randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Memoirs of a SpacewomanI first read this book probably in the late '80s or early '90s. I have the Women's Press edition that was published in 1985, but it appears I bought it used, so I'm not sure exactly when I read it. In any event, I remember being very impressed, and I was just as impressed the second time. It's a truly remarkable science fiction novel, and I can't think of anything else like it, although it does have a flavor of Olaf Stapledon now and again. It was originally published in 1962, when Mitchison turned 65, and it has an air of the wisdom of age about it. It is a reflective story, looking back on a life and career and lessons learned along the way.

Mitchison wrote over 90 books, but mostly they weren't science fiction. In other words, she wasn't a genre writer, but rather a literary writer dabbling in genre. Yet she had studied genetics as a young woman and was the daughter of John Scott Haldane and sister of J.B.S. Haldane, so no doubt she was well grounded in the scientific method. It shows in the novel, which concerns the experiences and expeditions of a scientist named Mary who studies communications with alien life forms. The "memoirs" are structured around several of these expeditions, most often covering them in a single chapter but giving greater focus to two special cases. Interwoven with these stories about the scientific expeditions are stories about the Mary's various children by a number of different partners of a number of different species, not all of them terrestrial.

Part of what makes the novel so remarkable is that its view of sexual and family relationships is still pretty radical 50 years later. Relationships between parents and children -- the nuclear family -- are not very close, since parents are frequently away on trips to far off galaxies that involve time dilation, so children will have grown by the time the parents come back. Multiple sexual partners are the norm, although taboos on incest still exist and Mary implies that it's normal to settle down with a single partner as you age. Mary has children by two different human men, but she also has one by a Martian "father" (Martians are hermaphroditic, but can become monosexual for brief periods) that doesn't involve an exchange of genetic material. The haploid child is in a way Mary's genetic clone, but is only half as big as a normal human. More disturbingly Mary consents to two different experiments in which an alien life form is grafted onto her and becomes a kind of parasite on her body -- or perhaps "of her body" is the more accurate prepositional phrase.

Joanna Russ developed a theory at one point that in the fantasy field male writers tended to conceive of magic as an instrumentality separate from the magician, where female writers tended to conceive of magic as something the magician only exercises at a price to themselves. There is something of this in Mitchison's approach to science. Mary's practice of science seems to flow out of her bodily existence in the world. There's a description late in the book of the grafted organism being cut off of her in which it's clear that she herself is what is being cut. The emphasis on reproduction and relationships drives home this sense of the bodily nature of experience and knowledge in the world. Humans have a doctrine of non-interference, but Mary doubts that you can be in the physical presence of another life form without causing interference. The moral crises of the novel hinge on the relationships the scientists inevitably form with the subject of their studies. Another aspect of this is the relationships Mary forms, via her communication skills, with terrestrial life forms of limited intelligence, such as dogs. The empathy she shows for these animals is extraordinary, and I suppose in some ways it connects with the telepathic communication with animals one sees in other science fiction and fantasy novels such as Andre Norton's Beast Master.

As the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes, this novels seems to grow out of the British tradition of scientific romance more than out of American genre science fiction. Part of this is the focus on scientific knowledge rather than adventure. Not that there's no adventure whatsoever, but the adventures aren't the focus of the story. It's more reflective and contemplative; more about knowledge than power. As I say, it has aspects of Stapledon in it, although it's less focused on evolution than on simply the vast array of biological difference and adaptation. Some of the speculation on alien biology may seem a little tame or too familiar, but it's always complicated by Mitchison's astute sense of the intimate connection between the observer and the observed. It's that feeling of living connection that gives this story its remarkable charge.


Feb. 3rd, 2015 04:33 pm
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
'I stood there in the base shelter among the Terran things, each with its definite use, which, somehow, made it peculiar and abnormal. With some interest I was observing myself at this moment not able to speak. It was impossible to do what one had once though of as making up one's mind. It seemed ridiculous, almost wrong, to be faced with a direct positive or negation. I reacted against it. And yet I kept trying desperately, angrily, to find my own personality and my own point of view, since it was to that surely that I would come back after this rocking and twisting? And quick, I said to myself, quick, and he under his breath was saying the same. But I couldn't get back to myself. I couldn't speak. I couldn't say yes.' (Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman)
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Years before Wells popularized the term "Scientific Romance," Bulwer-Lytton devised a narrative that he described as "perhaps a romance, but such a romance as a Scientific amateur might compose."

