Strangest of All, A Free Read

Strangest of All, an anthology of astrobiological science fiction, edited by Julie Nováková, is now available as a free download. The book was created for the European Astrobiology Institute’s BEACON 2020 conference, cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The collected stories take readers on a journey to encounter life in the universe. The original nonfiction essays following each story consider our chances of finding life outside of the Earth, detecting it remotely, and learning its limits.

The stories are reprints by G. David Nordley, Geoffrey Landis, Gregory Benford, Tobias S. Buckell, Peter Watts and D. A. Xiaolin Spires, plus a bonus story by the editor.

DOWNLOAD. The anthology can be downloaded as a .pdf file here. It is also available as a .mobi and .epub file.

EUROPEAN ASTROBIOLOGY INSTITUTE. By fostering interdisciplinary and international research in astrobiology and bringing together scientists, industry and the general public, the EAI aims to educate and to present the exciting and relevant field of astrobiology.

One of the ways to introduce astrobiology to people of various ages, backgrounds, nations or interests is through popular fiction. Science fiction has long served as means to showcase new ideas, has always been inspired by science and vice versa. That’s why EAI developed a project team “Science Fiction as a tool for Astrobiology Outreach and Education”, whose first major project is the educational and outreach astrobiological SF anthology Strangest of All.

Do you have a passion for science, outreach/education and science fiction and would like to be involved in similar projects? Get in touch with the editor at

ABOUT THE STORIES. Nordley’s “War, Ice, Egg, Universe” takes readers to an aquatic civilization inhabiting a Europalike world with an ice-covered ocean, and the accompanying essay focuses on what we know about conditions for life on Europa, Enceladus, Ganymede and other ocean worlds.

In “Into The Blue Abyss” by Landis, the protagonist dives into an entirely different ocean – the high-pressure liquid water layer on Uranus, where chemistry signifying possible life had been observed. Could life really exist in such conditions – and could high-pressure environments actually be one of the most common habitats in the universe?

Continuing the journey outward of the Sun, “Backscatter” by Benford finds life in an improbable place: an icy asteroid in the Kuiper Belt. The follow-up essay provides background on the possibility of life in asteroids and comets, and dives into the topic of exotic silicon-based life in such cold places with no liquid water.

In Buckell’s “A Jar of Goodwill”, we leave solar system and environments similar to it entirely, visiting a strange exoplanet where plants metabolize chlorine – but the main problem the hero faces is whether its ant-like inhabitants are intelligent creatures. Halogen-based photosynthesis was actually proposed in theory – so we can look at where we could expect such exotic life.

Even more exotic is the titular creature in Watts’ novelette “The Island”: a live Dyson sphere. In the essay, we look at how we can search for Dyson spheres, what the surveys yielded up-to-date, and whether we could presume anything about the origin and thought processes of a nigh impossible being like the Island.

Benford returns with a microstory “SETI for Profit”, an interesting take on how to revive interest in SETI. What efforts to listen to potential extra-terrestrial messages have been taken so far, and what can we expect in the future?

The topic of SETI is inextricably linked with the Fermi Paradox, one of the themes of Spires’ “But, Still, I Smile”. How can we explain the paradox with what we know so far, and how does the explanation in the story relate to our world?

Finally, in the bonus story by Nováková, “Martian Fever”, we look at Mars exploration gone awry – and the risks of interplanetary biological contamination and the question of planetary protection.

Each story is followed not only by the science essay complete with references for readers craving more, but also a couple of ideas for classroom discussions or tasks (best-suited for higher high school grades or undergraduate university students), such as thinking of how to devise a message for a potentially listening alien civilization, bearing in mind what we know of sensory and cognitive differences between species here on Earth. For most of the questions, there is no definitive answer – but all the more curiosity should they elicit.

[Thanks to Gregory Benford and Nina Shepardson for the story. Based on a press release.]

About Zelazny

Roger Zelazny in 1988

By John Hertz:  Cat Eldridge and I are just getting used to doing these birthday notices together.  So far we seem to be coöperating well.  Hope you like the results.

In case your equipment doesn’t show it, there should be two side-by-side dots over the second “o” in “coöperating” just above: a dieresis mark.  “Dieresis” rhymes, more or less, with “Why, there is Sis.”  Shows there are two separate sounds, i.e. not coop-er-ate.  Punctuation is your friend, it’s here to help you.

Anyway, Cat told me he wanted to do the birthday notice about Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) for the 13 May 20 Pixel Scroll, so I didn’t do one.  I did say I had an anecdote.  He seems to think I should tell you.

