Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Go for the Dome
by Sean Monaghan

Quantum Rose
by Jude-Marie Green

Autumn’s Net
by Matt Thompson

Crawley, I Tell You!
by Tim McDaniel

In the Cave of the Silver Pool
by Peter J Larrivee

How Uncle Larry Became a Shape-Shifting Blob
by Marc Rokoff

by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Through a Poisoned Stream I Flow
by Brandon Ketchum

Shorter Stories

Robot Story
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

by Jeffrey Abrams

Dumb Luck
by Michael N. Farney


Xenophobia Destroys Science Fiction
by Carol Kean

Computed Cryptograms
by Sam Bellotto Jr.



Comic Strips




Xenophobia Destroys Science Fiction

By Carol Kean

HIS DAYS ARE NUMBERED, that groundhog in my neighbor’s garden, a foot-long fur ball munching on Mrs. McGregor’s greens. This little guy shows no fear, until my curious collie bounds over to investigate. Now His Rotundity bunches his muscles into a dash for safety. Spying him under a board pile, I meet his steady gaze. No foaming at the mouth. No sign that he means me or my dog any harm. It’s the neighbor’s melons he’s after, and he tunnels through the garden with no regard for the property rights of others. When Mr. McGregor comes home, we’ll likely hear a shotgun blast. That groundhog is not us, he’s them, and we don’t share our resources with them.

Ah, human nature! We guard and protect what is ours. Even in the best of times, competing for resources and mates can bring out the worst in us. All’s fair in love and war, yet we need a Rule of Law to keep us from killing each other for the last peach on the tree or the first melon on the vine. We also need armed forces to uphold the law. In fiction, as in real life, this leads to dystopian regimes and their favorite target, the outsider. If famine or plague or the apocalypse drives the unfortunate to seek a new place to live, it had better not be with us.

The alien, the misfit, the exile, the outcast. It’s an old story, older than Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden of Eden. The Dark Ages passed, the Enlightenment has led us with lofty ideals into the 21st century, yet the same struggles remain. The unknown is dangerous, and we should kill it with a laser gun. Aliens Are Bastards. It’s a trope that sells. Fictional aliens can be innocent victims or invaders, legal or illegal, human or extraterrestrial, or even man-made androids hiding among us. Whatever the threat may be, a recent epidemic of totalitarian regimes ruling over the remnants of a post-apocalyptic world makes author Diane Ryan wonder: “Why does everybody want to write about the same damn thing?”

Maybe it’s inescapable. Her story “Space Horses” is set in a world where an EMP killed our power grid and sent us into another dark age, but centuries passed, technology was resurrected, and from page one, humans already have the tech to send a colony of horses to a distant planet. Has humanity itself improved, too? Alas, no. Space pirates steal from anyone trying to forge a brave new world. At least we know the good guys will win whenever Ryan is in the literary cockpit.

I wish Ryan’s writing wasn’t a rare exception in today’s literary landscape of post-apoca-topia. It’s as if we collectively have lost hope, vision, and faith in humanity. In the current climate of worsening relations between nations, worsening racial situations, worsening weather and health care and job prospects and whatnot, some see the outsider as the first, easy target. Build a wall to keep out strangers who want in. Send refugees back to whatever totalitarian regime they were trying to escape. Be wary of different religions, races, sexual orientations, and political platforms. Shoot the groundhog.

Or not.

Ryan couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger on a female groundhog her dogs got hold of in 2011. Gnawed and brutally shaken, the furry intruder suffered a displaced hip, hypovolemic shock, and even a serious pneumothorax from a punctured lung. When the groundhog recovered in Ryan’s capable hands (and proved it by jumping into the washing machine and running to spin the drum like a hamster on a treadmill), Ryan returned the lovable fuzzball to the back yard, out of the dogs’ reach.

How are some people so compassionate and nurturing while others eagerly shoot cute little backyard invaders?

It’s as if most Homo sapiens inherited brains wired for violence from our reptilian ancestors, while others must have descended from advanced, noble, wise and wonderful space aliens who came to Earth, didn’t like what they saw of us, and left only their DNA behind.

