Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Q: Spot the year of first publication (+ or – 20 years):

“Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”

A: It comes from an essay, ‘Darwin Among the Machines’, published in the June 1863 issue of a New Zealand magazine called The Press. Ascribed to ‘Cellarius’ but actually written by Samuel (Erewhon) Butler. Change ‘mechanical’ to ‘electronic’ and ‘machines’ to ‘computers’ and only the slightly archaic style would give the game away. Mike Ashley’s Introduction – nay, scholarly monograph – is full of half-forgotten facts like that. I enjoyed it even more than some of the stories, which were a tad over-familiar to an old-timer like me: ‘The Machine Stops’ (Forster); ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (Asimov); ‘Two-Handed Engine’ (Moore & Kuttner). Still good stuff, though.

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (British Library Science Fiction Classics) by [Mike Ashley]

The earliest anthology I know of SF stories about artificial intelligence in general as opposed to humanoid robots in particular is Science Fiction Thinking Machines (1954), edited by Groff Conklin. None of those stories appear in Ashley’s book, which makes it an interesting thematic companion piece.

Ashley takes a more chronological approach than Conklin, with Adeline Knapp’s ‘The Discontented Machine’ (1894) – about a machine that calls its own wildcat strike – being the earliest (and also one of the best). Along the way, we are treated to such reclaimed treasures as ‘Automata’ (S. Fowler Wright: 1929) and ‘Rex’ (Harl Vincent: 1934). J. J. Connington’s ‘Danger in the Dark Cave’ (1938) fuses Golden Age detective fiction with what would now be called AI: “My view is that once you give an organism – be it machine or anything else – the power of appreciating stimuli and coping with them, you produce something akin to intelligent life.” With the instinct of self-preservation, and the means to fight back. ‘Efficiency’ (Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H. Davis: 1917) is a quirky little one-act play.

For what it’s worth, my favourite selection is ‘But Who Can Replace a Man’ (1958), by the late and always to be lamented Brian W. Aldiss. I’ll leave you to decide where ‘menace’ comes into it. The most recent – comparatively speaking – story, Arthur C. Clarke’s fiendish ‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ (1964), was read and well-remembered by the young Tim (www) Berners-Lee. But the most precociously prophetic story is ‘A Logic Named Joe’ (1946) which deals with ‘logics’ (i.e. personal computers) and something called the ‘tank’ (i.e. the Internet). If you’ll pardon the slightly archaic style:

“Does it occur to you, fella, that the tank has been doin’ all the computin’ for every business office for years? It’s been handlin’ the distribution of ninety-four per cent of all telecast programs, has given out all information on weather, plane schedules; special sales, employment opportunities and news; has handled all person-to-person contacts over wires and recorded every business conversation and agreement – Listen, fella! Logics changed civilization. Logics are civilization! If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run! I’m getting hysterical myself and that’s why I’m talkin’ like this! [SEXISM ALERT.] If my wife finds out my paycheck is thirty credits a week more than I told her and starts hunting for that redhead – “

But it’s all extravagant fiction – right, fella? It couldn’t possibly become cold fact tomorrow! Excuse me, fella. My logic is calling me…

(c) Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

The End of the World and Other Catastrophes, edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Donald A. Wollheim once edited an Ace Books anthology entitled The End of the World, in 1955. But he stuck close to genre home with such then modern-day stories as ‘Rescue Party’ (Clarke: 1946), The Year of the Jackpot’ (Heinlein: 1952), and ‘Impostor’ (Dick: 1953). But Mike Ashley has taken a much more wide-ranging and historical approach to the subject here. In his Introduction, he quotes these opening lines from ‘Darkness’, an apocalyptic poem by Lord Byron (first published in 1816): 

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.”