-- David Seed, Introduction to the Wesleyan University Press edition of Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race
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Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] supergee, I recently read a defense of Edward Bulwer-Lytton by Jess Nevins, and Nevins' article convinced me to pick up a copy of Bulwer-Lytton's proto-science-fiction Hollow Earth novel, The Coming Race (1871). The point that caught my attention was Nevins' claim that "the mystical vocabulary and ideology of The Coming Race were adopted by Helena Blavatsky and incorporated into the philosophy of Theosophy." The reason I perked up is that Michael Levy argues in his introduction to the Wesleyan edition of A. Merritt's The Moon Pool (1919) that Merritt likely got many of the ideas for his own Hollow Earth novel from Blavatsky. Bulwer-Lytton to Blavatsky to Merritt, oh my! I was fascinated by the idea that these ideas had passed from a science fiction novel to a mystical religious work and back to a science fiction novel again over the course of fifty years. What better illustration of science fiction's close relationship with pseudo-science?

Eventually I get around to talking about the book ... )
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Well, that certainly was a slog -- in more ways than one! It took me over two months to read this book, and that's about how long it takes the heroic protagonist of the story to rescue his beloved.

This book is famously flawed. First of all, it is very badly written in a faux-18th-Century style that had me gritting my teeth throughout. It made me appreciate once again how good E.R. Eddison is in his own attempts at writing in an archaic (in his case, Elizabethan) style. The second widely-observed flaw in The Night Land is the sentimentality of the love story. The love story is certainly treacly, but I would say that the bigger problem -- which is a problem with the adventure parts of the novel as well -- is the repetition involved. Hodgson uses the same descriptions and situations over and over again. With the love story it's words like "naughty" and "impudent" and descriptions of rubbing in ointment and binding wounds; with the adventure it is descriptions of eating the food pills and powdered water and finding a safe place to sleep and repetitions of the phrase "as you will know if you've been following what I've said." Well, yes, we have been following what you said, so why are you telling us again? Over and over again. Which is one reason why you feel as though you've been through a trip of many, many dull and unchanging days by the end of the book.

Still, despite the flaws this book is widely acclaimed as a classic by figures as diverse as C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft. (In this review I'm only going to cite writers who go by two leading initials. Let's see, does H.L. Menken have anything to say on the matter?) The reason for this is that it is a tremendous work of imagination. As with so much science fiction, the world-building compensates for the bad writing and characterization. However, I'd have to say that it barely compensates in this particular case. The House on the Borderland is a far better book in almost every way, except for in scope of weird imagination.

The Night Land is a Dying Earth story, which I hadn't really realized before. (Are there any earlier examples of this sub-genre?) As far as we can tell, in this far future the sun has died. The Earth has been riven by cataclysms, and humans have descended into the rifts to stay close to the warmth of the still-molten core and remaining atmosphere. Our protagonist resides in an enormous high tech pyramid called the Last Redoubt, which is the home of millions of people, with different cities on different levels and a huge excavation miles below the ground where crops are grown and people are buried. Outside this enclave, the dark world is swarming with a nightmarish array of monsters and evil forces. The Bantam Adult Fantasy editions of this book used Hieronymous Bosch for the covers, and that's a very good approximation of what the world of the book feels like. The bulk of the story is about the protagonist's journey out into this nightmare world to save his beloved from a smaller, dying enclave of humans a long distance away and further down in the rift.

This is definitely a romance in the old sense, with a literal knight in shining armor (except with a power weapon) striking off to rescue a damsel in distress. However, the fantastic landscape he crosses is shaped by the scientific imagination. The dying earth setting is only the most obvious sign of this, but throughout he speculates on how this and that aspect of the world came to be. (One of the repetitions is that he always comes around to the reminder that he doesn't know if his speculations are true.) For example, he speculates that changes in the density of the atmosphere has caused lungs and chests of this far future to grow larger than they were in the past. At another point he encounters brutish sub-human men and wonders if they will ever evolve to become civilized again, like their distant cousins in the Last Redoubt. As with so much British scientific romance, entropy and evolution seem to be the big concepts being wrestled with. Both have left humanity in an imperiled state.

There's a mystical side of the story as well. It's implied that scientific experiments unleashed forces of evil from alternate dimensions -- or rather, this is one of the protagonist's speculations that may or may not be true. These forces are intangible, at least compared to the monsters and mutants prowling the ground. They are said to actually be able to take over the human spirit or soul and torment them for eternity, and thus all humans who venture out of their safe redoubt are prepared to kill themselves rather than let this happen. They have special implants of poison for that very purpose. As in The House on the Borderland, however, except even more explicitly, there are also forces for good at work in the world, and they act unexpectedly to shield people from the threat of the forces of evil. This all feels very Christian, like a struggle between inscrutable angels and demons.