I can’t avoid mentioning “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” (Nebula for Best Novelette), This Immortal (Hugo winner), and Lord of Light (Hugo winner).  Zelazny won four more Hugos, two more Nebulas – all before Nine Princes in Amber.  Gosh.

Anyway – or as Pul the grik-dog might have said (The Witches of Karres, ch. 11; grik-dogs can talk as good as anybody), double anyway –

Some years ago I was working at an in-store delicatessen of a supermarket chain in Hollywood.  Various people shopped and worked there.

One fellow-worker said he owned the rights to film Lord of Light.  He hadn’t yet made the film, he said, because the special-effects technology he could get at couldn’t do what he wanted.

Lots of folks there said lots of things.  Some might be true and some not.  Or both.  What did I know?

A woman who worked with us – can a woman be a fellow? – had striking conventional beauty.  That and other things, her conversation, her manner, left me thinking “This woman could be a Playboy Playmate.”  In fact she was a Playboy Playmate.  And, though I hadn’t heard at the time, one of her two Great Reads was Lord of Light.

So I just said “Sure, B– ” (I’m leaving his name out) and went on brewing coffee.  I couldn’t do anything about it anyway.  That’s triple anyway.

Some while later, but more or less around then, I ran into Zelazny at a party.  I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was.  We fell into conversation, as happens in the science fiction community.  I told him how much in particular I liked Lord of Light.  Few had tried what it did.  Few had succeeded.

Ambiguity is difficult because you have to keep the reader engaged.  So is mystery.  Next door in detective fiction some character is trying to resolve the mystery.  In SF there are often one or two characters trying to find their way.  It’s no accident that many an SF story is a Bildungsroman, an adventure of maturation and thus learning.

Also difficult is a story where at the beginning the reader doesn’t know although the characters do.

Lord of Light manages all that.  Also jokes.  There’s one about an epileptic shan, another about soulless followers.

Incidentally, I said, I’ve met a man who said he had the rights to film Lord of Light.

Without missing a beat Zelazny said “Well, if his name was B– it’s perfectly true.”

Zelazny was as accessible, and had as good a memory, as his reputation held.

That was the end of the anecdote for me.  There was more, much more, about Lord of Light, and filming it, and Jack Kirby, and indeed as Burl Ives sang, things too fierce to mention.  But they never had anything to do with me.  What, never?  No, never.  Anyway – quadruple anyway – that’s the end.

Some Achieve Greatness

By John Hertz:  It occurred to me, after mailing this thought in a letter of comment to another fanzine, that you might be interested also.

People talk – and quarrel – about what might be, or be candidates for, the great American novel.

Now and then some speculative fiction is proposed.

What about these (of course neither complete nor conclusive)?

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller, 1960)
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Twain, 1889; you can see a note by me via a set of links on the sidebar)
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1900)
  • Alas, Babylon (Frank, 1959)
  • The End of Eternity (Asimov, 1955 – see my note on it too)
  • Space Cadet (Heinlein, 1948)

You might like to bear in mind a criterion I’ve used in another context.

A classic is an artwork that survives its time; after the currents which might have sustained it have changed, it remains, and is seen as worthwhile in itself.

Over a door at the central branch of the Pasadena Public Library is (adapted from Mary Carolyn Davies, in The Skyline Trail, 1924)

Be made whole by books as by great spaces and the stars.


“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em”, says Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act II, sc. 5); others learn that, though he is ridiculous, they should not be harsh

Honoring Miklos Rozsa’s Birthday

Portrait of Miklos Rozsa by artist Bill Levers. The great Oscar winning composer was born on April 18th, 1907.

By Steve Vertlieb: Miklos Rozsa’s magnificent musical signature reached its conclusion on July 27th, 1995. Commemorating the life of one of cinema’s most revered composers as we celebrate his musical legacy. Born April 18, 1907, Miklos Rozsa remains among the most revered composers in film history.

The 3-time Oscar winner for Best Original Score For A Motion Picture was a pioneering musician who, along with Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Victor Young brought dramatic, melodic musical form and structure to the sound of film, thereby forever altering the way we listen to movies.

Elmer Bernstein considered both Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann the finest practitioners of the developing art form of Music For The Movies in the remarkable history of the medium. In a career that comprised some forty-five years of scoring and achievement, Miklos Rozsa created lush, romantic scoring for such beloved fantasy films as Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad, and the tale of a young Wolf Boy named Mowgli for The Jungle Book.

He became the defining voice of classic Film Noir with such scores as Double Indemnity, Brute Force, The Killers, The Naked City, and The Lost Weekend for director Billy Wilder and, as the 1950s approached, virtually invented the epic motion picture score for such films as Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Knights of the Round Table, Ben Hur, King of Kings, and El Cid.

