Story Emporium #1

In 2015, Science Fiction Trails publisher David B. Riley experimented again with the annual magazine he put out. The weird western tales of the defunct Science Fiction Trails and the steampunk of Steampunk Trails were combined into Story Emporium.

Review: Story Emporium #1: Purveyors of Steampunk & Weird Western Adventure, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2015.

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Cover by M. Wayne Miller

A lot of the usual contributors to Science Fiction Trails’ publications are here and a lot of those writers continue their long running series in the magazine.

But let’s start with the writers new to me.

Dan Thwaite’s “The Duel” is bit Sergio Leonish in its ever-slowing pace and repetition of details as the climax nears. But it’s not very effective. A gunfighter come to town. His high noon opponent is a clock in a tower. He shoots it but dies. I suppose this is some kind of metaphor about how time and death catch up to us all.

K. G. Anderson’s “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse” is a secret history and a good one at that. Jewish magic and the Kabbala are spliced into the conventional history of Billy the Kid. It’s narrator, a woman named Shulamit, flees her home to escape an arranged marriage to a man she never met. With her, in the trunk on the stagecoach, is a golem made by her grandfather. Others want the golem, and Billy the Kid intervenes to save Shulamit when an attempt is made to steal it. Continue reading “Story Emporium #1”

“Judgment Day”

Review: “Judgment Day”, James Gunn, 1992.Uncollected Gunn 1

My look at the unpublished works of James Gunn continues with a look at the fourteenth story he wrote. It was written in 1951 while Gunn was finishing up his master’s thesis Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis.

This one takes up a mere three pages in The Unpublished Gunn, Part One.

It opens with a description of a dead Earth, its surface only disturbed by wind and the sea bereft of life.

There is a spaceship on it and five “man-like” figures discuss what they are finding in their survey, discuss without speech “nor yet telepathy”.

‘Dead’, the Philosopher said. ‘Quite dead.

‘Too late,’ the Psychologist, behind, said softly. ‘We were too late.’

The other characters with allegorical-type names are identified only as the Biologist, the Archaeologist, and the Sociologist. Continue reading ““Judgment Day””

“Et In Sempiternum Pereant”

This week’s weird fiction is from Charles Williams.

He wrote several fantasy novels infused with Christian theology. He was admired by his fellow Inklings J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Modern writer Tim Powers is a fan.

He wrote seven novels — none of which I’ve read though I have a couple in the house. This is the only piece of short fiction he wrote. It’s main — and only character — Lord Arglay shows up in Williams’ Many Dreams though I’m told there is little connection.

Review: “Et In Sempiternum Pereant”, Charles Williams, 1935.51nXgQyPhqL

The title translates from Latin as “and may they be forever damned”, and the ending Latin phrase, is from the conclusion of Dante’s Inferno and translates as “and thence we issued forth to see again the stars”.

The story is rather simple in events though their portent is not clear.

The protagonist, seemingly the only human in the story, is Lord Arglay.

He is walking a country road to visit a friend and his collection of unpublished legal opinions of Lord Chancellor Bacon. The road is somewhat strange. Arglay, who prides himself for his good sense of duration (though that was when he was younger — fleeting thoughts about aging figure in the story’s beginning), is puzzled that his sense of time doesn’t match what his watch says. The grove he passes also doesn’t seem to be receding as fast as he expected. Is he just slower now that he’s older?

Then he sees a house in a passage through a hedge. Massive amounts of smoke is pouring from its chimney – though he didn’t see it in the sky earlier. Continue reading ““Et In Sempiternum Pereant””

“Sane Asylum”

The unintended James Gunn summer project continues, this time with a look at more of his fiction.

Starting in 1992, two chapbooks of Gunn’s work were issued: The Unpublished Gunn, parts one and two.

They included nine of the 92 pieces of short fiction he had written to that date. In his introduction to part one, Gunn says he’s publishing these stories because he has a sense of unfinished business at not seeing a completed story in print. In particular, he is puzzled as to why these stories were rejected when he discerns no difference in quality between them and stories he did get published at the same time. He wants to them put before the world.

I’ll be looking at each of those nine stories individually.

Review: “Sane Asylum”, James Gunn, 1992.Uncollected Gunn 1

This was the fourth story Gunn wrote, and he says his initial ambition was to publish it in Bluebook. (Presumably this refers to Blue Book Magazine, a general fiction pulp magazine that had a long run from 1905 to 1956.)

Using the chronology of Gunn’s compositions in Michael R. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction, that would mean this story was written in 1948 or 1949, so the influence of Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”, a story much admired by Gunn, is not present. Yet, despite the different subjects and themes of the two stories, both are science fiction tales that postulate social changes and little or no technological changes. Here, the only bit of advanced technology is radio earpieces worn by the attendants at Willows Mental Hospital and that look like hearing aids. In fact, Gunn’s agent, Frederik Pohl, tried to sell the piece to the non-science fiction magazine Suspense.