In the end, it is the landscape and the non-human inhabitants that are most memorable about this book. The eternal darkness is only illuminated here and there by human lights or smoldering volcanos. One memorable passage has the protagonist traveling through utter darkness using a rock tied to a rope, which he throws ahead to test for barriers or chasms. He finds sulphurous hot pools to bathe in. Despite his armor and power weapon, the feeling of existential threat is constant. The sense of dread and horror is almost overpowering. The repetition of his little rituals along the way adds to both the sense of the terrible passage of time and of the pathos of these little gestures in the face of the hungry, devouring darkness.

Yet the subtitle of the book is "A Love Tale", and there is also an aspect of the story that is about love conquering all. Needless to say, it is less memorable than the dark journey itself, as much as it dominates the second half of the book. However, there's something about this love story that I haven't seen commented on elsewhere, and that is its brief resemblance to a John Norman Gor story. There is a short (but still repetitive!) section after Our Hero has found the Maid (as he constantly refers to her) when she starts acting all "naughty" and "impudent" and independent. She puts herself (and him) in danger by pulling away from him and resisting his directions. Eventually he puts her over a knee and gives her a few hard whacks with a switch. (This is after an earlier beating in which he was too easy on her and only made her more resistant.) She becomes submissive at this point, and he pontificates about how women need a man to show them who's boss -- although it's also men who cause women to get all excited and act up, and women who cause men to get all excited and dominant. All of this written in a very treacly style that is hard to get across, and I don't have my notes with me to give you a representative quote. It's very odd and strangely narcissistic, as our hero broods on his own hunky, muscular manliness. Hodgson was apparently a small man who went to sea and got into body-building as a way of protecting himself from the abuse of the other sailors. I thought I saw evidence of this personal history in the text, as cheap as that kind of psychoanalysis is.

Anyway, an ordeal of a book, but one with enough going on to keep me slogging through to the end. It's a fascinating piece in the puzzle of British scientific romance, but one that I'm happy to have behind me rather than ahead of me.
randy_byers: (brundage)
Slowly, slowly, as the aeons slipped into eternity, the earth sank into a heavier and redder gloom. -- Hodgson

This book has been on my Big List of Maybe Someday since I was a teenager, and finally my exploration of early science fiction has put it on the Done Been Read list. I have to say that the descriptions of it I've read over the years failed to get across the fact that it is in large part an expansion of HG Wells' vision of the dying earth in The Time Machine. It's also a forerunner of the cosmological horror that so fascinated HP Lovecraft.

It starts out as a stefnal sort of gothic. First, two hale fellows on a fishing vacation in remotest Ireland discover some ruins hanging over a chasm. In the ruins, they find a manuscript, which is The House on the Borderland. It is the narrative of a man who lives in a remote estate with his sister. (Echoes of Poe here?) He discovers a chasm that swallows a river, and the discovery seems to draw the attention of creepy humanoid swine creatures coming up from the bowels of the earth. He retreats to his house, and they follow. They attack the house, and he defends it with guns and barriers.

One of the complaints about this book from genre fans is that nothing much happens. It's true that this first, gothic part of the story is very much a mood piece, and much of the action, such as it is, consists of the narrator exploring either the gloomy, cavernous house or the barren landscape around it. There is a creeping sense of dread. Things are almost seen, seen out of the corner of the eye, but what was it really? Sounds are heard in the night. It's a mood piece, and the mood is dread.

The second half of the book -- and I'm still not sure how exactly it relates to the first, although it does -- is a vision of the end of the solar system and the heat death of the universe. One of the fascinating aspects of this part is that, especially at first, it feels like a description of time lapse photography. Time speeds up, and the way he describes clouds rushing across the sky sounds almost precisely like it looks on sped up film. It's possible that by 1908 (or a few years earlier, when he apparently wrote the book) Hodgson had seen time lapse photography of clouds, although I'm unaware of such films from that era. Either that, or he had such a keen imagination that he was able to "run the film" in his mind, as it were.

This section of the book is truly remarkable -- a mood piece in an entirely different mode. The sense of enormity of both space and time is exhilirating. Whereas Wells seemed to be grappling more with evolution in The Time Machine, Hodgson is grappling with entropy and just the sheer size of the universe. He seems to have mixed feelings about it too: both a sense of horror and a sense of almost liberation. The narrator loses his body over time in this vision -- turned to dust -- and yet he is thereby freed to see things on an even grander scale.

It's a pretty amazing book, even if it does have way too many commas. A ridiculous number of commas. I don't understand why the copy-editors let some of them stand, because many of them are completely meaningless. They don't even add to a sense of rhythm. I'm really not sure what Hodgson intended with them. Anyway, a minor annoyance. The mixture of gothic dread and cosmic grandeur, as HP Lovecraft commented, "constitute something almost unique in standard literature."