Saviors and killers. Hunters and vegans. Atheists and believers. Right and left brainers. Athletes and geeks. Foreigners and natives. The haves and have-nots. Optimists and pessimists. Winners and losers. Owners and renters. Bullies and victims. Luddites and tech-heads. Hitlers and Ghandis. We’re all from the same planet and genome, yet we seem to have more differences than things in common. The list goes on. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Can’t we all just get along? If it isn’t our xenophobia, it’s our hubris, our beloved techno-innovations and industry, that will end civilization and turn our beautiful world into a post-apoca-topia.

The more diversity we see in our literature, the less afraid of others we become, scholars say. The more aware we are of something, the more we understand it and are familiar with it, the more we can accept it. Science fiction blazed this trail. Robots. Cloning. Bionic body parts. Colonies on other planets within our galaxy appear to be feasible and imminent. Just don’t think about that movie, “The Martian.” Think of the optimism and good will of the “Star Trek” crew. Where did it all go, anyway?

One reprieve from today’s apocalyptic-dystopian theme is the intriguingly tenuous dividing line between AIs and humans. All too often, however, it’s the robots who cause the apocalypse.

What I love: a lot of those funny looking robots exist now, not just in 1960s Ding-A-Ling commercials.

Still more amazing: today’s robots walk, replace human workers in factories, talk, and interact with us. A thousand novels and movies now explore the dilemmas and sorrows of AIs who look human and long to exercise their own free will or at least to be accepted as humans, especially after they fall in love with one.

Oddly enough, robots in today’s science fiction not only pass themselves off as humans, they fool themselves as well. The protagonist is sometimes astonished to realize s/he is not human after all, but a robot. “Guess what: you’re not human!” is a theme that’s losing its shock value. Same with the Big Surprise Twist: everyone in the story turns out to be a character in a video game or a computer sim. Listing the titles would pose spoilers, the way “I see dead people” might cue the viewer too soon that “The Sixth Sense” is about a man who doesn’t know he’s dead. O-o-o-o-kay. Never mind how implausible it is to me that someone could fail to notice s/he is not a flesh-and-blood mortal, or no longer human but resurrected with robotics, or no longer alive but dead, not a zombie but some miracle of New Age physics, Robert Lanza style.

I’m not lamenting the “Gasp! I’m not a human” theme, nor is it any revelation that even when we’re all certifiably human, we’re all divergent. No matter how much we learn and how progressive the culture becomes, people continue to fear those who are different. We dread change. We distrust all that is new.

Science fiction is the genre that first celebrated radical newness. At the same time, it has always been brutally honest about hubris and human failings, even in the midst of Golden Agers reveling in stellar travel, exotic creatures from other worlds, time warps, bionic humans, and engineered immortality. While the worst of humanity has been examined in cautionary tales, hope and fascination with the human spirit prevailed. Nowhere else in literature has the collision of techno-social aspirations with natural human complexity been explored with greater depth and insight. What other genre devotes so much thought to the future, the revolutions of knowledge and technology, new applications of science to society?

In the beginning, science fiction fans tended to be looked down on or ignored by the literarti, a badge of honor, really, for the cerebral and independent folk who were drawn to a weird new genre. Their beloved stories were published mostly in magazines, not books, from the early 1900s to the late 1960s. Science fiction was marginalized and ghettoized. Mainstream readers and reviewers dismissed the genre as a juvenile, testosterone-driven realm of little green Martians, laser guns, Flash Gordon, and busty babes in tacky, overly revealing space suits. But there was more. Beyond those glitzy pulp-fiction covers, there was a treasure trove of more.

As an English major in the early 1980s, I was indoctrinated with Hemingway and Chaucer but not Asimov or Heinlein. Professors and scholars seemed unaware of or completely indifferent to the stories I’d loved in my lonely childhood. Future high school English teachers were not exposed to that zany, cartoonish, juvenile literary basement. Assigned literature left me no reading time for the sequels to C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy until I’d earned my diploma, learned there were no job openings for English teachers, and become a tech writer for a bomb factory. (No more papers to write on American Realism and Naturalism or Willa Cather’s presumed lesbianism!) I never read Shakespeare again, but devoured “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength” (what an awesome title!), sequels to “Out of the Silent Planet.” I missed having fellow readers to discuss the stories with, but at least no one made me critique the impact of Lewis’ whiteness on his antiquated message of good triumphing over evil.

