February 16, 2015
The current Time Magazine cover story depicts an infant with the story line that the child may live to be 142 years old. We're hearing now about experiments that have reversed the ageing process in mice. And considering the advances of the past forty years, if they were to do that for us, it wouldn't surprise me. Although if we're going to have a breakthrough like that, I think it might be a good idea if they hustled it up a bit.
I recall commenting a few months ago on the problems that would emerge if we did actually come up with a drug that returned our youth to us. It would result in dark days, I said, spreading gloom across the continent. But I'm looking at another birthday coming up, and I wouldn't want anyone to think I've a closed mind on the subject. I'm glad to hear progress is being made and just wish they'd get serious.
I had dinner Friday evening with two other science fiction enthusiasts. Afterward I faced a three-hour drive home. The conversation had gotten me thinking about how much pleasure I've gotten during my lifetime from SF. Periodically, I meet people who make it a point to inform me "I don't read the stuff myself." I feel sorry for them. It's impossible to imagine a life that would be complete without flights to Mars, time travel, AI's, and attempts to communicate with aliens.
During that long ride back on US 341, I found myself thinking about my favorite experiences as an SF reader. And I discovered something odd. The visions that are most indelibly stuck in my mind come from stories like "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov; Robert Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth," and "Gentlemen, Be Seated; "The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin; Ray Bradbury's "Mars Is Heaven" and "There Will Come Soft Rains"; Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon"; "To Serve Man," by Damon Knight; Arthur Clarke's "The Star," which often shows up at the top of the list of great SF stories; and "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison.
These are listed in no particular order. And if I were to rethink everything tomorrow, there'd be some changes. In fact, I'd have no trouble providing a second group of titles providing a serious impact. But there were two aspects of this that surprised me: First, these are all short stories. The backup group would also be short fiction. To be clear, I've read and loved a lot of SF novels over the years, ranging from Hal Clement's Needle to David Brin's Existence. But somehow when I'm drifting through days past, remembering the moments that provided most impact, the shocks that sent me staggering back to school the following day wondering why we were reading Victorian novels, came from the shorter stuff. I've no explanation for that, except the suspicion that the short story is the natural format for SF. I can't imagine anything a novelist can do that would carry the same punch as Lester Del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" or Murray Leinster's "First Contact." You just can't get that kind of effect from twenty or thirty chapters. I was in high school when I read Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life." I never fully recovered.
The other aspect that struck me: The narratives that hit hardest all arrived when I was in my early years. I'll leave the explanation for that to someone else.