After a time, I looked to right and left, and saw the intolerable blackness of night, pierced by remote gleams of fire. Onwards, outwards, I drove. Once, I glanced behind, and saw the earth, a small crescent of blue light, receding away to my left. Further off, the sun, a splash of white flame, burned vividly against the dark.

An indefinite period passed. Then, for the last time, I saw the earth -- an enduring globule of radiant blue, swimming in an eternity of ether. And there I, a fragile flake of soul-dust, flickered silently across the void, from the distant blue, into the expanse of the unknown.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
For as long as I have been reading fantasy, Perley Poore Sheehan has been one of the "greats" of the great old days when Bob Davis was creating a new literature of the imagination in the pages of the Munsey magazines. Yet it was as a writer of popular romances that his contemporaries knew -- and forgot -- him.

Why was this? Granted that any of those few writers of fantasy would be remembered because he was one of a small circle, why has Sheehan been persistently ranked with Merritt, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint, "Francis Stevens"?

-- P. Schuyler Miller, introduction to the 1953 Polaris Press edition of Sheehan's The Abyss of Wonders (1915), although apparently Miller originally wrote this piece in 1931 (when 1915 would hardly have been the "great old days")
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I've been reading the Modern Library collection of Selected Stories of H.G. Wells, edited by Ursula K Le Guin. (With an amazingly inappropriate cover.) "The Star" was first published in 1897. It is a disaster story. A planetoid is detected just before it collides with Neptune, causing both bodies to head sunward in a flaming mass ... and directly toward Earth! The viewpoint of the story is omniscient, and it only briefly notes particular points of view, staying the longest with a mathematician who calculates that the Earth will be struck by the object. The description of the destruction wrought on the surface of the Earth by the gravitational forces of the approaching mass are grave and terrible. The denouement describing the aftermath is a brief series of ever remoter observations, with a bit of a satiric sting in the final view.

It's a great story, and I'm guessing it was one of the influences on Homer Eon Flint's "The Planeteer," which tosses in a similar scenario (involving Saturn instead of Neptune) as one part of its perhaps overly-complicated dramatic apparatus. The contrast between the two stories might be an effective example of the difference between scientific romance and science fiction. Wells is dispassionate and philosophical, while Flint's story is character-driven and solution-focused. Wells' story is a far more effective literary construction. Flint's story is perhaps aimed at a different social class entirely -- one that doesn't care so much about literary values.
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Last night I reread Michael Levy's introduction to the Wesleyan edition of A. Merritt's The Moon Pool (1919). Amongst other things, Levy writes at length about the ideas Merritt borrowed from Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists. As I've written elsewhere, it appears that Edgar Rice Burroughs may also have borrowed a few ideas from Theosophy in the world-building of Barsoom. I was reminded again by Levy's essay how closely science fiction has been related to the occult and -- a somewhat different category -- the crackpot all along. In fact, you could say that science fiction has been a great refuge for the crank and the autodidact who has problems with one or another aspect of consensus reality, or who simply has very strong and eccentric ideas about the true nature of the world.

A few aimless observations ... )
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A while back I read "The Monkey King" -- an excerpt of the French writer Albert Robida's novel, The Very Extraordinary Voyages of Saturnin Farandoul in the World's five or six Continents, and in all the Countries known and even unknown to Monsieur Jules Verne (1879), published in Brian Stableford's News from the Moon and Other French Scientific Romances. This playful parody of Verne's famous books, featuring an appearance by Captain Nemo and other Verne characters, was so much fun that I decided to try another of Robida's works, The Twentieth Century, which was translated into English for the first time and published by Wesleyan University Press a couple of years ago. Robida is not well-known amongst readers of English-language science fiction, but this novel was apparently very famous in France in its day and over the decades went through many editions. Perhaps even in France now, however, Robida's reputation has shrunk into the shadow of Verne, and he is remembered more for his illustrations than for his writing.

Looking backward at a look forward ...  )
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Before I head over to Potlatch for the day, I thought I'd post a few thoughts on Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century, which I finished reading last week in Victoria.

Verne wrote this novel in 1863, which was the year his first published novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon became a big hit in France. By way of reference, Journey to the Center of the Earth was published in 1864 and From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865. Paris in the Twentieth Century wasn't published until 1994, more than a hundred years after it was written. Verne's publisher, Hetzel, rejected it as inferior to Five Weeks in a Balloon and because, "No one today will believe your prophecy." It's true that what's remarkable to the modern reader is how much of the futuristic technology in this book came true, from combustion engines to fax machines. However, these were technologies that were already being tested in this time, so to be surprised is perhaps only to reveal my historical ignorance.