When Frank Herbert’s “Dune” made the New York Times best seller list in 1965, it was a first for this genre. The glass ceiling shattered. In cinema, the brilliant special effects of “Star Wars” in 1977, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Alien” in 1979 started bringing science fiction out of the ghetto. A new mainstream acceptance and credibility took the genre from the exclusive territory of a closeted and rejected group—hardcore literary science fiction fans—into the hands of scholars who’d spent decades laughing at it.

Darko Suvin launched the term novum (Latin for “new thing”) to describe scientifically plausible innovations used by science fiction narratives. He dismissed talk of “scientific vulgarization or even technological prognostication,” declaring science fiction the literature of cognitive estrangement, “rendering justice to a literary tradition which is coherent through the ages and within itself, yet distinct from nonfictional utopianism, from naturalistic literature, and from other non-naturalistic fiction.” (“Estrangement and Cognition,” in “Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre,” Yale University Press, 1979). No, I did not hear of this at the university. I had to google it while writing this rant (er, essay!) for a science fiction ezine.

What’s my latest grievance? Well, now that scholars take my favorite genre seriously, I kinda sorta wish they’d left it in the geeky hands of the eccentrics who first loved it. Mocked, estranged, marginalized, fans of this minority genre were generally left alone. We were okay with that. Nobody demanded that science fiction be “taught” in college classrooms or nominated for the Pulitzer and other prizes.

The more the mainstream stayed away, the better. In science fiction, we could find a type of literature that offered something extra, something daring and provocative. A small but loyal market devoured tales of rapid technological change, out-of-this-world adventures, a sensawunda, and a unifying creed: anything can and will happen. Once upon a time, men were men who could shoot things, rescue scantily clad women from outer-space monsters, and conquer the universe. Black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, were not vague or arguable concepts. The good guys and gals always won. It was fun, sheer, escapist fun, with some food for thought packed in for later. But times change, and today’s critics tell us the good guys weren’t so good. They were guys, for starters. They lacked diversity.

And yet, science fiction is the genre that celebrates diversity.

Films of the 1950s portrayed xenophobia as a vicious phenomenon based on prejudice. Not that I consciously got that, in my childhood on a farm, watching “Creature Feature” and “Star Trek,” but I certainly identified with aliens.

“Twilight Zone” was the sort of show that walloped us with a message. Some of the old black-and-white B movies, too. Humans, ironically, would kill the well-meaning alien, oh no! How could we have judged them so foolishly?

But then someone noticed the heroes delivering this message tended to be all-American, with no traces of non-white ethnicity. Villains, on the other hand, were usually non-white, if even human. The genre that showed us the evils of xenophobia was itself xenophobic!

Now that scholars took notice of science fiction, they also noticed those tight and impossibly flattering space suits in classic paperbacks, vintage magazines, and modern-day video games. Weaponry, women, aliens, starships. How dare these misogynists glorify bimbos and brave men exploring and conquering “space, the final frontier?”

The genre was under attack, but for new reasons. Only nine women had ever won an award or whatever kind of recognition for their contributions to science fiction. Not enough women or minorities were included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s.

Never mind that in the early 1900s when magazines offered stories for a people who had no radio or TV, women bought the “Saturday Evening Post,” not “Railroad Man’s Magazine,” while men and teenagers bought science fiction.

New categories of underrepresented peoples keep turning up, new terms like cis (cisgender being the opposite of transgender), and a curiously overlooked DSM-5 category of asexuality. Tor recently took note of asexuals, a group nobody else seems to talk about. “While asexual characters—and authors—remain underrepresented, asexual representation is growing in literature, with more protagonists defining their sexual orientation outside of the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality,” says Stubby the Rocket (Tor.Com, 11-April-2016). “Additionally, many works that previously didn’t define the orientation of their characters are now explicitly, canonically, stating that their protagonists are asexual.”

