some technological advancement, but simply because they choose to. News of first contact triggers a global spiritual awakening and transforms our species in a few short decades. In a way, this is Star Trek’s origin myth, because through this one event the story world that we watch is made possible.
At least, that’s one way to look at it.
Let’s get something straight before we begin: I am neither pro- or anti-religion. I feel it’s necessary to lay that out at the beginning because there is a natural instinct in our society when reading anything about religion in popular culture to divine through the tea leaves the spiritual orientation of the author. My interest in how religion is discussed in Star Trek (and science fiction in general) is in the undeniable fact that religion is something that a vast number of humans continue to practice in their daily lives and, as such, religion is fair game for science fiction the same way any topic of human society is. Of course, if Star Trek never addressed religion that would be a point in and of itself, but from time to time Star Trek does address the topic of religion in various alien cultures. Since the aliens of Star Trek serve as reflections of contemporary Western society, how Trek approaches religion is a reflection of how the writers view religion. So how does Star Trek view religion?
First we should acknowledge that science fiction generally does a bad job of addressing religion, and science fiction television is a particularly poor venue. Perhaps the most deep reflections on religion in science fiction television come from the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, in which religion featured prominently throughout. I’m a huge fan of that series, and if you’re familiar with the show you might be aware that the final episode was extremely contentious and angered many fans (I’m not one of them). The final episode of Battlestar is the clearest indicator I’ve ever had of whether or not someone is comfortable with the concept of religion in science fiction. Can an atheist accept that God can exist in a work of fiction? In my experience there are a lot of atheist fans of science fiction for which the answer is a clear “no.” Truth is that Star Trek addressing religion at all is going to put the show in a precarious position. Which is why it’s so surprising that the show not only decides to touch on the topic, but so often fumbles it.
There are two episodes of Star Trek that stand out in my mind when thinking about religion. The first is the Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers”. In that episode the Enterprise races to a hidden anthropology research station which is studying a primitive Bronze Age alien race called the Mintakans. The Mintakans are described as “proto-Vulcan” meaning that although they are primitive they are “highly logical” and thus not superstitious. One of the Mintakans witnesses the Enterprise crew beaming away while the hidden observation post is temporarily made visible by a malfunction, which quickly convinces the Mintakans that gods do exist and that Captain Picard is their leader. The episode focuses on Picard’s attempts to undo the damage the Enterprise has inadvertently done to the Mintakan’s culture. At one point Counselor Troi, disguised as a Mintakan, is going to be sacrificed to please The Picard. Troi asks the man about to shoot her if he is certain that her death is what The Picard wants. “That’s the problem in believing in a supernatural being,” she says, “trying to determine what He wants.” This is a fair and true statement, but it is also not the logical trap that it is portrayed as in the episode. The overt statement made in the episode is that by making the naturally logical Mintakans once again believe in gods, the Enterprise has reverted their culture to a less developed state. Secular logic good. Religion bad. Science good. Faith in god bad. In the end Picard convinces the Mintakans that they are actually just technologically advanced aliens from another planet, which is clearly easier to believe than that they are gods, and nowhere near as horrible for their culture. In the end the leader of the Mintakans asks Picard to remember her people, and I couldn’t help but think Picard was wishing that they would all forget about his. Undoubtedly this culture was contaminated by an understanding of aliens from other worlds, which is somehow less problematic than a very natural belief in supernatural beings.
Another standout episode is from Voyager titled “Prophecy”. Seventy years into deep space, Voyager encounters a hundred year old Klingon ship which has been converted into a generation ship by a group of Klingon pilgrims in search of a savior. Their search is based on an ancient scripture, and they have searched for decades for the Klingon messiah. They come to believe that the pregnant B'Elanna Torres is carrying the messiah, and paste together some Nostradamus logic to make the case. This episode intrigued me, as it is a setup to explore some interesting issues between religion and the Federation belief system.
However the episode quickly deteriorates. We learn that the Klingon’s leader posses no faith, and is simply trying to save his people after the destruction of their ship. He wants to settle on a nearby planet, and is willing to use his people’s beliefs to manipulate them into settlement, asking the Voyager crew to assist in the deception. Captain Janeway agrees, and Torres helps the Klingon leader to manipulate the story of her life to fit the sacred scrolls. In the end, stem cells from Torres’s hybrid Klingon-Human fetus heal a disease the Klingon pilgrims have suffered from for decades, thus the messiah has healed their people and they settle on a nearby planet, never to be heard from or discussed again. Religion in this episode is nothing but a flawed belief system that fools adopt, leading their families to suffering and pain, and that can ultimately be used by leaders to exploit the masses. It has to be the single most cynical portrayal of religion in all of Star Trek, and the ease with which the supposedly enlightened Starfleet officers agree to exploit a community’s spiritual beliefs is shocking.
Any discussion of religion in Star Trek has to touch on the whole of Deep Space Nine, whose main character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, is found to be the Emissary of the gods of the Bajoran people. The Bajoran people have just recently exited from a Holocaust at the hands of their nearest celestial neighbors, the Cardassians. The gods of the almost universally adopted Bajoran religion are the Prophets, who scripture says reside in a “Celestial Temple” that is meant to be a physical place. Sisko discovers a stable wormhole near Bajor that is the home of a non-corporeal race of aliens that live outside time, which he quickly realizes to be the Prophets of the Bajoran faith, as they admit to guiding the Bajorans throughout history. The series explores the themes of belief in enigmatic gods and the influence religion can have on a troubled society. Even in this fertile ground most of the storylines that come up portray religion as a system of control (one recurring villain is the Bajoran Pope) or which dismisses the Prophets as nothing more than weird aliens. In numerous episodes Starfleet leadership argues with Sisko about the Prophets, calling them “wormhole aliens” and trying to either distance him from his role as the Emissary, or to get him to exploit his position to convince the Bajorans to join the Federation. Even when faced with the fact of an alien race that lives outside of time which frequently guides the Bajoran race, the Federation citizens criticize the Bajorans for their faith in these same beings. The Prophets never claim to be something they’re not, but still, religion is bad, even when that faith is placed in scientifically verifiable claims.
The ultimate issue is that Star Trek can never bring itself to acknowledge the most basic fact about religion: that religious faith gives many people comfort. This form of spiritual comfort is fundamentally incompatible with the Star Trek ethos because the utopia that the Federation embodies is one of materialistic comfort. Nobody is hungry, there is no poverty, and war is largely unheard of. The body is nourished, leaving only the mind. In the Federation, the mind is nourished by science and the freedom to pursue your worldly desires. But the basic comfort of belief in a higher power, in an ordering force for the Universe… that is absent from this utopia.
There is a closed mindedness that comes from this worldview, because if we embrace an unbending belief that religion is nothing but a cynical system of control for fools, that ignores the appeal of religion for many in modern society. This belief robs us of the opportunity to understand one another. It is a fact that religion has sometimes led to human suffering, but it is a fact that science has as well. Religion, like science, is not inherently good or evil, it is what we do with them that matters. A belief that religion is always bad is a belief that is simply not based on factual evidence, and Star Trek itself would criticize such a belief.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.