Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction

This one gets a low-res scan designation because it seems rather pointless to spend a lot of time on some of the pieces in this reprint collection.

Low Res Scan: Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction, Brian Stableford, 2007.

In “Slaves of the Death Spider: Colin Wilson and Existentialist Science Fiction”, Stableford talks about Wilson’s Spider World series in a way that convinces me there’s probably not much of merit in them. He finds them not that original – specifically derivative of Star Wars and Murray Leinster’s “Mad Planet”. He finds it ironic that Wilson, who once accused science fiction of being fairy tales for adults who have not outgrown fairy tales, has written, inspired by his occult interests, a story that seems to suggest, a la L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, that mankind’s salvation will come. In short, Stableford says Wilson neither delivers a new plot or anything conceptually satisfying

H. G. Wells and the Discovery of the Future” is a very informative essay on Wells. Stableford points to Wells’ 1901 futurological work Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought as marking a change in his career and approach to speculative fiction. From that point on, Wells’ would attempt to forecast the future rather than just deal with possibilities. His classic works – The First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes – predate this turn. These, and three short story collections between 1895 and 1901, are realistically, what Wells’ reputation as a vital sf writer rests on – not the turgid utopias he wrote later on. Interestingly, Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is seen as an example of Wells’ new direction. Begun as a scientific romance, it diverted to a new direction with the giants becoming an example of  what Wells’ thought humanity should be concerned with in the future. The giants are an example of a “new wisdom and new spiritual strength”. Stableford sees Wells’ participating in a general turn, around 1902, by British sf writers to pessimism, most specifically seen in the natural catastrophe and future war story. As the world became more secular, the belief that salvation and ultimate survival was not guaranteed begun to have effects. After World War I, the British scientific romance became fatalistic to the point of nihilism. Hope for civilization was in short supply. Optimism took a peculiar turn in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men where man goes through various cyclic rises and falls in his civilization. But, says Stableford, Wells’ earlier approach did not go to waste. It was taken up by American sf. Ultimately, Stableford is fairly critical of the later Wells saying his work had a large element of folly. He says that the best of modern sf tries to strike a balance between the two Wells: an energetic, fun, romantic exploration of possibilities tempered with a desire to see and shape the future.

The Adventures of Lord Horror Across the Media Landscape” is a history of a notorious British novel and accompanying multimedia adaptations of it.

The Many Returns of Dracula” is a 1994 piece looking at the history of Bram Stoker’s novel, its predecessors, its successors and what the latter brought to the subgenre. Stableford admits to being fascinated by the vampire theme and his novels Empire of Fear and Young Blood used it. He sees them as dealing with the same thing as Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire: hypothetical anxieties treated with melodrama. He sees the basic attraction of Dracula as an embodiment of male fear of inadequacy, particularly sexual adequacy, in satisfying women. Only Dracula can turn demure virgins into sex maniacs. He does also mention Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula.

The Magic of the Movies” looks at three novels influenced by the movies including two I’ve read: Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images and Kim Newman’s The Night Mayor. He sees the latter as a novel of the video age when people can have large video libraries and check out the many allusions – to film noir in this case.  I must admit that, for the Newman novel, I did not get the pun of the “Gunmint” being the government

Sympathy for the Devil: Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love” is an introduction Stableford wrote for the novel. I’m intrigued by it.  It stands, having been written in pre-Revolutionary France (and being quite popular), at the beginning of “literary Satanism”. The plot involves a young magician invoking the devil in the form of a beautiful young woman, falling in love with her, and the love being reciprocated by the Devil.

I had heard of  George Viereck’s popular and scandalous 1928 novel My First Two Thousand Years: The Autobiography of the Wandering Jew (co-written, as were its two sequels, with Paul Eldridge) but it was nice to have more detailed information about it in “The Two Thousand Year Quest: George Viereck’s Erotic Odyssey”.

Is There No Balm in Gilead? The Woeful Prophecies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — Being familiar with Atwood’s story only through its movie adaptation, I was surprised to hear that Stableford’s main complaint is that Atwood’s main characters are too forgiving of their male oppressors. Stableford compares the protagonist of the novel to Winston Smith’s view of O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984. There is a comment regarding the article in Foundation #41 from Gwyneth Jones. She defends Atwood by claiming she exhibits more subtlety than the mere journalist Orwell would in showing that slavery corrupts slaves and slave-owners, that the women can see humanity even in their guards. She claims that, in the 1980s, writers of futuristic fantasy cannot indulge in “absolute and nihilistic despair” like Orwell. Their world is “too small and too threatened” (as if in 1948 it wasn’t?). She also makes the rather hard to believe claim that its political stance had nothing to do with Atwood’s novel winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

A Few More Crocodile Tears?” is Stableford’s response to those comments by Jones. He makes some general remarks on feminist sf. First, he thinks it’s hard to separate a piece of fiction’s “rhetorical content” from its “literary merits”. In the case of feminist sf, he thinks no writer of it would want us to. While he acknowledges (at least in 1988 when this article was published), that the publishing of feminist sf seems to be directed at women. He thinks this is a mistake. He believes that any work that “intends to dramatize by extrapolation or subversion the sexual-political injustices of our world” should be of interest to anyone. (I say no in regards to such a blank statement. How is “injustice” defined?  Disparate impact? Is it the product of men’s behavior or differences rooted in fundamental biology?) Is the subversion or extrapolation credible enough (largely a matter of taste)? The essay gets stronger when it asks if men are supposed to respond to feminist sf the same way as women.