Why do we expect the publishing industry to represent everyone? They can only put out so many books per year, and the books have to sell. If bimbos with laser guns outsell asexual ladomed citydies on book covers, why do we think corporations and publishers should sacrifice profits to support the latest cultural trend?

[Left. Domed cities have been part and parcel of science fiction since the very beginning—a snow globe of humanity out there on a ravaged, post-apocalyptic Earth, or on the plains of a distant planet. Image by Victor Habbick.]

Author Lauren Jankowski says the publishing industry has a long way to go in terms of making asexuality more visible, which leads many asexual authors to self-publishing to share their stories. Ding! Ding! Ding! Yes. It’s a thing now. If the publishing industry has catered to mainstream tastes and let everyone else down, the recent explosion of ebooks has launched self-publishing from the literary basement to best-seller lists. If you haven’t been represented yet, post a YouTube video, publish your own book, tweet about your cause, but don’t be shocked and outraged if you don’t attract a huge following. If hard science fiction fans fail to hunt for stories about underrepresented minorities, it’s because we’ve simply been in search of great stories. Bottom Line: those who seek attention and support will have to earn it the old-fashioned way. Not by branding themselves esoteric and underrepresented, but by creating books people want to read.

Women in science fiction are no longer scarce, thanks to self-publishing. Facebook has a group of Black Science Fiction Authors. The list goes on. Lack of diversity may not necessarily reflect rampant xenophobia among the mainstream.

And yet, it is said, the Golden Age of Science Fiction is dead.

In his 1975 essay “Ten Years of Nebula Awards,” Gordon Dickson said “the conditions that produced such consistently good and unusual writing are still at work. The instinct to experiment, the sense of responsibility, the fascination with the human spirit and its possibilities, the community attitude, all are currently being put to work by new people even as they are being kept at work by the old.”

Is that still true in 2016? What if scholars, casual readers, voters, and critics are so phobic about xenophobia, they nominate authors for awards based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, rather than merit, artistry, originality, and creativity? What if a community of Nebula and Hugo voters is morphing into a committee that artists must conform to or be punished by? Are so many people as prejudiced, hateful, sexist, and oppressive as literary critics and social media addicts seem to suggest?

Prejudice has such a pejorative connotation. From the Latin praejudicium, “judgment in advance,” it has come to mean a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. If you prejudice someone, you cause them to have a negative attitude towards something or someone else. Bigots are rightly vilified for rushing to judgment and harming others. However, when every author, artist, reader, publisher, and producer must conform to the exact same ideals of diversity, that very diversity is lost.

Everyone is prejudiced in some ways. Prejudice runs deep in our DNA, an instinct that protected our ancestors from danger. “Us versus Them” is hard-wired in our brains.

In life-or-death situations, quick thinking may not be quick enough. We rely heavily on instinct, even in sophisticated decision making. Instinct has had that job for thousands of years. Instinct is our first and foremost judge of whether or not a decision is good. Neuroscientists at Princeton University confirm this with a study that demonstrates how a gut feeling may rise before a person becomes conscious of what the brain has registered. (“The Intuitive Compass,” Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Thousands of years should have taught us a better way. However, the epidemic of dystopian science fiction suggests to me that we haven’t progressed as much as we wish. Call it instinct, born of millions of years of survival of the fittest, or call it prejudice, a preconceived notion that is not based on reason or actual experience, but we’ve been building walls and guarding our borders since the dawn of the human race. Domed cities, underground silos, walled cities with “gate” in the title, flying cities built inside asteroids: we love our kingdoms guarded by knights and castles with moats, our Jedi warriors with lasers, our high-tech solutions to warding off outsiders.

Humans have fortified countless cities with huge walls for thousands of years. More than a million people reportedly died during construction work on the Great Wall of China. Convicted criminals were forced to work on the Wall as a punishment. Peasants, unemployed citizens, disgraced noblemen, and prisoners also labored on the Wall to safeguard territory and repel nomadic armies. Looming for 8,000-plus meters, this workplace came to be known as the longest cemetery on Earth. And in spite of all those casualties, many of China’s varied enemies managed to cross the barrier and wage war, time and time again.

