Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Into the Sun & Other Stories

My brief series on Sam Moskowitz’s Science Fiction in Old San Francisco series concludes.

This one takes a look at the work of Robert Duncan Milne.

Raw Feed (1998): Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Into the Sun & Other Stories, ed. Sam Moskowitz, 1980.Science Fiction in Old San Francisco

“Introduction”, Sam Moskowitz — Basically a recapitulation of Milne’s career from the first volume in this series.

Into the Sun” — I know for sure this isn’t the first disaster story of sf or proto-sf. Mary Shelly’s The Last Man was earlier, and there may be earlier disaster or post-apocalypse stories [for instance, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion from 1839]. Still, this is one of the first, and I suspect it was the first in a long line of sf writers trashing their hometown though Milne was actually a Scotch immigrant, but he was writing in a San Francisco venue for a San Francisco audience. The story roughly prefigures Larry Niven’s “Inconstant Moon” with the Earth’s rotation slowly bringing disaster. In Niven’s story, it was the heat of a sun gone nova. In Milne’s story, the sun flares up due to a comet hitting it. Milne’s science was logical. You can fault him for actually envisioning a mere comet causing a disastrous solar flare or the relatively simple atmospheric dynamics (simple but violent), but I’m not sure that Milne wasn’t using the best astronomical and meteorological understanding of his day. You can argue with the atmosphere heating up enough to melt metal too. Still, this is definitely an sf story with solid science and an early exploration of a popular sf theme.

Plucked From the Burning” — A sequel to Milne’s “Into the Sun”, this story isn’t as good. The narrator of the earlier story survived and landed in Tibet where the story starts. There are detailed descriptions of a devastated San Francisco (even more disaster porn for the local readers than in the first story) and China. These scenes reminded me of the latter parts of H. G. Wells’ later The War of the Worlds. That similarity was heightened when the narrator leads an expedition from Tibet to San Francisco (I wonder if this was the first story to feature a wide ranging tour of a trashed out world) and finds a couple of miners, spared from the cataclysmic heat of the first story, digging for gold in the ruins of Frisco. They reminded me of Wells’ mad artilleryman in The War of the Worlds. The story ends with a very brief (the last two paragraphs, basically) description of the utopia (without laws or religion) formed by the Tibetan monks who rescued him. It seems implausibly tacked on. Continue reading

Great Plains Geology

Review: Great Plains Geology, R. F. Diffendal, Jr., 2017.Great Plains Geology

The Great Plains of America only seem a boring and flat expanse if you haven’t lived in them, as I did in my earlier life, or only travel in certain parts of them.

University of Nebraska geologist Diffendal is out to convince you otherwise.

What the Great Plains are, where they are, is a matter of some dispute. Diffendal includes a map with 50 different versions of the Great Plains. They range from the Sierra Nevadas in the west to past the Mississippi River Valley, from north of the Arctic Circle to Mexico. Diffendal’s definition extends from Alberta and Saskatchewan in the north down to a nick out of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains in the west but excludes the eastern parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and includes little more than the panhandle of Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. (My wife thinks Diffendal excluded Iowa just out of typical Nebraskan hostility to her native Iowa.)

Diffendal’s boundaries largely follow John Wesley Powell’s boundaries of the area and seems to be based on two requirements: land covered by the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway and not glaciated in the Pleistocene.

Diffendal starts with a concise summary of the geologic history of the area. Diagrams, maps, and a glossary make this accessible to a newbie to geology. There is diagram laying out the eras of geologic history including known periods of glaciation and impact events from comets and meteorites. (The Precambrian/Proterozoic Eon has certainly been delineated a lot more since I was introduced to historical geology 30 years ago.)

Then Diffendal takes on his road trip of 57 sites that includes every Canadian province and U.S. state in the Great Plains except Oklahoma. (I was rather disappointed he drew his Great Plains boundary west of the Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Mountains.) Diffendal has photos of each site and notes its geological, paleontological, historical, and archaeological interest.

