“Try and Change the Past” by Fritz Leiber (1958)

TITLE: “Try and Change the Past” (1958)
AUTHOR: Fritz Leiber
CATEGORY: Short Story
SUB-CATEGORY: Time Travel, Temporal Paradox
SOURCE: TRIPS IN TIME edited by Robert Silverberg (Wildside Press, 1977)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Astounding, March 1958

Okay, I’ll just start picking stories at random from the two Robert Silverberg edited anthologies that I’ve been reading. The first one is from TRIPS IN TIME, and is “Try and Change the Past” by Fritz Leiber.

In the never-ending temporal conflict between the Snakes and the Spiders, one particularly shifty member of the Snakes (a well-deserved description, in the case of this dude) gets the bright idea of illicitly using his side’s time travel facilities to go back and change his own personal history, so that he doesn’t die and end up fighting in this damned war. Unfortunately for him, he ends up finding out the hard way that the four-dimensional spacetime universe has its own Law of the Conservation of Reality, and doesn’t like things to be changed, no siree.

“Try and Change the Past” is a clever and quite amusing story set during the Change War milieu of Leiber’s classic time travel/temporal paradox novel THE BIG TIME. The story was first published in the March 1958 edition of Astounding, at the same time that THE BIG TIME was being serialized in the March and April 1958 editions of Galaxy magazine.

I’ve always enjoyed Leiber’s writing, both SF and fantasy (despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of fantasy in general), and THE BIG TIME and its Change War setting has always been a favourite of mine. This particular short story, while I certainly wouldn’t rank it among my “most favourite short stories of all time”, is still an enjoyable and worthy addition to the Change War universe.

Rated: 3.0 out of 5.0

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Reading SF: Short Fiction for Beginners

When is a short story not a “short story”?

Surely everything that isn’t a novel is a short story, isn’t it? What’s all this novella and novelette business, then? And what the heck’s a short-short story? For newcomers to reading SF, the terminology and categorization of short fiction can be a bit confusing.

Well, technically you can take the “if it isn’t a novel, it’s a short story” approach if you want to (many readers really couldn’t care less, to be honest). But for those who like to know about such things, the situation is a bit more complicated, and interesting.

Take, for example, a story of 38,500 words: it’s a bit too short to be a novel, but it’s also way, way too long to refer to it as a short story. It’s actually a condensed novel, in other words what we’ve come to refer to as a novella.

Even a story of, say, 15,000 words – not exactly a short story, is it? But it’s way too short to be a novel, even a condensed novel. So another category covers this type of short fiction that occupies the “middle ground”. It’s called a novelette.

There is also a peculiar type of short story at the extreme lower end of the scale – barely a page or two (sub-1,500 words) – that is known as the short-short story.

This type of categorization is used by the two dominant SF&F awards, the Hugo Awards and the Nebula Awards (other awards may use slightly different categorisations), and is the one most commonly accepted among mainstream SF advocates. They are categorized as follows, in order from shortest to longest:

  • Short-Short Story (Under 1,500 words)
  • Short Story (1,500 – 7,500 words)
  • Novelette (7,500 – 17,500 words)
  • Novella (17,500 – 40,000 words)
  • Novel (40,000 words and above)

Each category nurtures stories of a different type and tone, and each category has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. And this also means that authors can specialize in writing short fiction of specific lengths, fine-tuning and perfecting the qualities of that particular category.

The short-short has always been my least favourite of all the categories. It’s far too short for a serious story, there tends to be zero character development, and the whole thing is comprised of a very short one-trick plot that hinges around a twist ending, punchline or corny pun. I know that this is the whole point of a short-short, but it’s not really my thing at all. I don’t think that I’ve ever actually really liked a single short-short in all my years of reading SF, despite being momentarily amused by a few of them.

The short story, especially approaching the upper limits of its length, gives a lot more room for manoeuvre, and, even better, the novelette occupies a very satisfactory middle-ground between the short story and novella. In general, I believe (and this is strictly my opinion) that the longer a piece of short fiction is, the better it (potentially) is. The author has more room to breathe, to develop complex, interesting plots and flesh out real, 3D characters, rather than the one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs often found in much shorter stories. And so I would argue that the novella, and, to a lesser extent, the novelette, are much better categories in which to write really good SF stories, not withstanding the many classics that have graced the short story form.

