The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins)

This one ended up being a Low Res Scan for a few different reasons.

First, I was feeling a bit lazy last January when I read it and didn’t make notes on every story.

Second, there are a lot of stories and a few poems in this book, 18 French pieces and 18 English pieces. It’s a sampler of British and French literary Decadence.

Third, a lot of the stories are quite short and a review risks spoiling their often surprise endings.

Fourth, not all of the pieces were fantastic. Since the blogging madness has to have some kind of limit, I don’t normally review fiction that isn’t fantastical in some way.

Review: The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins), ed. Brian Stableford, 1990, 1993.

If this book just had Stableford’s long introduction, it would still be worth reading. Stableford has been writing about weird and decadent fiction almost as long as he’s been producing critical work on science fiction. Here, he produces a useful history and definition of Decadent fiction

Decadence is a concept going back to Montesquieu’s writings on the fall of the Roman Empire, and the first true Decadent work was Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection Fleurs de Mal in 1857. Decadent fiction was a short-lived phenomenon in France in the 1880s and works in it are sometimes cataloged in the Symbolist movement (which, in my vague understanding, involves non-realistic narratives with allegorical symbols). 

The English Decadent movement was in the 1890s, and, after Oscar Wilde’s conviction for sodomy, few people wanted to be associated with the label. 

Stableford usefully lists Decadent fiction’s primary themes: a celebration of artifice and skepticism of the Romantic ideal of nature (that virtue reposes in nature), impuissance (the feeling of powerlessness), and spleen (an angry melancholy). There was also a drug element. Sometimes, as in Théophile Gautier’s case, drugs were taken under supervision of medical men; however, in other cases, like Arthur Rimbaud seeking his “rational derangement of the senses”, they were not. 

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“The Lost Pioneer”

My review of the essays in Brian Stableford’s Outside the Human Aquarium concludes with a look at Stanley G. Weinbaum. He’s not a completely forgotten author, but I come across few references to his novels these days.

Review: “The Lost Pioneer: The Science Fiction of Stanley G. Weinbaum”, Brian Stableford, 1982, 1995.

The science fiction pulps had only been around for eight years when Weinbaum was first published in them and his career, from “A Martian Odyssey” to his death from throat cancer (and he wrote right up to his death) was only seventeen months. I was surprised to learn, though, that Weinbaum was a published writer before “A Martian Odyssey” appeared in 1934. 

Born in 1902, he wrote several novels in the 1920s and 1930s but only one got published and that was under a pen name. Some of those novels were published by small sf presses after his death. 

His degree was in chemical engineering, and his sf work features scientific speculation. But, even the relatively small amount of his fiction published during his lifetime, also has a strong thread of femme fatales, doomed and difficult love affairs, and hopeless sexual attraction. Sam Moskowitz even speculated this was either because Weinbaum was dominated by strong women or wanted one who was his intellectual equal.

While Stableford agrees that Weinbaum is remarkable for imagining plausible and alien ecosystems, he also presented worlds in which the struggle to survive was not pre-eminent.  Survival is often by co-operation between different species, particularly sentient aliens and humans. 

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“History of the Young Man with Spectacles”

This week’s work of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is an episode from Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters. I suspect it’s more interesting if you’ve read the rest of the novel. I have only read other excerpts presented as short stories. I may rectify that soon.

Review: “History of the Young Man with Spectacles”, Arthur Machen, 1895.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe

Narrated by Joseph Walter, a would-be scholar, seduced by a decadent secret society. 

Right at the opening paragraph, the narrator tells us he’s holed up in his crummy apartment in London’s bad Clerkenwell district and awaiting his destruction when he goes outside. His story is a warning.

He spends a great deal of time at the beginning telling us he “chose the glorious career of scholar”. But he’s not going to practice the scholarship of “these days”, merely annotating and editing books superfluously. His project is to spend his life learning everything. He waxes rhapsodic about the dome over the British Museum’s reading room where, supported by a small income, he spends his days. 

There are lots of people in the reading room every day, and one makes their acquaintance through little things like “a casual offer of assistance, a hint as to the search in the catalogue”, and one such man he meets is Dr. Lipsius. It’s a German name, and Lipsius tells Walters that, with his “wonderful resolve” to pursue an “infinite career” in scholarship, he should have been a German. Justus Lipsius was the name of a Renaissance philosopher who sought to fuse stoicism with Christianity. Machen’s choosing the same name may be a bit of irony since Lipsius is certainly not a stoic or Christian.

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“Schemes of Salvation”

Review: “Schemes of Salvation: The Literary Explorations of Theodore Sturgeon”, Brian Stableford, 1982, 1995.

Stableford regards the main theme of Sturgeon’s life and works as frustration and miraculous solutions to it. His frequent writer’s block was a manifestation of that frustration.

 Like most critics, he regards Sturgeon’s supreme strength as characterization. Sturgeon was allegedly good at seeing the cruelty behind civilization and the ways “conventional morality” (supposedly Sturgeon distinguished that from “fundamental ethical systems”) created anxieties and phobias hence some of his horror stories like “Bianca’s Hands”.

Stableford contends Sturgeon never was onboard with John W. Campbell’s enthusiasm for science and technology. He suggests that Sturgeon’s “Killdozer!”, with its bulldozer under the control of a hostile alien force, is a hostile metaphor for that enthusiasm. 

