Modern Science Fiction

 

This summer’s project seems to be James Gunn.

I’m only going to do a brief review of this book. Following a pattern similar to what I did with Brian Stableford’s book of critical essays on science fiction, Opening Minds, I’ll have some thoughts on individual chapters and do separate blog posts on them.

I’ll also be looking at some Gunn short stories and will comment on how they relate to Gunn’s theories.

Review: Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis, James Gunn and edited and annotated by Michael R. Page, 2018.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Anybody interested in science fiction criticism will want to pick this one up. It’s the first real critical study of contemporary science fiction.

Its only predecessors are J. O. Bailey’s Pilgrims Through Space and Time (a doctoral dissertation from 1933 and published in 1947) and Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon from 1948. But Bailey, a Victorian scholar, concentrated on works from that period and barely looked at pulp magazines. Nicolson’s work was only about a certain type of science fiction.

Gunn’s thesis is from 1951 and addresses what he terms science fiction in the realistic mode and definitely looks at contemporary works.

His sample drew from the pulps and also from five reprint anthologies.

What is peculiar to Gunn’s work is his emphasis on plot types, and he gives a schematic classifying them all. In the foreword, science fiction scholar Gary K. Wolfe, who was put on his lifetime vocation by encountering parts of Gunn’s thesis when it was reprinted in Dynamic Science Fiction, remarks that this reflects Gunn’s work as a writer. A science fiction writer could use this thesis to think about story generation, and Gunn gives his advice on which plots are and are not worth pursuing. Continue reading “Modern Science Fiction”

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Steampunk Trails 2

Review: Steampunk Trails 2, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2014.

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Cover by M. Wayne Miller

 

Like its predecessor, it has an article, “Tumbleweeds: Western Icon or Martian Invaders” from editor Campbell. It looks at the hardy tumbleweed aka Russian thistle, an invasive species into the American West.

Beth Daniels, an author I’ve never read, offers an interview on writing steampunk, advice that can also be found in her Geared Up: Writing Steampunk.

This being a Science Fiction Trails publication, there’s a dog story. Here that’s Campbell’s “RCAF (Royal Canine Air Force)“, inspired by the cover illustration. It’s a slight story with dogs and cats dogfighting in the air, and the dogs blasting a factory. Airships, machine guns, and plasma cannon included.

More steampunkery is supplied by the heist/rescue story “Shell Games: A Hummingbird and Inazuma Con” from Peter J. Wacks. It, as the title implies, involves a couple of conmen and seems to be part of an intended series. Inazuma is a “brilliant swordsman” (though he’s not called a samurai). Hummingbird is a gunfighter. The story takes place in Canton, China, but, of course, a steampunk alternative. Here the technological divergence is the invention of the “airjunk” in 1890. There are the usual iconic sorts of things like “clockwork carriages”. Hummingbird herself is a cyborg with a “clockwork right arm”, specifically a smaller variant of the one used in the West. It uses acupuncture needles connected by steel threads to serve as musculature. Hummingbird is accomplished at tai chi. Our two con artists are sent on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the police commissioner. There are some historical figures here. The villain is Grigori Rasputin. Winston Churchill shows up too as a lieutenant in the police force since this section of China is occupied by Britain. Hummingbird and Inazuma’s con is complicated and precisely timed. The bits with Churchill were nice. Rasputin is set up to be a running series villain, but I wished he was on stage more.

Another story that reads like part of a series is Jessica Brawner’s “Bad Altitude”. The story has a great opening with our naked heroine falling from an airship over Paris. The ending doesn’t entirely explain the villain’s motives for wanting her airship. Still, the stuff in between is entertaining enough. This is set in a 21st century world where Douglas Adams is a “great philosopher of the last century”.

And, speaking of clockwork, there’s O. M. Grey’s The Clockwork Heart”, a nicely done story which metaphorically puts that imagery to use in something of a feminist tale. It’s told by one woman and relating the story of another “woman”, Eleanor. Eleanor is a clockwork woman, but she used to be a regular woman as evidenced by the scars around her wrists (a suicide attempt) and neck and chest. The latter seem to be surgical scars from her one-time lover, Dr. Clague. Another woman, Penelope, is Clague and Eleanor’s daughter though the two were never married. Eleanor has been revived after her suicide attempt to hang about the house as a governess for Penelope. Emotionless during her second round at life, she wants to feel again, and Clague helps her have emotion again. Just in time to experience them when another man enters her life.

