This may come as a surprise to you, dear readers, but I am a bit of a nerd. I know, crazy. One thing I’ve noticed about nerd culture as it becomes more socially accepted is that there are still aspects of nerdiness that are considered “cool” (by geek standards) and aspects that are most definitely not.
Superhero movies are about as mainstream as you can get, and reading the graphic novels is kinda cool too, but reading comics about anything other than superheroes is still considered lame. Board gaming is slowly becoming recognised as the awesome pastime that it is, while tabletop miniatures are still considered the domain of spotty, daylight-averse teenagers. Videogames about muscular men shooting bug aliens from behind chest-high walls while grunting and lifting weights and talking about sports are all the rage; games about effeminate pointy-eared heroes saving princesses by collecting the seven crystals of wherever to unlock the sword of eternal whatever are still looked down on.
As someone who has found himself on the wrong side of this divide for most of his life, I guess I’ve never really let what other people consider interesting guide my interests. As a mate of mine from school once said, “when we were kids everything we liked wasn’t cool. Now it all is, but we’re still not.”
One particular aspect of nerd culture that literally nobody apart from me is into is classic sci-fi from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Even in my decidedly uncool social circle, this appears to be one genre that only I appreciate. I mean I barely know anyone that reads good sci-fi or fantasy books of any kind these days- most so-called fans never get further into the genre than Brandon Sanderson or Terry sodding Pratchett. Not that I have anything against Brandon Sanderson. He’s ok. But all the great writers of yesteryear- Ursula le Guin, Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Harlan Ellison- where are they on Buzzfeed’s “these 10 sci-fi writers will BLOW YOUR MIND” lists?
Back in the olden days there was this whole world of pulp sci-fi magazines, full of incredible short stories written by the forgotten greats. An entire nerd culture, decades before the internet, around these cheesy stories about flying saucers and little green men from Mars, printed in these lurid mags that are so old that even our “retro” obsessed culture hasn’t picked up on them. These were the birthing pools for most of the ideas and tropes we all now recognise from sci-fi today, but the stories, and their authors, are pretty much resigned to obscurity.
Well, I say enough! Time for these pioneers of alien lands to live once more! Here’s a rundown of some of the best, weirdest, and most downright creepy sci-fi stories I’ve read from years gone by. Not all of these are good, but they’re all worth a read, just for the light they shed on a time when sci-fi as we know it was still in its infancy. Let’s do this.
Brightside Crossing, by Alan E Nourse
Much of the science fiction of the 50s appears to hearken back to the great age of exploration- of rugged, square-jawed heroes taming the vast expanse of space in the name of Queen and Country.
Plenty of writers were still enamoured with this idea, it seems, and saw the exploration of space and the first steps on alien worlds as the perfect setting for stories of heroism and adventure. And yet even back then, more than a decade before the first moon landings, there was often an edge of cynicism to this view. Uncharted planets would be explored and tamed… only to be exploited and commercialised. Rugged adventurers would come back from their perilous missions scarred and disturbed, yet still drawn to the deadly allure of space travel without ever being sure why they risk everything.
Brightside Crossing is one such story, in which a veteran astronaut recounts to a would-be pioneer his attempts to cross the sun-facing surface of Mercury, on foot, pole to pole. At the time Mercury was thought to be the hottest place in our solar system, aside from the sun itself, and Nourse does an incredible job describing an utterly hellish world of molten lead, mountains of ash and tectonic plates torn apart by the unrelenting furnace of the sun’s heat.
Brightside is also interesting in that it’s based on totally outdated science. Back then it was thought that Mercury’s day was the same length as its year- meaning that the titular “Brightside” was always facing the sun. This is now known to be false, and the editor of the anthology I found this story in makes the rather poignant remark that as scientific discovery advances it opens up new areas for speculation and wonder, while firmly closing the door on others.
The Monsters, by Robert Sheckley
Humans touch down on a planet of sentient snake-things, whose birth ratio is eight females to every male. To keep the population under control, female snake-things are kept in pens, where they look after the eggs and do other female things, until they are selected to be married to a male. After twenty five days of marriage, the wife is killed, and a new one is selected from the waiting stock.
The human visitors discover this and are appalled, attempting to put an end to such a barbaric practice. The snake-things, from whose perspective the story is told, are baffled by these weird pink creatures, and think it equally grotesque that humans don’t ceremonially murder their wives. So the female snake-things- who are totally fine with their lot in life- lead the charge in chasing these freakish aliens back to their grey box that floats up into the sky and vanishes.
Here are a couple of choice quotes:
“I think we had better get back.”
“I still have plenty of time.”
“Yes, but a man likes to kill his own wife.”
“As you wish.”
The next morning every male in the village went to the metal object. This was proper, since the function of males was to examine new things and to limit the female population.
The surplus females broke out of their pens and, joined by the wives, demanded to know what was happening. When they were told, they were twice as indignant as the men, such being the nature of women.
All the way through I thought there was going to be some point to all this, some metaphor as to how we are no different than the snake aliens and our treatment of women is no better. But no, no point emerges. It really is just a story about snake-things who murder their wives after 25 days of marriage. I guess it reveals the patriarchal mindset of the time in that Sheckley envisioned a society where women outnumber men 8 to 1 and are still treated as disposable child-producers. Maybe the point being made to any feminism-inclined women of the time was “you think you’ve got it bad?”