However, what I found interesting about this book from a literary standpoint is that it seems to be a (perhaps slightly befuddled) step on the path from utopia to dystopia. (I may be exposing my ignorance again, because for all I know the dystopia was invented in 1793 by a Belgian writer I've never heard of. Damn those Belgians!) The technological wonders of the twentieth century are described in loving detail, but the story itself mourns the death of humanism. The protagonist, Michel, has a degree in the composition of Latin poetry that is worthless in the new scientific world. Poetry is still written, but the modern stuff has titles like Electric Harmonies, Meditations on Oxygen, and The Poetic Parallelogram. It is perhaps a sign of our degraded era that these sound more interesting than Michel's drippy romanticism.

For Michel is indeed a mid-19th century romantic who is out of place in this far flung future. Verne seems to want to satirize modern trends in culture, but he comes off as a helpless "that's not music, it's noise" style crank:

"Oh, me! I play as much of it as anybody else -- here's a piece I've just written that will appeal to today's taste; it may even have some success, if it finds a publisher."

"What are you calling it?"

After Thilorier -- a Grand Fantasy on the Liquefaction of Carbonic Acid."

"You can't be serious!" Michel exclaimed.

"Listen and judge for yourselves," Quinsonnas replied. He sat down at the piano, or rather he flung himself at it. Under his fingers, under his hands, under his elbows, the wretched instrument produced impossible sounds; notes collided and crackled like hailstones. No melody, no rhythm! The artist had undertaken to portray the final experiment which cost Thilorier his life.

"There!" he exclaimed. "Did you hear that? Now do you understand? Are you aware of the great chemist's experiment? Have you been taken into his laboratory? Do you feel how the carbonic acid is separated out? Here we have a pressure of four hundred ninety-five atmospheres! The cylinder is turning -- watch out! watch out! The machine is going to explode! Take cover!" And with a blow of his fist capable of splintering the ivory keys, Quinsonnas reproduced the explosion. "Whew!" he said, "isn't that imitative enough -- isn't that beautiful?"

One applauds the pointed satire here, but the horror at the very possibility of exploring this vein is just a bit suspect, if not downright reactionary. Suffice it to say that there's no niche in this brave new world for a sensitive nineteenth century soul like Michel. Everything is about science, industry, accounting, and business -- capitalism, in other words -- and the poor poet can only starve helplessly amongst the heartless, artless bourgeoisie. (Not much working class in evidence, it must be noted.) Hetzel's other complaint about the manuscript is very much to the point: "Your Michel is a real goose with his verses. Can't he carry parcels and remain a poet?" Go ask Wallace Stevens!

Verne's satire doesn't have much bite, and the ineffectual, self-centered melancholy of his protagonist blocks him from a truly dystopian critique of the idea of progress. If he had spent less time worrying about the place of Victor Hugo in the future and more looking at social problems in an industrial hierarchy, he might have an actual claim to prescience. Still, the grim ending of the novel hints at dystopias to come, and Verne has to be given some credit for that. Meanwhile I have just acquired Albert Robida's The Twentieth Century, which was first published in France in 1882. We'll see if the French future looked better twenty years later.
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Obviously the key thing about this novel is the complex (not to mention ravishing) figure of Ayesha herself -- a figure of both desire and fear -- She-who-must-be-obeyed. She is a two-thousand-year-old virgin who has clung adamantly all this time to her love for Kallikrates and her hatred of his lover, Amenartas. All of this is absurd, yet the absurdity lends force to the symbolism. There is something of Artemis in Ayesha: the eternally virgin maiden-goddess whose beauty is dangerous to look upon. Another curious detail is that she is Arabian, although she is always described in terms of her pure whiteness. She is older than Mohamed or Christ. She remembers the pagan gods of the early Arabs, although she herself was a priestess of Isis. Holly tries to explain Christianity to her, but she's only interested in Christ as a male, as a Man. "The religions come and the religions pass," she tells Holly, "and civilizations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature." A pretty atheist, for all her godlike powers.

Aside from the fascination of She herself, a couple of things caught my eye as a science fiction reader. First was that despite the fantastic nature of much of the adventure, Haggard continually insists that none of this is supernatural. "Nay, nay; O Holly ... it is not magic, that is a dream of ignorance," Ayesha says when she shows Holly an image of the past in the surface reflection of a vessel of water (shades of Galadriel's mirror, as others have pointed out). "There is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as knowledge of the hidden ways of Nature." This is pretty close to Clarke's Law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And indeed, Merritt's The Moon Pool is in many ways the belated advancement of this concept, in which all manner of fantastic powers common in the old romances are rationalized in the pulp super-science terms of the day.