Historically, quite a large ratio of the greatest “classic” SF short fiction has been novellas. Personally, the novella has always been my favourite. I regard it as the “perfect length” for writing an SF story. Not too long, and not too short. It cuts out all the excess, unnecessary padding and fluff that afflicts most novels, while leaving all the good stuff, and plenty of room for a satisfying, complex plot and character development.

In my opinion, a good novella is the most perfect, and most entertaining form of SF story you can read.

What Do I Look For in a Good SF Story?

I know that everyone has their own views on what makes a good SF story and what doesn’t, and I’ve obviously got a few opinions of my own. As with most things, it’s obviously all a matter of personal preference. Indulging my own completely subjective views, here’s what I look for (or don’t) in an SF story, starting off on a very basic level, then moving onto specifics:

What do I look for in a good SF story? Well, I have a few basic requirements of any story, SF or not. First and foremost, and I’m speaking in the most general sense here, I want to be entertained (don’t we all?). It sounds so obvious, but is the Number One requirement (for me, anyway) when reading any novel or short story. I’m reading fiction, not studying for a science degree, or looking to be dazzled by some author’s flashy literary showing off. I don’t want to have to sit with a science text book or thesaurus beside me, to translate what the author is saying.

So, first and foremost, I want a solid, entertaining, easy to read story. I want a good ripping yarn, a real page turner, not a darned college paper. If I really want to read something like that, to be intellectually challenged and bamboozled, I’ll go dig up a science textbook or a good article or three in Scientific American or Astronomy magazine. For me, reading fiction is primarily for fun and relaxation.

That said, an intelligent, well-written story is a big plus, something with a few twists and turns, and a surprise ending. Or, at least, something that isn’t totally predictable or telegraphed. I can tolerate a few plot and logic inconsistencies (but not too many) for the sake of an entertaining story, but not something that insults my intelligence. On the flip side, sure, the story may be intelligent and “educate” as much as it wants, just as long as it tells a riveting story, manages to keep me glued to the page and doesn’t try to blind me with jargon or fancy, unnecessary literary gymnastics. I absolutely cannot abide authors trying to show us how clever they are with the written word at the expense of good, clear storytelling.

I also really, REALLY don’t like to be lectured when I’m reading fiction, or beaten around the head with the author’s religious or political obsessions. These things should be part of the fascinating background of the story, fleshing it out and making the “world” more realistic and entertaining. But they should never be in your face, the core of the story, constantly preaching at you, otherwise it’s no longer a story, but rather a political or religious pamphlet. If I come across this kind of thing, it gets binned very quickly after the first chapter. If I even make it that far – I usually give it the first chapter, but if it’s really dire…

From an SF perspective, I need a story that has plenty of that good old classic sensawunda. This is probably the most vital ingredient in any SF story, as far as I’m concerned. Even modern Hard SF (one of my favourite sub-genres of SF) has to have a strong element of sensawunda to keep me interested, or it simply becomes a dry science thesis. For me, sensawunda is an absolutely essential part of any SF story. If a story doesn’t have it, I’m just not interested.

I’m not referring to “escapism” here, that’s a completely different thing altogether (and I enjoy a bit of that as well). I’m talking about that inherent, great WOW! factor that no other literary genre but SF has. A story can be an ultra-realistic Hard SF story, and still have that WOW! factor, that sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF. If you’re an SF fan, you know what I mean. If you’re not (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), then this is all completely unintelligible to you. 🙂

As a reader, I’m rather old-fashioned, at least in the stylistic sense. I prefer a decent “traditional” story, with a good plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve never been a fan of the more extreme styles of literary experimentation, such as those common during the New Wave period. Most of that stuff was unrecognizable to me as SF, or even as proper storytelling. I think those guys were taking way too many drugs!