Lyn McConchie does no harm to her reputation as a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails publications. Here it’s with “The Steam Powered Camera”. The fantastic element here is slight. Was it really necessary to have a steam powered (in effect, a movie camera) with a wide-angle lens instead of just standard Victorian-era photographic equipment? Probably not, but it’s a fairly clever horror story in which a photographer doing psychic investigations comes across an impetuous youth, also with a camera, who mocks his equipment.

Lesbian lovers seem to be (or, at least, were back in the heyday of steampunk and judging by Amazon browsing) something of a steampunk cliché. Jeffrey Cook’s and Katherine Perkins’ “Opening Night” features two. Cliché is doubled by making one a warrior babe. The story intercuts between Emily’s stage performance as a clockwork doll (her own body has damaged limbs encased in mechanisms and she’s missing an eye) and Luca foiling an assassination attempt in the opera house.

The rest of the stories are kind of amalgams of steampunk and weird western.

Henry Ram, seemingly a name change by Henrik Ramsager who used to be credited for this series, gives us another installment in the life of Potbury the Necromancer in “The Courtship of Miss Henrietta”. The rich and dying Mr. Seven has his airship Azincourt parked above Name Pending, Wyoming. He’s hallucinating from products of “advanced science” put in his body and brain, and he needs Potbury to do his resurrection thing on him. Potbury says that’s not possible. Seven’s already been resurrected once. Another time is going to be technically difficult. Seven, not taking no for an answer, starts to threaten Miss Henrietta, the former local prostitute Potbury is in love with. Another engaging entry in the series with appearances by regular characters like the rapacious and two-faced madam Mrs. Broadhurst and worthless town marshal Wainscot.

I liked Liam Hogan’s “Horse”, a first person tale about a 15-year old boy and his mechanical, steam-powered, intelligent horse inherited from a beloved professor killed in a faro game. What the boy finds in a town — a gunsmith interested in the horse, local bullies, and a prostitute — makes an interesting story, but it’s not a coming of age tale.

The (Almost) Entirely Untrue Legend of John Henry”, from David Boop, starts in 1855 with John Henry being sold for a 20 year period to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad. The story then shifts to the end of the ballad – John Henry pounding away at the end of a mountain tunnel. However, the mountain collapses on him since they tunneled through to an unmapped mine. John Henry and several men are trapped. We then get a different version of the famous John Henry vs. the steam drill story with a lot of exotic machinery. A nice bit of steampunkery and secret history.

Eric Aren’s “A Cure for Boundary Pirates” is set in a vaguely defined Old West of airships (with helium no less) and electric rifles where trade seems to be prohibited between the natives of the west coast and the people of the plains. A portion of the Great Plains has been turned into “the Colony” for those suffering from tuberculosis. The Colony forbids alcohol and tobacco. Simon, a pharmacist, smuggles “airflower” (seemingly marijuana given its analgesic properties) to the Colony. He’s been blackmailed by a couple of airship pirates who live in the Boundary (aka Rocky) Mountains into helping their smuggling. But the relationship is getting troublesome, so Simon takes steps.

Of course, this being a Science Fiction Trails book, David B. Riley channels karl, the dinosaur sheriff to introduce a collection of flash fiction about fog making machines.  Karl, in “Some Protection“, talks about meeting one H. G. back in the Cretaceous. H. G. thought his time machine’s fog generator would protect from the vicious local fauna.

Eric Aren’s entry “Victory!” is a rather confused entry about a war between Russia and Germany.

P. R. Morris’ “English Waters” is a grisly alternate version of the Boer War with the Boers trying to prevent Gordon from reaching Khartoum.

Pressure” from Guy Anthony De Marco is just jokey and underdeveloped.

Sam Knight is a weird western writer I usually like, but his “A Pirate Fog” shows, at least here, flash fiction is not his thing with a slight piece of naval combat in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Steampunk Trails 1

I’ll be doing an actual review of the Steampunk Trails 2 in the future, so I thought I might as well put up this Retro Review.

From 2014 …

Retro Review: Steampunk Trails 1, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2013.515em6axcVL

“From the Editor”, J. A. Campbell — Brief statement by the editor stating how much she likes steampunk and the magazine’s commitment to articles and stories that capture the artistry and diversity of steampunk.

“From the Publisher”, David B. Riley — Publisher Riley’s brief statement that he had long seen steampunk stories of the western variety as editor and publisher of Science Fiction Trails and that he wanted to focus more on steampunk.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk Fashion”, Carrie Vaughn — An article by Vaughn about steampunk fashion in which she argues that, unlike most clothing we now wear, it is individualized and makes a statement about the character/persona of the wearer. I had no idea Vaughn was the author of a bestselling series until I looked her up. I’ve only read one thing by her.

