“The Parasite”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing was Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Parasite”. It’s a somewhat unsatisfactory tale – Doyle omitted it from later editions of his collected works, but it sounded interesting after reading Paul M. Chapman’s “The Dark and Decadent Dreams of Doctor Doyle” in issue 31 of Wormwood magazine. So I nominated it for discussion.

Review: “The Parasite”, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1894.

This is a story told through the journal entries of Austin Gilroy, a self-described “materialist”, even a “rank one” according to his fiancé Agatha Marsden. He lectures on blood and circulation at a medical university.

Chapman speculates that one reason Doyle came to dislike this story was because he regarded it as too erotic and decadent. It’s pretty tame by modern standards, but there is an element of sexual desire in the opening entry from March 24 where springtime and its “work of reproduction” is implicitly linked to Gilroy’s eagerness to marry Agatha and have sex with her. Continue reading ““The Parasite””

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“A Descent Into the Maelström”

Last week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing was . . .

Review: “A Descent Into the Maelström“, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Because this is Poe and you might know the story already, I’m going to spend less time discussing the plot and more time summarizing the criticism around the tale and its relevance as a scientific metaphor.

The tale is pretty simple in outline. The narrator has climbed to the top of a 1500 foot peak overlooking the sea. With him is an old, white-haired man who still seems spry despite his aged look. And he’s definitely not as nervous as the narrator as he overlooks the crashing waves and is buffeted by blasting wind.

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Moskstraumen — Site of the Tale

On Mount Helseggen, they look at a gigantic whirlpool that’s been known to take down entire ships. The old man tells how he once was trapped in that whirlpool, but, unlike his two brothers who were also aboard, he escaped to tell the tale, an event which aged him and turned his hair white in a day. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that Poe is the only known example in English of putting an umlaut in Maleström.)

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Harry Clarke Illustration for the Tale

The Sources

Stephen Peithman’s notes in his The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe’s reworking of various sources. The immediate inspiration was Edward Wilson Landor’s “The Maelstrom: a Fragment” from 1834. (Sam Moskowitz, in the “Prophetic Edgar Allan Poe” chapter of his Explorers of the Infinite says a manuscript of Poe’s story exists from 1833. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore says no original manuscript is extant. I know which version I’ll believe.) Both stories have a ship trapped in the whirlpool with a hero escaping alive. But, whereas Landor’s hero faints after he escapes and can’t remember how he did it, Poe’s story is very much concerned with the how of the escape, the epitome of Poe’s applied ratiocination — though it’s not quite that simple as we’ll see.

Poe then seems to have gone to the Encyclopedia Britannica – anywhere from the third to sixth editions – and the 1834 Mariner’s Chronicle (which seems to have copied a lot from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry). The Mariner’s Chronicle added the supposedly true account of an American sea captain who went into the Maelstrom and lived. The Encyclopedia Britannica article also used material from the 1755 The Natural History of Norway by Erik Potoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, and Poe references his name.

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Ian Miller Illustration for the Tale

The Style

Peithman notes that Poe is frequently criticized for obscure, vague, and convoluted language. That, however, is usually used by him when describing a character whose mental state is unbalanced by terror or insanity. The old sailor’s account is quite lucid in its details and straightforward. Continue reading ““A Descent Into the Maelström””

Starfire

The Charles Sheffield series concludes with . . .

Raw Feed (2000): Starfire, Charles Sheffield, 1999.

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Cover by Cliff Mills

 I wasn’t that impressed with Sheffield’s Aftermath, the prequel to this book. But here Sheffield writes an excitingly paced book, full of surprises, and with so much of his trademark hard science speculations that, in the discussion of the astrophysics of Alpha Centauri’s supernova and the surprising distributions and characteristics of the resulting rain of atomic particles, not only did I not have a clue as to the work of some of the mentioned physicists, but I didn’t even recognize their names.

Most of the characters from Aftermath are here.

Celine Tanaka, after 26 years, has become president of the U.S. That seems somewhat improbable, but John Glenn became a politician and this is a depopulated U.S., and Tanaka is a survivor of the Mars expedition.

Wilmer Oldfield, another survivor (we get no mention of what happened to the other two survivors of the expedition that were left behind in the Argos Cult in the first book), is here too. He and the semi-feral, rude, but very brilliant Astarte Vjansander, point our further evidence that the supernova was deliberately induced and its rain of strangely arranged particle emissions aimed deliberately at Earth and will arrive sooner than expected. (She has to be a genius to teach herself math and physics while a solitary survival of the supernova’s destruction in northern Australia) . Continue reading “Starfire”

Aftermath

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (2000): Aftermath, Charles Sheffield, 1998.