When it comes to SF, I’m (with very few exceptions) pretty much strictly hardcore “old school”/”old guard”, certainly pre-New Wave, and most definitely pre-“Speculative Fiction”. I’m one of those readers who grew up in the era when the SF that I read in book form was the kind of thing that had originally been published in Astounding and (later) Analog, from an era when SF had not yet been polluted by any of the modern mutated aberrations of mainstream fiction posing as SF. As far as I’m concerned, the “S” in SF means SCIENCE Fiction, and ONLY Science Fiction, not bloody SPECULATIVE Fiction, or any of the other more recent labels that certain publishers and literary wannabe elements within SF have been attempting to foist upon us.

As someone fascinated by the ideas and concepts in science, I prefer plot-driven SF, of the old classic “nuts ‘n’ bolts” variety, although it’s a big bonus if there are also decent characters in the story. I do NOT like one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs in place of real characters. I prefer realistic characters that I can empathize with, be they the “good guys” who I can root for, or “bad guys” that I can boo and hiss at, or (even better) more complex characters of every shade of grey in between the black and white ends of the spectrum. But no matter how interesting and complex the characters are, they should NEVER displace the main SF themes as the primary focus of the story, as far as I’m concerned.

When the story becomes primarily about the characters, squeezing out the SF elements from centre stage, it becomes soap opera, not SF. I strongly believe that real SF is supposed to be “Big Picture” fiction, dealing with huge issues relating to humanity, life, the universe and everything. It’s that “sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF” that I was referring to earlier.

That’s why I’m not fond of a lot of the fiction at the extreme soft end of the traditional SF spectrum, particularly slipstream and similar shades of so-called “Speculative Fiction”. Most of the time, the stories in these sub-genres of SF actually contain very little (if any) SF or science at all. They can’t, at least in my book, be truthfully categorized as science fiction. They are basically mainstream literary fiction posing as SF.

The author throws in a few casual SF terms like “nanotechnology” or “genetic engineering”, or maybe a hint that the story is set ten, twenty or thirty years in the future. But aside from this, These stories focus almost totally on the emotions and interactions of a few characters, and contain very little real science or anything else that makes up what I consider to be important elements of an SF story.

This inward-looking, “Small Picture” fiction deals with the internalized personal conflicts of individuals, and other issues that are very small in the overall scheme of things, a strong characteristic of mainstream literary fiction, but not science fiction. It is the absolute opposite of what true, “Big Picture” SF is all about. I refer to this kind of fiction rather derogatorily as “touchy-feely” SF.

Lots of people out there might enjoy that kind of thing (and good for them – whatever floats yer boat), but I don’t like it, and I don’t even consider this kind of fiction to be real SF at all.

These happen to be my own opinions, and I’m sticking to them! 🙂

Comic Books In The Movies – The Purist Conundrum

I’m a life-long geek, and, like most other hardcore geeks, I’m a huge fan not only of comics, but of films based on comics. I really enjoy most modern superhero films, and I’m obviously also a huge fan of many of the original comics that these films are based on, particularly those based on characters created by Marvel Comics.

However, this love of superheroes in both the comics medium and the cinema poses a major problem for some of those more “die hard” fans watching films based on their favourite comics. Hardcore comics fans tend to be extreme purists, who can’t abide even the slightest changes to their favourite comics and characters. These people are almost impossible to please when it comes to any kind of movie adaption of their favourite comic books.

I myself used to be like that, totally obsessed with films being “exact reproductions” of my favourite comics or books, but I’ve wised up over the years and long ago given up any hope of ever seeing any direct translations from comic books to screen. Nowadays all I hope for is to get a decent, fun film.

I still have a few purist tendencies of my own, especially when it comes to my favourite comics. Hell, I’m almost guaranteed to moan incessantly about any reboot of one of my old classic comics favourites (the Legion of Super-Heroes being a perfect example), let alone a loosely-based movie version. But, in general, these days I’ve chilled greatly and now I do tend to be a bit more compromising than many of my more “fanatical” brothers and sisters.

I’m also very lucky in that I have a really strong ability to compartmentalize, which means that I can still sit and enjoy a film, even if I spend most of the time criticizing the changes and omissions compared to the comic. If the film is a good FILM in itself, even if it’s NOT a good adaption of the original comic, I’ll probably still like it. Sure, I’ll nitpick about all the continuity errors and differences, the little (and large) inconsistencies and the seemingly gratuitous and unnecessary changes made to the characters, continuity and story (hell, let’s be honest, all geeks love to nitpick and complain). But if the film is a fun FILM, I’ll still give it a thumbs-up.