A prime theme was alienation. 

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“Little Victories”

Review: “Little Victories: The Heartfelt Fiction of Philip K. Dick”, Brian Stableford, 1982, 1985.

Stableford sees Dick as intensely self-pitying. 

The novels after The Man in the High Castle conclude usually with an essentially, if sometimes ironically, depressing ending. 

Stableford rightly points out that Dick novels often end with loose ends and are sometimes hastily and sloppily plotted. 

Stableford spends some time talking about Dick’s realistic novels which, in his mind (I’ve read none of them), have contrived happy endings, and he thinks their techniques were used in Dick’s science fiction starting with The Man in the High Castle

Stableford does talk about the usual Dick things: the drugs, the divorces, and the theme of fake vs. real. He regards it as ironic that the only mainstream novel Dick was commissioned to write, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, was not realistic. He justly regards A Scanner Darkly as a masterpiece. 

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“The Metamorphosis of Robert Silverberg”

Review: “The Metamorphosis of Robert Silverberg”, Brian Stableford, 1976, 1995. 

Written on the occasion of Silverberg returning to sf with the publication of Lord Valentine’s Castle, this looks at the phases of Silverberg’s career. 

His work from 1954 to 1959 was “written very easily” (I’m not sure Silverberg would agree with that) and reads very easily. Stableford contends that many of these are puzzle stories often featuring alien and human interaction. (I’m not really accepting that. My count of the 23 stories in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: To Be Continued, which has Silverberg’s stories from 1953 to 1959, shows only five fit that category.) 

Whereas Robert Sheckley played this kind of thing for laughs, Stableford contends Silverberg’s stories from this period often end in “a slightly darker shade of comedy”.

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“Insoluble Problems”

Review: “Insoluble Problems: Barry Malzberg’s Career in Science Fiction”, Brian Stableford, 1977, 1995.

This essay has a 1979 postscript concerning Malzberg’s then new novel Chorale

Malzberg once thought that only science fiction could save literature. But he also came to think that sf let 98% of its ideas and their implications on the table. (Malzberg expanded on this in his essay “Thus Our Words Unspoken” in the September 1992 issue of Amazing Stories.) 

To Malzberg the future is to sf what “fornication” is to porn, the Old West to the western, and the past to historical fiction: it’s just a convention against which the main story plays out. (Isn’t the fornication in porn the story?)

Malzberg came to resent having to compete against other types of sf.

Malzberg didn’t want to write stories about problem-solving (i.e. “hard SF”). He wanted to use sf to write about the anxieties of living in the modern age and about the resulting alienation. (I’m not sure whether Malzberg’s theme of alienation explains Robert Silverberg’s interest in him or whether it’s just friendship). Problems aren’t always solved in Malzberg’s fiction. Maybe they can’t be solved or only partially solved with a compromise.

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“Locked in the Slaughterhouse”

The shortness of my review on this essay is because I don’t believe I’ve actually ever read a complete novel by Kurt Vonnegut.

Review: “Locked in the Slaughterhouse: The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut”, Brian Stableford, 1976, 1995.

Stableford looks at Vonnegut’s novels, both science fiction and non-science fiction, from 1952 to 1973 and sees them as all thematically linked and about Vonnegut trying to make sense of his life. The humor to be found in his novels is black and acidic. The novels are not meant to be funny but tragic:

The works of Kurt Vonnegut are the works of an incompletely unhappy man: a man whose experience in Dresden might have shattered all faith he ever had in life or humanity, but who somehow retains an essential sympathy.

“The Hand”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being examined at LibraryThing is from a French writer best known for his story “The Horla”.

I apologize for not providing a translator’s name. I read this out of a massive Project Guttenberg collection of all of Maupassant’s short stories. It listed multiple translators but didn’t tie them to specific stories.

Review: “The Hand”, Guy de Maupassant, 1883. 

This is a short, jocular story though its central image, a severed hand, is memorable enough. 

The story starts with M. Bermutier, a judge, talking at a party about some “inexplicable” crime in Paris. A woman comments that it was a terrible crime, verging on the supernatural. “The truth will never be known.” 

Bermutier agrees about the truth. However, he disagrees with the use of the word “supernatural”.  It’s simply a

very cleverly conceived and executed crime, so well enshrouded in mystery that we cannot disentangle it from the involved circumstances which surround it.

Then he talks about another case he was involved “in which the uncanny seemed to play a part”.

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“Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett”

Review: “Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett: An Appreciation”, Brian Stableford, 1978, 1995.

Hamilton died in 1977 and Brackett died in 1978, and the occasion of this appreciation was the publication, by Del Rey, of best-of collections for both. 

Stableford notes they were the last of the writers who got their start in pulp science fiction, a tradition distinct from the one fostered by John W. Campbell. 

Stableford addresses the central problem that sf has in its fantasies. 

On the one hand, it pretends to believe the worlds it depicts could or might happen in a natural world. But the most exciting possibilities and imaginative concepts undercut the masquerade of plausibility an author has to create. 

A writer has two ways around this: stay with core ideas that can be most effectively disguised or “exchange subtlety for deliberate and flamboyant overstatement” – adopt a moody, token disguise that serves the purpose of the moment. 

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