He was a musical chameleon who reinvented both himself and the remarkably diverse genres for which he composed Time After Time. Here, then, is this published career retrospective and tribute to a consummate artist whose Lust For Life elevated the craft and power of Cinema to sublime ascension.

Together with Miklos Rozsa at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, circa 1977, for a film conference…a wondrous event (also featuring George Pal) in which I spent eleven sublime hours in the intimate company and shadow of this giant 3-time Oscar winning musical genius. It just doesn’t get any better than that. One of the greatest experiences, and most unforgettable honors of my nearly seventy-four years on this all too mortal plain. 

Vertlieb and Rosza in 1977.

Honoring Miklos Rozsa’s 100th birthday on April 18th, 2007, here is a special birthday proclamation issued by The Hungarian Ambassador To The United States. I’d been invited to a special commemoration of the composer’s life at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, DC by the ambassador, and was delighted to have met Juliet Rozsa for the first time after years of correspondence.

I carried this precious document with me to the nine-day Miklos Rozsa Film Festival which I’d programmed at Christmas of that year, and was privileged to read its contents to an audience of seven hundred enthusiastic film fans gathered together at The Castro Theater in San Francisco, California.

I lovingly presented the official proclamation to Juliet Rozsa, the three time Oscar winning composer’s daughter on stage, prior to a live thirty-minute interview with her, in which we shared remembrances of her father’s life and career, followed by a spectacular presentation of William Wyler’s Ben Hur on the giant Castro screen.

After the screen presentation, we were invited by the ambassador to a sumptuous private supper at the embassy residence.

In 2007 I was asked by the folks who ran the venerable Castro Theater in San Francisco to put together a Miklos Rozsa film festival for their historic venue. I chose seventeen films to reflect a variety of moods expressed on screen by the wondrously gifted composer.

The film festival ran for nine days toward the end of December, 2007, and into January, 2008. I wrote the notes for the official program handed out for the once in a lifetime event, and hosted a thirty minute interview “live” on stage with Juliet Rozsa, daughter of this illustrious composer, before a paying crowd of some seven hundred movie goers prior to a presentation of the composer’s masterpiece, Ben Hur, on the giant Castro screen.

Proclamations, tributes, and testimonials were written for the occasion by the Hungarian Ambassador To The United States, The Honorable Mayor of San Francisco, and legendary writer Ray Bradbury. Here is a first person report by Michael Guillen, an independent film journalist sitting among the capacity crowd during that memorable evening. “MIKLÓS RÓZSA—An Onstage Tribute”

Vertlieb read Bradbury’s tribute to the Castro audience and the Rózsa family members on stage: “In all my life I’ve never had a more complete relationship with a composer than with Miklós Rózsa. When MGM asked me to write the narration for King of Kings, I immediately joined a partnership with Margaret Booth, the film editor, and we became fast friends. The most wonderful moment in my life was when I went on the sound stage to watch Miklós Rózsa conduct the score for King of Kings and then heard my own voice booming out over the orchestra and dear Miklós’ head as I spoke the narration. I wish that I had a recording today of my voice with his music because it became a partnership and a great friendship for life. To everyone hearing his wonderful music this week, I send my love and regard to the memory of Miklós Rózsa.”

Miklos Rozsa remains one of the most revered and legendary motion picture composers in screen history, and it was my sublime honor and privilege to know him for nearly three decades. A sublime inspiration guiding the direction and trajectory of my own life and career, we remember and commemorate the monumental influence, and birthday, of this superlative artist and man.

On the Narrow Road

by John Hertz: National Poetry Month in the United States.

Between the clouds, shining;
It’s vegetable springtime,
Flowering cheerfully.

For a thousand years the highest form of Japanese literature was a 31-syllable poem, in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.  Originally it was called waka, “Japanese poem”; in those days Chinese poems – by Japanese – were regarded even more highly, like the use of Greek in the Roman Empire, or the use of Latin in England until at least the 18th Century.  Eventually this form was called tanka, “short poem”.

That wasn’t short enough, so the Japanese dropped two lines, leaving the form we know as haiku (from a word meaning “unorthodox”) – even harder to write.

Anyone can string together 5-7-5 syllables.  But haiku is to be a poem.

It should present a moment.  It should show the meeting of the inner or subjective world, and the outer or objective world, to appear at the end of the first or second lines.  Oh, and it should say or point to what season the moment is in.

Richard Wright (1908-1960) toward the end of his life wrote haiku.