The other striking thing to these science fictional eyes was the world-building involved in the ancient lost city of Kôr. This was the book's other major contribution to the literature. It is fundamentally an expression of Ayesha's comment above that "civilizations come and pass, and naught endures." The ancient empire of Kôr is long gone, with all its splendor and riches and life. All that remains is a degenerate tribe of savages living in the ruins, with their alien female-centered marriage customs and cannibalistic hot pots. This is clearly something that made an impression on Edgar Rice Burroughs, amongst others, perhaps Wells' The Time Machine too, from a different angle. Haggard's concept seems to have been influenced by the archeology of the day, particularly the Egyptology that had such an effect on popular literature. (It seems to me that Sumer would have been a better reference, but it was perhaps still too obscure in 1887.) The ancient inhabitants of Kôr had perfected a form of preserving corpses in a completely undecayed form, which is played for several macabre effects. They were also great architects and engineers, and the ruins are fantastically elaborate and extensive. Here Haggard references the great feats of Victorian engineering, such as the Suez Canal and the Mont Cenis tunnel through the Alps, that were such a matter of pride in his day. There is a powerful scene toward the end of the book when Ayesha shows them a statue of the goddess Truth worshipped by those ancient people. It's an Ozymandias moment. "By Death only can thy veil be drawn, O Truth!" reads the inscription on the statue. Yet even chastened by this warning about the limits of understanding, Holly notes that the representation of the World as a globe in the sculpture is suggestive of scientific knowledge long before anybody else had figured out that the Earth is spherical. The penetrating spirit of science dances with the swirling, irrational lusts and fears of sex in this novel, setting a template for much to come.
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For those of you (all two of you) who are actually as interested in pre-Amazing science fiction as I've become, I should mention the piece I wrote for Rich Coad's new fanzine, Sense of Wonder Stories, which is available as a PDF. My article, "The Early Days of a Better Genre," will make you want to read Garrett P. Serviss. Or else!

The whole zine is very good. I was particularly impressed by Robert Lichtman's survey of H.P. Lovecraft's non-fiction, including a collection of his amateur journalism -- amateur journalism being one of the predecessors of fanzines -- and, in a related vein, Bill Burns' article on Edison's invention of the electric pen, which was a predecessor of both the mimeograph and the tattoo gun! Pretty cool beans.

In response to my piece, and in particular to the question "where did the Tharks come from?", [livejournal.com profile] jerrykaufman pointed me to a fascinating, although long and rambling, article by Dale R. Broadhurst called "John Carter Beginnings?" about some of the theories about Edgar Rice Burroughs' influences. One of these, apparently first proposed by Fritz Leiber, is that Burroughs got some of his ideas about Mars and its inhabitants from the Theosophists. I actually found the argument as presented here fairly unconvincing (although that may reflect Broadhurst's own skepticism), but it connected to the reading I've been doing about A. Merritt's The Moon Pool, which really does seem to reflect Theosophist ideas.

I recently read The Moon Pool in its original magazine form, and I started a review but got bogged down on it. Maybe I'll get back to that to try to dig at the Theosophist angle some more. In any event, it was the Merritt book that convinced me I needed to read She in order to get a better feel for how the lost world sub-genre shaped science fiction. (Haggard to Merritt to Lovecraft, oh my!)

And so the literary road leads ever on and on.
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I remember slipping straight out of this consciousness straight into another -- visions of a young world -- nightmare figures -- steaming jungles -- monsters -- a bestial shaggy woman whom I, also a beast, loved brutally. But enough!

-- A. Merritt, "The Conquest of the Moon Pool" (1919)
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My anonymous housemate recently picked up a copy of News from the Moon and Other French Scientific Romances edited and translated by Brian Stableford. This is a collection of nine French proto-science fiction stories from 1768 through 1887. What caught my eye was this in the backcover blurb: "The book also includes Albert Robida's classic novella in which Saturnin Farandoul, shipwrecked as a baby and raised by apes on a Pacific Island, visits the Mysterious Island and joins forces with Captain Nemo to battle the pirate hordes of Bora Bora." Tarzan of the Apes meets Captain Nemo? Pirates?! That was a good enough hook for me.

The Robida novella is called "Le roi de singes" ["The Monkey King"] and is the first part of a serial called Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde, et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de Monsieur Jules Verne [The Very Extraordinary Voyages of Saturnin Farandoul in the World's five or six Continents, and in all the Countries known and even unknown to Monsieur Jules Verne], which was published in 1879. It ends up being a delightful satire on any number of things, including epic South Seas adventure stories and European colonialism. As such, it has less in common with Tarzan of the Apes than with Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, La planète des singes, a.k.a. The Planet of the Apes.