Gunn’s story actually is more reminiscent of Philip K. Dick though there is, of course, no direct connection given that Dick hadn’t published anything yet. But we are in a sort of similar territory with the questioning of reality. Continue reading ““Sane Asylum””

Modern SF: Plots of Creation, Experiments

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And my look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues and concludes. I’ll be looking at some more of Gunn’s fiction, but this will be the last look at his critical work for a while.

We’re at the final plot in Gunn’s critical schema: plots of creation involving experiments other than the creation of chemical and mechanical life.

Gunn sees this plot, unlike the creation of life and artificial minds, as more realistic because the ultimate is not often sought. These experiments aren’t about creating life or minds. The experiments these stories deal with, therefore, have more plausibility.

Gunn divides this type of plot into three categories: the experiment that helps mankind with a problem, the experiment that gets out of control, and the experiment that causes new problems. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Creation, Experiments”

Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life

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The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with “plots of creation”, specifically ones where life is created.

Gunn is no vitalist, so he draws no distinction between “chemical life” and “mechanical life”. The former is based (as far as we know) exclusively on carbon, the former is based on inorganic compounds. Chemical life is “vitalized in the cell; mechanical life is vitalized in the ‘mind’ and power center”.

Of course, the creation of artificial life and seemingly sentient machines has a history before sf. It features in legend and folklore. There’s even a flying brass horse in The Canterbury Tales.

Creating “chemical life” seems more magical, a veritable resurrection of the dead according to Gunn. By doing that, humans assume God-like powers as opposed to creating “mechanical life” which has more the air of supreme artisanship or mechanical skill though, especially when creating machines that seem or are sentient, it can also seem God-like. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life”

Maid of Baikal

This one came to me unsolicited from Mr. Fleming who thought I might be interested given that I’ve reviewed other alternate histories.

I agreed to review it given its original premise and, frankly, I was rather hoping the fanatical Baron Ungern-Sternberg would show up. (He doesn’t)

Review: Maid of Baikal, Preston Fleming, 2017.514j1MYvOSL

That original subtitle in my review copy, “A Speculative Historical Novel of the Russian Civil War”, hints that alternate history fans should not expect any distinct Jonbars, turning points, or “sharp agate points” (to borrow Winston Churchill’s phrase when he dabbled in alternate history) where our history diverges from Fleming’s story.

Instead, Fleming has done something else that may or may not be too much for an alternate history buff to swallow. He has given us a sincere tale of miracles and prophecies and clairvoyance. He’s given us a Russian Joan of Arc.

I’m not spoiling anything by saying that. Fleming is open about it in the description of his book, and he is true to his conceit by presenting a close analogy to the Maid of Orleans in his story. The visions of Zhanna Stepanovich Dorokhina are real, and she achieves real victories that match her prophecies.

This spiritual element didn’t bother me nor the absence of a traditional alternate history turning point. There is, of course, no known example of any such figure in the Russian Civil War. Continue reading “Maid of Baikal”

Modern SF: Plots of Creation, Introduction

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The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues

Gunn’s taxonomy of science fiction after approximately 1930 was based on plots with two main categories: “plots of circumstance” and “plots of creation”. We’re now looking at the second category.

So what is a “plot of creation”? It’s a plot where the problems the protagonist faces are largely the results of something they did. Specifically, it’s usually some experiment the protagonist ran.

In the five reprint anthologies Gunn sampled for his 1951 thesis, this plot category was a distinct minority – 20 story plots vs. 125 for the plot of circumstance. A major reason is that plots of circumstance are unbounded in their access to the imagination. Plots of creation are not. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Creation, Introduction”

Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

“Witches’ Hollow”

This week’s weird fiction selection.

Review: “Witches’ Hollow”, H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, 1962.DRKMKHRT3A1962

This, like other “collaborations” between Lovecraft and Derleth I’ve read, was rather lifeless. Derleth’s usual technique was simply to expand on a story note or fragment of Lovecraft’s. On its first publication in the Derleth edited Dark Mind, Dark Heart, he even puts Lovecraft’s name prominently on the story with his own name asterisked in footnote “Completed by August Derleth”.

These collaborations don’t do a thing for me emotionally, and I find them an exercise in just mentally ticking off boxes to see which of the “gods” invented by Derleth he’s going to add to his version of the “Cthulhu Mythos” — a term he coined. There’s also the usual bland domestication of Lovecraft’s vision with what are, essentially, magical relics.

Here Derleth works in some references to Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and sets the story around Arkham.  Continue reading ““Witches’ Hollow””