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

R. Wright, Haiku no. 31 (Y. Hakutani & R. Tener eds., rev. 2011)

One of the greatest haiku masters was Buson (1716-1784).

The evening breezes –
The water splashes against
A blue heron’s shins

(in Japanese yûkaze ya / mizu aosagi no / hagi o utsu; the notation û is for a long vowel, which some would write uu; tr. by the great Donald Keene 1922-2019, who called this haiku by Buson a tour de force; F. Bowers ed., The Classic Tradition of Haiku p. 54, 1996)

Hoping you are the same.


Bashô, The Narrow Road to Oku (1702; D. Keene tr. 1996) 

“A Night To Remember” The Original 1956 Kraft Theater Television Program

By Steve Vertlieb: One hundred eight years ago tonight, at 11:40 p.m., RMS Titanic fulfilled its terrifying date with history as innumerable heroic souls perished beneath the icy waters of The Atlantic. (RMS Titanic hits iceberg – Apr 14, 1912.) This horrifying remembrance remains among the most profoundly significant of my own seventy-four years.

As a little boy, during the early to mid-1950s, I was tormented night after night by nightmares of finding myself upon the deck of a huge ocean liner cruising the darkened waters of the Atlantic. After a time, I’d find myself walking along the brooding ocean floor, enveloped in crushing darkness, when I sensed a horrifying presence behind me. I’d turn slowly each night with fear and encroaching trepidation. As I gazed up into the watery sky, I’d find myself next to the enormous hull of a wrecked and decaying ship. I awoke screaming on each of these nights.

I’d never heard of Titanic in my early years, but I was tormented by these crippling dreams, night after suffocating night, for years. To this day, the very sight and sound of the name “Titanic” sends me into cold sweats and an ominous sense of dread, and foreboding. I’ve come to believe that I may have been aboard the doomed ocean liner that awful night, and that I’d been reincarnated three decades later. I fear the ocean still. Suffice to say, it is a chilling remembrance that will forever haunt my dreams.

May God rest Her immortal soul, and all those who perished that terrible night.

Here is the famous 1956 Kraft Theater television production of Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember. Directed by George Roy Hill, narrated by Claude Rains, and co-starring Patrick Macnee as the ship’s builder, Thomas Andrews, this highly anticipated television adaptation of the celebrated book by Walter Lord precipitated the acclaimed motion picture of the same name by two years.

People of My Generation —
Beware The Corona Virus Like The Plague!

Introduction by Hampus Eckerman: My mother wrote an opinion piece for one of our Swedish newspapers about her bout with the corona virus.

I’m getting kind of scared for all older fans out there, in Sweden there’s a lot of older people still going outside, shopping as usual, because they feel so healthy, so this article hopefully could scare some people to be more careful.

People of My Generation – Beware The Corona Virus Like The Plague!

  • First published as an opinion piece in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, March 29, 2020.

By Ingrid Eckerman: “I’m not scared – I’m healthy!”, say people from my generation and continues to socialize.

I’m also healthy, but I got the corona anyway. I didn’t die. I didn’t have to stay in intensive care for two months. I haven’t even had a high fever. Thus, a rather mild infection.

For ten days, the temperature has fluctuated around 38 degrees Celsius (100F). I have slept around 20 hours a day. I pull myself up on the bedside, waiting for the world to stop. Need support to be able to get up, taking hold in the furniture. I walk like a cripple – the hip part of my body seems to have crumpled. After a few steps comes the breathlessness, perhaps a bout of coughing. My body has aged 20 years.

Dressing is for me a great effort that requires an immediate return to bed. With pepping and prepping, I get my body to accept some basic food, a fruit, some ice cream, for pure survival purpose.

Everything has become heavy. The laptop must be carried with two hands. How should I be able to water the flowers? Getting up from the chair requires extra effort. Hair falls off in tufts.

Now on the twelfth day I begin to see the light in the tunnel. The temperature drops slowly, I’m not as deathly tired. I have felt hunger. Managed to get through both a shower and changing the bed sheets.

But I dare not take out anything in advance. It feels like there has been a war in my body, and the battle is not over yet. There is some small virus behind the sternum waiting for a weakness in my immune system. There is a risk of setbacks.

Now comes the convalescence, the recovery, built up during quarantine to be safe and infection-free before I meet others.

I have not been this sick since I as a child had the potentially deadly diseases measles, mumps and whooping cough. Being home 1-2 weeks extra from school was a matter of course.

Convalescence meant rest and nutritious food. Today, careful rehabilitation is being added. Successfully increasing physical activity, from walking in the apartment to walking in the garden. Return to regular sleeping and meal times.