Saturnin Farandoul is raised by apes after a shipwreck, is rescued as an adolescent by a French merchant ship, falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a Malyasian pirate king, and with the aid of an army of apes, conquers Australia, where he intends to create a Utopia for all primates. While the depiction of the apes is more than a bit fanciful, it is all in the service of satirizing humanity's animal failings, particularly when it comes to exploiting those it considers inferior. (For a contemporary American reader, one of the ape generals, Makako, evokes the infamous "macaca" slur that sank the senatorial campaign of George Allen in 2006.) However, delusions of grandeur afflict all primates, whether two-handed or four-handed. The tone of the piece is sprightly and knowing, even when tragic. Some of the humor is quite, um, broad, as in the character named Dick Broken.

It's not clear to me how Robida was able to use Captain Nemo as a character, let alone name Verne in the title of the serial. Possibly this was put out by Verne's publisher, Hetzel, with the consent of all involved. The science fictional aspects of the story (as opposed to the merely fantastical) are mostly centered around the Nautilus and various diving-related contraptions, mostly farcical in nature. There is a hilarious episode involving a whale who swallows Saturnin's beloved while she still in a diving suit, which does not in fact suit the whale's digestion.

Stableford makes the argument in the introduction to the collection that "of all the native traditions [of science fiction], the French has the longest history and made the most rapid early progress," although he goes on to acknowledge that the tradition subsequently faltered and fell behind the British and American traditions. (As always, he is eager to push back at the "coca-colonization" of science fiction by the Americans and to promote the European tradition of scientific romance against it.) This early advantage of the French seems to be reflected in both books of George Griffith I've read, where his characters make reference to works of Camille Flammarion and Jules Verne, and in Garrett P. Serviss' A Columbus of Space (1909), which is dedicated "to the readers of Jules Verne's romances." Stableford says he hopes to publish further volumes of French scientific romance. Meanwhile, I'll be looking for the Wesleyan edition of Robida's 1883 novel Le Vingtième Siècle [The Twentieth Century], which is said to be a remarkable work of ironic futurology.
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George Griffith was a prolific and popular writer of scientific romances around the turn of the nineteenth century. You will frequently see it asserted that he was as popular as HG Wells in his day, although I have no idea what that means or if it's true. You'll also see it asserted that he was not published much in the US because of his political views, which according to Wikipedia were revolutionary and socialist, although I've seen very little evidence of that in what I've read so far. In fact, if anything he has struck me as fairly conservative. Then again I've only read two of his books, the other being A Honeymoon in Space (1901), which is a fix-up of a series of short stories about a tour of the Solar System in an antigrav spaceship.

The World Peril of 1910 was published in 1907, the year after Griffith died. It's an expansion of a short story, "The Great Crellin Comet", which was published in Pearson's Weekly in 1897. Apogee books has published the novel (for the first time in North America, according to them) and the short story together. The short story is much better than the novel, I'm afraid to say. It's about the discovery that a comet is about to hit the Earth and what is done by a young British astronomer and an American millionaire to attempt to avert it. There's a love story involving the American's daughter, but the thing is very efficient and atmospheric in telling its tale of impending global destruction.

The novel takes this basic premise and makes it the appendage of a future war story that also involves a heated contest for the hand of the American heiress. The war story is completely superfluous to the story of the comet, and I found it pretty tiresome stuff. Some neat superweapons are invented, a couple of which are flying machines (though one is also a submarine). Beyond that, however, we have too many chapters in which we are told that such and such a fleet has so many ships of this class, so many ships of that class, and so many ships of the other class (with loving descriptions of associated weaponry), and then one of the superweapons proceeds to sink every last ship in turn. Huzzah! Or groan, if they're British ships.

The main drama here is that Fortress Britain is invaded by an alliance of the French, Germans, Russians, and Austrians. The superweapon the invaders get their hands on is the invention of a treacherous Irishman, although his brother and sister are loyal to the British. Some of these ancient politics are interesting, but mostly it's a jingoistic appeal to British patriotism. Lord Kitchener -- referred to I thought rather familiarly as the K. of K. -- even shows up to put the screws to the infuriated German Kaiser. To be fair, once all the ships have been sunk and the invaders are ravaging the British countryside while preparations are being made in the north to deal with the comet, things do get a bit exciting.

No doubt the main problem is that I'm not a big fan of war stories. I found A Honeymoon in Space an altogether more interesting book, because I'm more interested in imaginary or extraordinary voyages. Still, I'm happy that Apogee has put this book out, and I hope they publish some of Griffith's earlier novels, such as The Angel of the Revolution (1893), which is apparently about anarchists. If you are more of an enthusiast for war and superweaponry and the doughty mean of Britain, you may find The World Peril of 1910 more entertaining than I did.