First up is ‘The End of the World’ (1930), by Helen Sutherland, which “gets us off to a rousing start by covering just about every catastrophe that can afflict mankind in a little over fifteen hundred words.” Ashley speculates that it might have been written by Helen Christian Sutherland (1881-1965), a patron of the arts who has been credited with discovering Pieter Cornelis Mondrian. Another story entitled ‘The End of the World’ (1903), by the astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), is an anticipation of When Worlds Collide

The End of the World and Other Catastrophes Paperback British Library Science Fiction

After that comes a sort-of-trilogy headed THREE DOOMS OF LONDON. ‘London’s Danger’ (1896), by C. J. Cutliffe Hyne, is an early climate-change story. ‘The Freezing of London’ (1908), by Herbert C. Ridout, is – well – self-explanatory. The same thing goes for ‘Days of Darkness’ (1927), by Owen Oliver (i.e. Sir Joshua Albert Flynn). Robert Barr’s ‘Within an Ace of the End of the World’ (1900) is another trenchant climate-change story. What happens when agricultural over-production threatens to strip the world’s atmosphere of nitrogen?

‘The Last American’, by John Ames Mitchell, provides some welcome light relief, using “humour and parody to satirize the American way of life through the viewpoint of a Persian expedition discovering a ruined and desolate United States years after its collapse. The first edition [1889] included many illustrations by the author [several included here].”

As Ashley explains, George Griffiths (1857-1906) was the most prolific and bestselling writer of ‘scientific romances’ in Britain until H. G. Wells came along to steal his literary thunder. He had gained wide popularity with The Angel of the Revolution (1893), in which a new form of flying machine enabled anarchists to take over the United Kingdom, thus pre-empting H. G. Wells himself: When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and The War in the Air (1908). ‘The Great Grenelin Comet’ (1897) shows how the people of Terra – perhaps the first use of that word in science fiction to mean the Earth – deal with the onset of a destructive comet.

Other ‘vintage’ stories are ‘Finis’ (1906), by Frank Lillie Pollock, and ‘The Madness of Professor Pye’ (1934), by Warwick Deeping. Ashley also includes three comparatively recent stories: ‘Two by Two’ (1956: retitled ‘The Windows of Heaven’ in 1965), by John Brunner; ‘Created He Them’ (1955), by Alice Eleanor Jones; ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ (1950), by Ray Bradbury (which became part of The Martian Chronicles/The Silver Locusts).

For me, it seems appropriate to round off this review with the final lines from Byron’s ‘Darkness’:

“The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expired before;

The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them – She was the Universe.”

(The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I wonder . . .)

N.B. Companion volumes from the British Library Science Fiction Classics program, so far: Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures (2018); Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet (2018); Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (2019). I wish even more power to your editorial elbow, Mr. Ashley. 

Copyright Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

Review: Born of the Sun: Adventures in our Solar System edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

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In Jack Williamson’s thought variant short story, ‘Born of the Sun’ (Astounding, March 1934), Sol – like possibly every other star in the universe – is a sentient being and the planets are its incubating eggs. Well, you can’t get much more “thought variant” than that! But since the Sun didn’t give birth by self-genesis, Mike Ashley has excluded it from his whistle-stop tour of the solar system. (I would have plumped for ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’ – which is neither here, there, nor anywhere else.)

Ashley explains in his general introduction that the stories will deal with “the old solar system, beloved of writers of science fiction, before the space probes discovered what was really out there.” His Planetary Exclusion Order also applies to the Moon (but then he had placed Luna-set stories in the BL Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures anthology). Mars, however, could hardly have been left out of the batting order (see below). Following my usual form, I started by reading Ashley’s erudite* prologues before reading the actual stories.

*A redundant adjective, if ever there was one.

“So strap yourself in and prepare for a kaleidoscope of worlds!” (ibid.).

I’ll get the Golden Oldies – or at least Silveries – out of the way first. ‘Sunrise on Mercury’ (1957), by Robert Silverberg, takes place on the hot-side/twilight zone/cold-side innermost planet that we used to know and love so well. It’s one of his best early stories that never stops moving – or thinking. ‘Garden is the Void’ (1952) is Poul Anderson’s haunting exploration of an asteroid: “A green asteroid.” James Blish went over all Joycean again with ‘How Beautiful with Banners’ (1966), set on Titan, if not Saturn itself. Par example: “Feeling as naked as a peppermint soldier in his transparent film wrap, Dr. Ulla Hillstrom watched a flying cloak swirl away toward the black horizon with a certain consequent irony.” ‘Wait It Out’ (1968) is a marooned-on-Pluto story that shows how well Larry Niven could write hard science fictioon when he used to work at it. [And I, for one, will never accept Pluto as a ‘dwarf’ planet.] But my favourite classic story – and also my favourite story in the whole book – is Clifford Simak’s ‘Desertion’ (1944).