Unfortunately, most of the hardcore purists are much harder to please. They want nothing but a direct translation of their favourite comics to the big screen, and no changes, however small, to the characters, story, continuity and history of the comic concerned are permitted. Well, listen guys, if that’s what you expect from Hollywood, then you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. IT AIN’T EVER GONNA HAPPEN! Hollywood has always done things their own way, and they use comics and books as a vague basis for their films, rather than doing inch-by-inch faithful adaptions (only the “classics” get the premium “don’t mess with the story” treatment, and I’m not referring to classic comics here either).

Add to this the fact that these films are NOT aimed at hardcore comic book geeks at all, but at a completely different, more general cinema audience, and the reality is that you have to accept that superhero films will be completely different beasts to the original comics, with characters and plot ideas cherry-picked from all over the place, rather than from one story.

There are also a few other practicalities which make faithful adaptions a definite no-no. Comics and film are completely different mediums, and direct translations are often simply not possible. What might look or sound great in a comic might definitely NOT look or sound so good in a live action film. A perfect example of something that doesn’t work at all in movies is comic book characterization and dialogue. It simply does NOT translate well to film. People just do NOT talk and behave in “real life” like they do in superhero comics, and anything like that appearing on film either has to be a crazy pastiche, or a comedy, otherwise it just won’t work at all.

An even more perfect, and more visual example of this failure to translate across media is superhero costumes – the guys and gals wearing their underclothes on the outside. They look great in comics and animation, but my own strongly held opinion (and I’m far from being on my own here) is that they almost always look ABSOLUTELY pathetic, stupid and laughable in live action movies. With the exception of a handful of “iconic” characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and a few others) who should NOT have their costumes messed with under any circumstances (do ya hear that Man of Steel? Damned flyin’ condom…), it’s almost always better to get rid of the silly “men in tights” costumes in movies if you want to be taken seriously. The X-Men films are a perfect example of how to do it right – those padded leather uniforms looked really slick and functional, and were much, much better onscreen than the original costumes. Wolverine definitely looked a heckuva lot better than he would have if he’d appeared in the silly yellow or brown costume that he wears in the comics.

But let’s face it, none of the above comments will sway purists at all. No matter what anybody says or does, the purists will never be happy. There’s always gonna be someone who has to moan, and there’s absolutely no pleasing these people. Look, all I have to add (aside from “Chill, and get a life!”) is this: if you’re a die-hard purist, and you absolutely CANNOT abide these movies because they dare to alter some of your sacred comic book texts, then ignore them. Don’t watch them at all. Go down the pub instead and relax with a nice, cool brewski.

Why put yourselves through all the soaring blood pressure, hair pulling, the swearing and frustration? Why do you continue to go to these films if you know you’ll hate them so much? Do you enjoy torturing yourselves or what? Or is it that you’re a bunch of drama queens and just LIKE to complain and kick up a fuss so you can get some attention? Y’know what? Either judge the film as a FILM, not a comic book, because it ISN’T a damned comic book, it’s a M-O-V-I-E, or quit yer endless griping and don’t bother watching the darned thing in the first place.

Or why don’t you do something really smart and just go away and read some comic books instead? If you want the Real Thing, then read the real thing. Ignore the films altogether and go out and buy all those lovely trade paperbacks and hardback Marvel Masterworks or DC Archives, and other collections of classic Silver and Bronze Age Marvel and DC comics, and drift off into comic book nirvana. The originals will ALWAYS be out there if you want them.

Whether they were good adaptions of the comics, or not, recent years have given us a raft of truly classic superhero films, including the most recent Avengers film, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen, among others. There have also been some truly excellent films based on non-superhero comics – the first Hellboy film and the absolutely brilliant Dredd, for example – both of them not only two darned good films, but two of the very best comic book-based films EVER.

If Hollywood keeps dishing out quality comic book films like this, I’ll be more than happy, as will most fans. And sod the purists. 🙂