Karl’s Korner, by Karl, the dinosaur sheriff”, David B. Riley — Karl, the dinosaur sheriff, is a running gag in Science Fiction Trails edited by Riley. Karl ruminates on their energy needs and fragile bodies relative to the pterosaurs he knew. Continue reading “Steampunk Trails 1”

“An Itinerant House”

Never having read any Emma Frances Dawson, a literary associate of our friend Ambrose Bierce, I was looking forward to this week’s weird fiction story over at LibraryThing.

This “Deep One” turned out to be disappointing, so disappointing I’m going to spoil everything about it.

Review: “An Itinerant House”, Emma Frances Dawson, 1878.FanTales1

This one started out promising.

Mexican housekeeper Felipa is absolutely devastated to find out her employer, Mr. Anson, who runs a boarding house, actually has a wife, and she’s shown up in town, town being San Francisco, site of all of Dawson’s fiction.

It’s pretty clear that Felipa has been more than just an employee. She’s been Anson’s lover. We don’t hear what promises he may have whispered into her ear. Continue reading ““An Itinerant House””

Airship Stories

We’re returning to weird westerns again as I catch up on some back reviews.

Or, perhaps more accurately, think of this as a collection of steampunk works given they’ve all got the iconic airship.

Review: Airship Stories, David B. Riley, 2015.

Airship Stories

 

Riley adds to the same universe that his Miles O’Malley stories are set in with four stories and an essay, “A Most Baffling Event”, on the Great 1897 Airship in western America.

Two stories involve the U.S. Navy’s first airship, the Wanderer: “Wandering About: The Adventures of the Airship Wanderer” and “The Toy Men”.

In the first, the airship gets involved into Russian incursions in America, both on the ground and in the air. It seems the Russians have been in contact with Martians and hope to use the alliance to get parts of California and all of Alaska back from the United States. Good, genial fun that even the frequent talk about food doesn’t slow down. (And neither does frequent mention of the port wine President Chester Arthur inherited from his successor and is trying to foist of on visitors.) It features Penelope Hudson who shows up in Riley’s The Devil Draws Two.

The second story is shorter, quirkier, and funnier when a rogue State Department decides to launch a real war on Christmas – or, at least, Santa Claus. Continue reading “Airship Stories”

Prophecies and Dooms

I discovered Mark Samuels about a year-and-a half ago on his blog in his role as social and genre critic. I went on to read and review a couple of his works.

This one came to me courtesy of subscribing to Samuels’ Pateron account.

Review: Prophecies and Dooms, Mark Samuels, 2018.Prophecies and Dooms

This is Samuels in critic mode, cogent in presentation and never failing to say something interesting about his subjects no matter how familiar I was with them. Between the lines, something of Samuels’ own criteria for good weird fiction peeps through.

There were plenty of material new to me about writers I have a very peripheral knowledge of.

Samuels’ “The Root of Evil: Hanns Heinz Ewers and Alraune” certainly did not have to work hard to educate me. I only knew Ewers through his much reprinted “The Spider” and about his espionage work on behalf of Germany in World War 1-era America. Samuels looks at Ewers’ persona as a drug addict and a bisexual predator (allegedly aided by hypnotism) on men and women and his greatest work, Alraune. Ewers, in that novel, becomes the “Master-Artist Braun” who alone can control the destructive force he has created, the “mandrake-woman” Alraune.

It’s the opening essay, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it ends with a metaphor of an artist in control of his material. Continue reading “Prophecies and Dooms”

“Schalken the Painter”

This week’s weird fiction is …

Review: “Schalken the Painter”, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1851.

Like Vernon Lee’s “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady“, a work of art is at the center of this story. It shows a woman robed and partly veiled in white confronting a shadowy figure drawing a sword.

The painter was Schalken. The scene, the narrator tells us, was drawn from life.

Le Fanu presents a simple plot but with mysteries not completely answered.

When he was an apprentice painter, Schalken, an apprentice painter, was in love with Rose Velderkaust, the ward and niece of his master Gerard Douw. She is the woman in the painting.

One day a mysterious visitor shows up (and mysteriously leaves since Schalken doesn’t spot him in the street afterwards) and asks to talk to Douw. The stranger is curt, impatient, and unrevealing of his station, but he wants to make a deal to marry Rose and will pay a large some of money to do so.  Continue reading ““Schalken the Painter””