‘Desertion’ (1944). Set on and around Jupiter, it became an integral part of the fix-up novel City (1952) and inspired a crucial plot device in Avatar (watch and compare). The last four understated lines of this story never fail to move me. I envy anyone reading them for the first time.

As usual with Mike Ashley, however, it’s the little-known or even unknown stories by ditto authors that make these BL anthologies so worthwhile. Leslie F. Stone (1905-1991) was one of the “pioneer women” contributors to the dawn-age sf pulp magazines. She set ‘The Hell Planet’ (1932) on the “real” Vulcan, once thought to lie between Mercury and the Sun. Background reading: The Hunt for Vulcan (2015), by Thomas Levenson. ‘Foundling on Venus’ (1954) by John and Dorothy De Courcy has a stinging twist in the tale. John Ashcroft (1936-1997) does Mars proud with ‘The Lonely Path’ (1961). ‘Where No Man Walks’ (1952), by E. R. James (1920-2012), about mining for industrial diamonds on the “surface” of Uranus, could well have been expanded to novella, or even novel-length. It’s the strongest story in the book, in my opinion, after ‘Desertion’. By the same token, ‘A Baby on Neptune’, a collaboration between Claire Winger Harris (1891-1968) and Miles J. Breuer (1889-1945) is by far the worst story in the book. “Ye Gods!” shouted Kuwamoto. “Just at the crucial moment, like a cheap novel serial! I suppose all we can do is nothing, and Elzar’s child has been devoured by the filthy beast.”

It just remains for me to say that Born of the Sun is yet another excellent theme anthology edited by Mike Ashley for the British Library. Buy it! Read it! Keep it!

The BSFA 2011 Shortlists!

The BSFA is delighted to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2011 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (Interzone 233, TTA Press)
The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s, July)
Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley (Kameron Hurley’s own website)
Covehithe by China Mieville (The Guardian)
Of Dawn by Al Robertson (Interzone 235, TTA Press)

Best Non-Fiction
Out of This World: Science Fiction but not as we Know it by Mike Ashley (British Library)
The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls and David Langford (website)
Review of Arslan by M J Engh, Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions blog)
SF Mistressworks, ed. Ian Sales (website)
Pornokitsch, ed. Jared Shurin and Anne Perry (website)
The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (Foundation Studies in Science Fiction), ed. Graham Sleight, Tony Keen and Simon Bradshaw (Science Fiction Foundation)

Best Art
Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman (Solaris)
Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls by Jim Kay (Walker)
Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama by Pedro Marques (PS Publishing)
Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow by Anne Sudworth (Newcon Press)

This year a number of members nominated the British Library’s Out of This World exhibition for the Non-Fiction Award. The Committee has decided that this does not meet the eligiblity criteria for the award. However, in recognition of the support it has received and its success in encouraging people to explore and enjoy science fiction (one of the primary purposes of the BSFA Awards) will be giving it the status of Specially Commended. In addition, the accompanying book by Mike Ashley made the shortlist and can still be voted on, along with the other nominees.

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Members of the BSFA and Eastercon will now have the opportunity to vote on the shortlists.

Advance voting forms will be posted out to BSFA members, who will have until 2nd April 2012 to get their nominations in. They can do that by post, email or online form, ranking each of the nominees according to their personal preference: 1 for favourite, 2 for second favourite etc. They don’t have to rank all nominees and they don’t have to vote in every category. The awards ballot is available online here. After 2nd April, the only way to get your voice heard will be to attend the Eastercon and grab a ballot form from your pack or the BSFA desk. Deadline for voting at Eastercon will be 12 noon on the day of the ceremony, the date of which will be confirmed shortly.

Congratulations to the nominees!