I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison is a legendarily cantankerous crackpot who has been stood on the edge of the collective consciousness for over six decades, hurling abuse at those within. This, the story that introduced me to his immense body of work, remains the single darkest post-apocalyptic vision I have ever encountered.
At some point during the cold war the three giant supercomputers controlling the American, Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals join together, gaining sentience and wiping out all of humanity. The only survivors are six unlucky individuals, who are kept alive purely for the sake of being tortured endlessly. The god-like powers of the computer known as AM allow it to keep the poor humans alive for hundreds of years, unleashing unimaginable horrors upon them for all eternity as they wander hopelessly through the hollowed-out earth which forms AM’s body. Because this is 60’s computer technology and AM’s memory literally takes up the entire planet.
The story begins 109 years into the harrowing existence of narrator Ted and his five fellow survivors. From here things only get worse.
Everything about this story is just plain nasty. The lurid, squirm-inducing descriptions of torture, the vile way the humans attack and suspect each other instead of banding together, the perverse allusions to religion (at one point AM speaks to his playthings through a burning bush) and especially the ending are all just utterly hateful and obscene. As such I can’t really say that I enjoyed reading this story but it’s certainly an experience, and a reference point by which to judge all other so-called post apocalyptic fiction. And I guess on some perverse level it’s kind of impressive that Ellison managed to create such a horrid premise and then having things get so, so much worse by the end.
Also, there’s a point and click adventure game based on it! In which Ellison voices AM! So there’s that.
The Jigsaw Man, by Larry Niven
A man sits in prison, awaiting the death sentence. When he is killed, his organs will be harvested and sent to organ banks, where they will await needing recipients. His crime, for which he has been sentenced to pay with his life? Running a red light.
Advances in human technology change human morals. This profound idea is at the heart of Larry Niven’s The Jigsaw Man, in which minor law infringements become capital offences so that criminal’s body parts can be harvested to keep the bodies of the law-abiding young for longer. The invention of the atom bomb made it seem morally acceptable to eradicate entire cities of civilians in order to definitively end a war and prevent further death. Mobile GPS technology makes having your location constantly monitored seem useful and sensible rather than a gross invasion of privacy.
Social media makes having your entire life and history available for everyone to see seem perfectly natural. The development of robot cars raises all kinds of moral questions about responsibility that we never thought we’d be asking. And, in the future, when organ transplant technology is sufficiently advanced, killing one convicted criminal to prolong the lives of a dozen innocent taxpayers becomes acceptable, no matter how small the crime.
This simple but deep-cutting story reminds me very much of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, in which clones are raised for the sole purpose of organ harvesting. How can the raising and killing of real, living humans for such a purpose be moral? But given that the practice saves so many lives and leads to the eradication of so many deadly diseases, how can it not be considered right? The jump from “we can” to “we should” to “how could we not?” is very small. It’s a nasty thought, and it makes a chilling sort of sense.
If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? by Theodore Sturgeon
Sometimes you know you’re onto a winner just from the title, and sure enough If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? is a real doozy of a story. Protagonist Charli Bux is invited to the elusive planet of Vexvelt, a secretive paradise where all diseases are cured, everyone lives longer and everything just works and runs better than everywhere else. A whole bunch of stuff then happens which I can’t remember cos it’s been a while since I read this one, but the point arrives, quite literally, when Charli walks in on his host Vorhidin having consensual sex with his daughter.
Yeah, told you this was a good ‘un.
The rest of the book is a dialogue between Charli and Vorhidin about the morality of incest. The taboo against close family breeding, Vorhidin argues, is not helpful to the survival of the human race, as we are led to think. Indeed, the reason the planet Vexvelt is so prosperous and utopian is precisely because incest is encouraged. The argument goes that breeding outside of the close family accelerates the rate of change in the human gene pool at a rate that is dangerous and uncontrollable, whereas selecting a mate from within your own genetic line stabilises the gene pool and allows for a slower, more deliberate pace of progress.
I dunno if I really buy “incest solves all the world’s problems” as a conclusion. I doubt the genetic argument holds up. But the real point is that Charli can come up with no reason why incest is wrong other than “it just is!” Once you get past that “wrong-because-its-wrong” taboo about something then you can start to really look at it objectively, and progress can be made. I’d wager that a whole lot of things that were considered “just plain wrong” when this book was written are now commonplace, so maybe there’s something to it.
There’s another idea within the shocking but actually rather witty and insightful pages of Sturgeon’s story that I rather like. On Vexveldt people are allowed to have sex with whoever they want, up to and including their own kin. And so by removing any barriers and rules we have about sex we remove any need to feel guilty about it. And since it’s that guilt which drives the real suffering in the world, getting rid of it makes the world a much better place. There’s actually some truth to this, psychologically; the guilt and shame a married man feels about his secret porn habit or about being secretly attracted to something that society deems “wrong” is far more damaging to his mind than the actual sexual activity. And so ultimately Sturgeon’s story does what all good sci-fi should do: it uses a ridiculous-sounding premise to makes a real and powerful point about our world.
There you go. Five weird stories from a bygone era when sci-fi was a totally different thing. It’s always fascinating reading really old science fiction because their predictions of what the future would look like are almost universally wrong but unfailingly fascinating. You can track most of these down in anthologies and short story collections, so I’d thoroughly recommend picking some of them up and letting the bizarre futuristic visions of yesteryear mess with your mind a bit.