On a side note, I thought it was interesting that Jules Verne still seemed to be the main science fictional referent here, getting a namecheck more than once, specifically in regards to one of the superweapons, which is similar to a device used in one of his famous novels. Flammarion and Wells also get a call out. That's two Frenchmen to one Briton, which might make one think that SF was a mostly French genre at this stage of the game. But more about that in my next review.
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Flint's "The Queen of Life" ends up being a very strange story. I had to read it twice to try to get it straight in my head, but I'm still not sure I understand all the strange twists and contortions. While on the face of it this is a fairly commonplace utopia, lurking beneath its placid, generic surface is an ambiguous battle of the sexes.

What the big idea, wise guy? -- SPOILERS, ho! )
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Homer Eon Flint has got to be the greatest name for a science fiction writer ever. "Eon" is the perfect touch, and I wonder if it was a given name or an assumed one. (He was born "Flindt," for example.) Iain Banks should have written his SF as Eon Banks, evoking the muddy confines of the great river of time. Or maybe I should write an epic space opera under the nom de plume of Virgil Eon Banks. Yeah, I'll get right on that.

I've been reading two of Flint's novellas, "The Lord of Death" and "The Queen of Life", both published in 1919 in All-Story (or maybe Argosy -- I can't find the information on the internet). They have struck me as mostly philosophical and political/utopian in tone, but the article about him in SCIFIPEDIA (an online encyclopedia I hadn't heard of before) argues that he was "the first practitioner of what quickly came to be called the 'super-science' story," as later practiced by Doc Smith and John W. Campbell. And indeed, there is a monster magnet invented as a weapon in "The Lord of Death," and, most interesting of any of the technological ideas used in either story so far, there are mechanical plants on the Venus of "The Queen of Life" that quarry minerals underground (the surface is completely covered with human habitation) and convert them into foodstuff -- "starch, sugar, and proteids" -- using artificial leaves and manufactured chlorophyll.

It's true of these stories, as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says about Flint in general, that his "writing style and pulp-magazine habits did not always adequately express his deep interest in the emergence of behavioral and historical patterns from various political and social philosophies," but it is also said elsewhere that his writing got better over time. He didn't have much time, however, as he died under mysterious circumstances in 1924. According to his granddaughter, Vella Munn, Flint's broken body was found under a wrecked car at the bottom of a ravine. A man named E.L. Handley, whose car it was, claimed that he'd picked up the hitch-hiking Flint, who then pulled a gun on him, forced him out of the car, and drove off. The police found a black suitcase full of money in the car, and it may have been from an earlier bank robbery in Fresno. While Flint owned guns, the one found near the car was not one of his. Handley himself was a "known gangster" who was later convicted of another crime, so quite possibly his story is not trustworthy. Certainly Flint showed no other early warning signs of becoming a car-jacking bank-robber! (Except maybe changing his name. Hmmmmm.)

A bizarre story worthy of the greatest name in "Different" stories, as the developing genre is called in the brief intro to the two novellas by one C.W. Wolfe of Albuquerque in Ace's 1965 paperback reprint.
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Reading H.G. Wells, you quickly realize why he is one of the most famous and respected science fiction writers of all time. He's very good, and brimming with subtle observations, droll wit, and exuberant humor. I have just read a scene in The First Men in the Moon (1901) in which Bedford and Cavor, lost and starving on the surface of the moon, try the local fungus and start tripping: "Then our blood began to run warmer, and we tingled at the lips and fingers, and then new and slightly irrelevant ideas came bubbling up in our minds."

There follows a hilariously idiotic "argument" between the two about the discovery and colonization of the moon in which Wells gets in several smart cracks at imperialism (including a mention of the White Man's Burden, which had just been published in 1899), and then comes a slapstick episode in which they are spotted for the first time by the Selenites (the insectoid lunar aliens), causing the deranged Cavor to make a furious running leap at them. "He leapt badly; he made a series of somersaults in the air, whirled right over them, and vanished with an enormous splash amidst the cactus bladders. What the Selenites made of this amazing, and to my mind undignified, irruption from another planet, I have no means of guessing."

The notion of first contact with the aliens while under the influence of mushrooms seems to be torn from a New Wave story of the 1960s. The grinning way in which Wells plays with the perception of unreal reality is damned literate. He's really very good.

Update: Corrected "lost and starving on the surface of the mood," although that's a pretty interesting typo!
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Imagine it! Imagine that dawn! The resurrection of the frozen air, the stirring and quickening of the soil, and then this silent uprising of vegetation, this unearthly ascent of fleshliness and spikes. Conceive it all lit by a blaze that would make the intensest sunlight of earth seem watery and weak. And still amidst this stirring jungle wherever there was shadow lingered banks of bluish snow. And to have the picture of our impression complete you must bear in mind that we saw it all through a thick bent glass, distorting it as things are distorted by a lens, acute only in the centre of the picture and very bright there, and towards the edges magnified and unreal.

-- H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon (1901)


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