A corollary question is if men’s and women’s interest are identical or opposed. He then proceeds with an example comparing responses to Marxism to responses to feminism. (Stableford’s essay “Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts” dealt with the former.) If feminism sees male and female interest in irrevocable opposition –whether the differences between the sexes are socially constructed or biologically based, the male reader benefits in a different way than a female. However, like the bourgeoisie and proletariat, some sort of arrangement may be concluded to make things more palatable (if not equal). Stableford thinks feminist sf takes a variety of stances on that issue. There are plenty of female utopias where the presence of males leads to extermination of them. The assumption of these utopias, then, is that the interests of females and males are fundamentally opposed. These works can only result in three responses by male readers: self-congratulation, pornographic interest, or the anxiety of being threatened.

Thus, any critic like Jones can claim that a man could not comment on a feminist work’s “literary merit”. If he expresses sympathy for a feminist vision, he can be accused of shedding crocodile tears. Stableford sees a resolution out of this by claiming that the authors of all-female feminist works don’t really imagine such a future happening and are not engaged in plausible extrapolation. He thinks their value as imaginative tools is that they make us dissatisfied, ask questions, and bring on ambivalence where there was once self-satisfaction that we lived in the best of all possible worlds. I think, in a general sense, this explains why Stableford, in the later part of his career, expanded into writing and criticizing imaginative fiction that wasn’t just sf: weird fiction, decadent fiction, fantasy, and horror. He thinks that all those forms can be useful imaginative tools. However, Stableford’s position on creating dissatisfaction is a double-edged sword. It could lead to a better society, but, more often (as in our world) one suspects it leads to a corrosion of the new order with nothing better.

Filling in the Middle: Robert Silverberg’s The Queen of Springtime” — Stableford is an admirer of Silverberg’s late 1960s and early 1970s novels. He thinks that, after finishing up the Lord Valentine’s Castle series (he actually wrote more in it later), Silverberg entered another phase of his career with the publication of his Ice Age novel (set in the far future) At Winter’s End. He thinks that the sequel, The Queen of Springtime, was boring and padded. The third volume in the trilogy was never published (and, I suspect, not written because, otherwise, Silverberg would have sold it when the first two novels in the trilogy were reprinted by a new publisher). I myself didn’t care enough for At Winter’s End to rush out and read its sequel.

Rice’s Relapse: Memnoch the Devil” — Stableford, who is hostile to religion (he was raised Catholic) thinks this is a “fascinating and engaging book” but flawed by Rice regaining her childhood faith and making the Devil and not God the author of the world’s ills. Stableford maintains that the vision of Heaven Memnoch relates is one no sane human could desire.

Field of Broken Dreams: Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings” is Stableford’s appreciation of Bishop’s novel which, in its plot synopsis that includes racism and homosexual rape, doesn’t sound appealing. I did like Stableford noting that baseball is a utopian game – individual accomplishment is necessary and celebrated and noticeable but must be in the communal concept of a team.

Tarzan’s Divided Self” looks at the appeal of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan: he is a purely a romantic figure celebrating the joys of casting off the “shackles of civilization”:

In him, emotion and intellect, appetite and self-control, id and superego, are in perfect harmony.  Civilization is unworthy of him and the jungle can’t corrupt him. 

Stableford is surprisingly sympathetic to the escapist appeal of Tarzan. 

Why should we be ashamed to deal with bold and naked lies, if they offer us a vision of a way of being which not only licenses all the impulses which civilized society necessarily and rightly demands that we should suppress, but insists that we would be better and happier people were we fortunate enough to enjoy that way of being? 

Stableford says it was a mistake for Burroughs to bring Jane into the stories. For many of the Tarzan novels, he has to figure out a way to get her offstage. Tarzan’s story is only carried forward in Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, and Jungle Tales of Tarzan. He even argues that Tarzan’s story is complete after the first novel.

The Profession of Science Fiction” is a 1991 autobiographical piece written for Stableford’s 40th birthday. We learn more about his hostility and puzzlement at religious belief, his freakish amount of reading (600 sf books and magazines each year in 1964 and 1965). The crucial years for Stableford’s later critical studies were 1964-1966 when he read heavily from the British Science Fiction Association’s lending libraries. We hear about his first attempts to write sf with his friend Craig Mackintosh (under the name Brian Craig) which led to a sale. Stableford talks about his diligence in writing fiction and non-fiction (all the while typing with one finger) and his frequent recycling of material for both fiction and non-fiction (he definitely conserves his research and uses it again and again for lit crit pieces). 

I was surprised at the identity of the first writer that really affected him emotionally: P. K. Wren.

He knows that, on one level, it’s silly to build a whole life around decoding texts about imaginary worlds instead of trying to figure out this one (not that he’s done badly, many have done worse). He knows that he is unusual in defining his life based on what he’s read, written about it, and what he plans to read. 

He also talks about the role bad vision played all throughout his life and having to learn to reign in his youthful gift for sarcasm (which shows through in his writing at times). I was amused to learn that Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 only sold (not counting remainders) 157 copies in Britain. 

Stableford’s first novel was published in 1969. In 1981, he gave up fiction writing to concentrate on non-fiction. All writing ceased in 1985 while he got a divorce. 

He starting writing fiction gain in 1986 with two sequels to Journey to the Centre and then the successful The Empire of Fear. Eventually, he gave up his academic job and concentrated on fiction (including gaming novels under the name Brian Craig). Stableford evidently researched a nonfiction book on witchcraft in 1978. The publisher changed their mind about the book and cancelled it (though they let Stableford keep his $6,500 advance). 

Stableford says that his book, The Third Millennium co-written with his friend David Langford,  was cut by 20,000 words – the parts with all the explanations. As much of an admirer of Stableford as I am, I found this all interesting.

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