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Cover by Paul Youll

I thought this was going to be a post-apocalypse novel about life on Earth after Alpha Centauri goes supernova. But it’s clear that, except in the setting itself, Sheffield doesn’t have much interest in writing a true post-apocalypse novel.

There are multiple viewpoint characters apart from some brief opening scenes in which three characters, who we, of course, never see again, die to show us the opening effects of the supernova. This is a standard technique of the suspense blockbuster, and Sheffield here seems to be trying to write in that style since the hard science he is known for is at a minimum.

There are no scenes of desperate violence for precious resources, no calculation of whom is fit to live and die, no bands of marauders, none of the bread and butter scenes that the usual (and enjoyable) post-apocalypse story has.

The part of the novel I liked best was the part I expected to like least: the plot involving the brilliant scientist – and serial killer – Oliver Guest. My original fears that he seemed to be an imitation of Thomas Harris’ infamous Hannibal Lector were partly realized. He is brilliant and cultured with peculiar motivations to kill. Most of the information about him comes from his secret diary – which he explicitly acknowledges is meant, as all diaries are, to be read by someone else someday. Continue reading “Aftermath”

The Mind Pool

The Charles Sheffield series continues with a . . .

Raw Feed (1997): The Mind Pool, Charles Sheffield, 1993.

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Cover by David B. Mattingly

Introduction” — Sheffield explains that this is a revision of his 1986 novel The Nimrod Hunt which, he frankly admits, was greatly influenced by Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The Mind Pool — This is Sheffield’s attempt to imitate Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. As he says in his introduction, Sheffield makes no attempt to imitate Bester’s wonderful style and is not capable of doing so. The lack of Bester’s prose style may explain why this story was not particularly engaging when I read it nor memorable.

To be sure there are plenty of baroque, Bester-like elements though Bester seems to not only show the influence of The Stars My Destination but also Bester’s The Demolished Man. The element of personality disintegration and reconstruction, epitomized by the Demolition of the latter novel, is the major theme. It is echoed in the novel’s end with the fate of two major characters, the brain-damaged Luther Brachis and the catatonic Esra Mondrian, facing possible reconstruction in the Sargasso Dump.

The submergence of individual personality into the Mind Pool is another example of this as are the alien Tinker Composites. Closely allied to this theme is the idea of personal transcendence a lá Gully Foyle in The Stars My Destination. Chan Dalton experiences this in the Tolkov Stimulator as do the participants of the Mind Pool. Continue reading “The Mind Pool”

Georgia on My Mind and Other Places

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1995.GRGNMYMNDN1996

Introduction” — Short, no nonsense, no-frill introduction for a collection of stories ranging from “silly to personal and serious.”

The Feynman Solution” — This is a fantasy. The mechanism of time travel is never rationalized beyond the point of artist Colin Trantham saying he’s a sort of positron which physicist Richard Feynman described as an electron traveling back in time. The story involves Colin, suffering from a brain tumor (the major scientific interest of the story is the descriptions of cancer therapies, their successes, methods of operation, and failings) and seeing visions of increasingly ancient and mostly extinct life which he draws with his usual precision. The relationship between Colin and his paleontologist sister Julia and his oncologist James Wollaston (eventually Julia’s lover) was well handled. The Tranthams, like Bey Wolf in Sheffield’s Proteus novels, love to quote all kinds of things from Samuel Johnson to movies. I suspect Sheffield does this too.

The Bee’s Kiss” — Like Sheffield’s “C-Change”, this story involves aliens who are concealing things. A very skilled voyeur is forced by a tyrant (after the voyeur is caught spying on him) to spy on some enigmatic aliens, the Sigil. It turns out the aliens have become alarmed after learning humans use sexual reproduction. The Sigil are asexual and use a parasitic means to reproduce like Earth’s sphinx wasp. This story has good psychological insight into a voyeur. Continue reading “Georgia on My Mind and Other Places”

“The Intoxicated Years”

This week’s weird fiction.

Review: “The Intoxicated Years”, Mariana Enríquez, trans. Megan McDowell, 2015.045149511X.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_

Enríquez gives us a familiar plot setup: the ups and downs, the conflicts and friendship among three teenaged girls.

Except these teenagers are thoroughly unlikeable, and they take teenage callousness and self-centeredness to unusual levels.

The story starts in Argentina in 1989, and I would suspect Enríquez, who was a 16 year old Argentinian that year, is more reporting than inventing with her characters.

It’s a time of electrical blackouts and runaway inflation:

Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn’t have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn’t pay the rent or inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn’t cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls – their daughters – didn’t feel sorry for them. Our mothers seemed just as stupid and ridiculous as the power outages.

This is not going to be a story of family reconciliation and daughters learning new respect for their mothers. It’s not even, really, about friendship – just a collapse of attachments and social relationships down to the singular trio, the coven, of the three main characters. Continue reading ““The Intoxicated Years””