Charleston, South Carolina, was a walled city from the 1690s until the 1720s. Due to development pressures to expand the town, walls started coming down in the 1730s and faded from living memory by the 1790s. Boston maintained a defensive city wall and gate from 1631 until the end of the 18th century; part of the wall, Half Moon Battery, is still visible. Walls enclosed all of St. Augustine, Florida, starting in 1704. Wall Street is named after a three-meter-tall wall that once stretched across Manhattan. And that’s just a partial list of America’s walled cities.

Not just walled cities but domed cities have been part and parcel of science fiction since the very beginning—a snow globe of humanity out there on a ravaged, post-apocalyptic Earth, or on the plains of a distant planet. If not a glass bubble, some sort of technological barrier encloses a remnant of civilization. Insiders stay in, and outsiders stay out. After so many generations inside a bubble, residents tend to believe they are the last bastion of civilization, or that nothing at all exists outside the enclosed community—until an outsider appears. Then the insiders often discover that a secret, evil regime has perpetuated a lie. Popularized by “Logan’s Run,” this dystopian plot device inspires hundreds of new novels every year.

"By nature, people are group-living animals—a strategy that enhances individual survival and leads to what we might call a tribal psychology," says Steven Neuberg, professor of social psychology, who conducted an Arizona State University study with doctoral student Catherine Cottrell. “It was adaptive for our ancestors to be attuned to those outside the group who posed threats, such as to physical security, health or economic resources, and to respond to these different kinds of threats in ways tailored to have a good chance of reducing them.” Neuberg and Cottrell point out while prejudices are a fundamental and natural part of what makes us human, that doesn’t mean we cannot learn to overcome them with critical thinking. “People sometimes assume that because we say prejudice has evolved roots, we are saying that specific prejudices can’t be changed. That’s simply not the case,” Neuberg says.

A lot of things feed into xenophobia, and there is no solution in sight. Saying “Hey, everybody, start liking everybody else,” hasn’t worked. Personal liberty implies toleration of differences among people, along with permitting those who are different to go their separate ways. Segregation, persecution, and genocide are not the inevitable consequence of failing to hit the “like” button or buying books only with your favorite tropes and characters.

In “The Death of Science Fiction Literature: How Political Correctness and Mainstream Conformity Have Wrecked An Eccentric Genre of Literary Fine Art,” James May argues that “the science fiction community once created great art and produced such things as the Hugo Winners and Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies of the ’60s and ’70s.” But not anymore. “There is no live and let live but instead an intolerant, narrow, specific and dictatorial ideological world view which sets itself up as the gold standard to which all others must measure up. The standard is a hierarchy based on nothing more than race and sex; the more intersections of one’s oppressions, the truer one’s words.”

When it comes to book awards, contemporary authors and their fictional characters must reflect diversity, or risk being marginalized or ignored. Go to any forum for science fiction fans, and what do you get—talk of the latest awesome story about futuristic technology? No. Most of what I see is political. Like this:

“I want this November to be the moment everyone will see that if you pander to fear and xenophobia, every reasonable person, white, black, Asian or Latino, gay, bi, or straight, cis or trans, progressive, liberal or even moderate, will unite against you. Every. Single. Reasonable. Person. Will. Unite. Against. Racism. 
Can we please make that happen?”

You got it, girlfriend. Now: Can. You. Please. Take your plea to a political forum, not a group of people bonded by their love of science fiction?

Let’s judge literature on its own merits, not the author’s, nor their fictional character’s skin color, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or gender.

I’m weary of everyone’s sensitivities and demands for fairness. Life is not fair. Life is about survival of the fittest.

That said, if I see that groundhog before Mr. McGregor does, I might lure it to a safe place in my own garden. No guns here, little furball. The collie just wants to play. And I just want to escape into fantastical worlds of fun and adventure, starships and space captains, flawed humans who triumph over adversity, show some character growth, and vanquish villains. END

Carol Kean is the Book Critic for “Perihelion Science Fiction.” She has a degree in English and was a tech writer for Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation and Rockwell Collins. She has written two novels and published a few short stories.





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