From freedom of fever, I expect at least two weeks for recovery. This means a total disease period of at least one month. It is too early to say if I am getting any residual symptoms.

Getting corona at 70+ does not mean a few days of fever and then return to healthy as usual. Even if you do not become seriously ill, the illness will take a heavy toll on your body. We have weakened immune systems compared to younger people – we cannot count on a mild illness.

Even you who believe that you are so old that it does not matter if you die you have to think carefully. You must make it clear to relatives and healthcare that you do not want to receive anything but home care – that you refrain from intensive care that allows you to survive for yet some time.

Ingrid Eckerman, 78, MD, retired General Practitioneer in Stockholm, Sweden.

Comments from Ingrid regarding the piece:

1. No, I was never tested. As I didn’t get any breathing difficulties while lying down at rest, I was recommended by the ambulance staff to stay at home. Only those who have to stay in hospitals are tested in Sweden, as the capacity isn’t high enough to test the population as a whole. But I find it hard to imagine any more likely diagnoses.

2. I know nothing about whether I get immunity. Normally, there is flu and cold viruses around us in society, and we get a boost to our resistance every now and then. It helps us to maintain immunity. But this is a new virus that my body does not recognize at all. Maybe I need to get infected several times before I have a lasting immunity.

Cherishing The Elderly

Opinion Piece by Steve Vertlieb: The call a few days ago by a Texas politician for the elderly to sacrifice their lives for the “common good” so that our national economy may return to normal smacks of the origins of barbarism. The horrifying pronouncement by a duly elected leader, sworn to protect and defend democracy for all of America’s citizens, is born of bigotry, ignorance, and fear. It is a deeply troubling echo of a time not so very long ago when the lives of the elderly were considered expendable… in order to preserve the status quo … when those whose ethnicity and color were deemed threatening to the national economy … and when hatred and irrational blame contributed to the mass murder, mutilation, persecution, butchery and genocide of countless millions across the waves.

The American dream is based upon the premise that all men, women, and children are created equal in the eyes of God, and that everyone is entitled to pursue and achieve their dreams and happiness. Selfishness cannot be allowed to replace selflessness in what was once “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It has been correctly stated that people are the same all over … that we are all children of a singular, universal, and loving God. We share our humanity with every soul who dwells upon our planet. No one is better than anyone else, and no one’s right to live, to love, and to pursue their sacred dreams for happiness can be deemed unimportant or insignificant compared to the so called “common good.”

The right to exist is, and has been, a cherished principle wherever freedom and democracy have flourished. It is with the abandonment and willing sacrifice of those ideals that a land of dreams descends into a land of nightmares, and surrenders to the basest desire for merely individual gratification and paltry survival. In times of danger and the threat of persecution, we must embrace the elderly and the fragile with loving arms, protection, and reverence for all that has come before us, continuing to remember that our greatness for generations has been based upon the strong shoulders of those who have loving permitted us to stand upon them.

That’s the Spirit

By John Hertz:  The other day I passed a Catholic church that had a sign out “Masses and services temporarily postponed.  Church open for adoration and prayer.”

I thought, That’s the spirit.  Pun intended.

Here in California the Governor on account of the pandemic virus COVID-19 has ordered us to stay home, and operations with physical mingling to pause, unless essential.  Even to a disaster one can overreact.  One had better not underreact.  Some of each can be found.  I report what one church announced.

I’m not a Catholic.  I’m not even a Christian (I’m a Jew, Christians’ older brother – which reminds me how rich brown – no capital letters in his name – used to say he was everyone’s rich brother).  You may be a Muslim, or Baha’i, or pagan, or none of the above – pun intended.

If you’re a Catholic, here’s my applause.  For the rest of us, here’s another of my maxims.  Let us do as well in our way as they in their way.

You’re Wise, Here’s Your Word

By John Hertz:  As you probably know, a word can be a whole utterance or one of its building blocks – a molecule or an atom.

In the famous story about Calvin Coolidge, that a Society matron accosted him with “Oh, Mr. President, I’ve just bet someone that you’d say more than two words tonight,” which he answered “You lose,” he could be counted as giving her two words (atoms) or one (molecule).

So I’m calling this one; but you can call it seven.  It has one in it, and you can even bring in Seven at one blow  jokes.

I’ve warned you I’m becoming a man of maxims.  My grandfather was a man of maxims (like “If it weren’t my fool, I’d laugh”).  Some day I may tell you the Fortune Cookie Story, with my Uncle Bob in it.  He’s gone now, but Bob really was my uncle.

Anyway, here’s a maxim from me.  Call it my thought for the day.


Even to a disaster one can overreact.

We now return you to our regular program.