As you would expect from his center of operations, Diffendal finds a surprising amount to see in Nebraska. As a South Dakotan partisan, I think he should have included Spearfish Canyon and the Needles. An example of the book’s humor at Mount Rushmore: “ . . . four U.S. presidents may distract your eyes and thoughts from the important thing here, the geology.”

One benefit of this broad treatment of a large area is that, unlike the more detailed and focused “road trip” geology books I have covering certain states, Diffendal helps you see the broad geologic context of things.

Diffendal throws some appendixes in on the different zones of the Great Plains, the scientific history behind certain geologic concepts, and a worthy guide to traveling the area. (Don’t ignore his warnings about suddenly variable weather and deserted roads.)

I got this book as a review copy from NetGalley, but I liked it well enough that I’m going to buy a hard copy to take along with all the other geology books I take on road trips.


More reviews of nonfiction books are listed in the review index.

Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: History of the Movement from 1854 to 1890

Sam Moskowitz showed up in some of my reading lately, so I thought I’d post reviews of a couple of his books I mentioned in passing in my Bitter Bierce series.
While I’m a bit leery of a book that mentions the Black Hills of North Dakota and Rod Steiger’s The Twilight Zone, this was still an interesting book. I took away a few things from it.

First, further information on the role that newspaper hoaxes played in early American sf or proto-sf.

Second, that there really was a community of San Francisco writers who published in numerous San Francisco publications and mostly set their stories, not surprisingly, in Frisco. The constant referrals to each others’ works shows a clear beginning of the genre awareness necessary to say that sf existed as an “invitation to form” then. There was also a generous helping of foreign sf and fantasy, including Jules Verne, published in these same magazines and newspapers. I found it interesting that many writers, foreign and American, referenced to Edgar Allan Poe as the father of the new genre that was to become sf. He certainly inspired Verne if not Wells. Poe, as a writer (and I never noticed this point) created stories of the fantastic without the supernatural. Poe, under the “invitation to form” definition of sf, may have a pretty strong claim to founding sf.

The Frisco writers may have influenced Wells since their work was sometimes reprinted over seas. William C. Morrow may have been the inspiration for the idea and eponymous character of Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Moskowitz’s main emphasis is on the career of Robert Duncan Milne, a Scottish-American (a very well-educated remittance man and drunk) who, from 1881 to about 1899, has a very good claim to being the world’s first full time sf writer.

Continue reading

Winter Tide; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Having read Emry’s The Litany of Earth, I was curious and trepidatious about reading this one when Amazon Vine offered a review copy.

The trepidation turned out to be justified.

(An alternate perspective, though agreeing on the slow pacing, is at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.)

Review: Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys, 2017.Winter Tide

For a book full of talk about blood, this novel is remarkably bloodless.

There’s blood drawn for magic spells. There’s the blood narrator Aphra Marsh sees in the “interior sea” of the bodies of those she communes with her in the Aeonist rites. There’s the blood of wounds.

What there isn’t is the blood of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. This book doesn’t just eviscerate the Mythos. It bleeds out the paranoia and wonder of Lovecraft’s stories to present a tepid story with a checklist of characters unsurprisingly and resolutely, right down to a concluding insinuation of one character’s lesbianism, drawn from Social Justice Casting.

Set a year-and-a-half after the events of Emrys’ The Litany of Earth, Aphra is approached by Spector, an agent of the United States government, concerned that Soviets will gain access to magical secrets. He recruits Aphra to help him stop possible Soviet use of magical techniques in the fraught Cold War year of 1948. Continue reading

The Litany of Earth

Every Wednesday over at LibraryThing, the Deep Ones group discusses a work of weird fiction.

This story was discussed a little over two years ago, and most people liked it better than me.

Normally, I don’t blog about the readings (though I will be doing a future review on an annotated edition of  J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”), but this novella is available for sale separately.

It’s also relevant to Emrys’ follow up story, Winter Tide, which I’m writing a review of.

It will not be a good review.

Raw Feed (2015): The Litany of Earth, Ruthanna Emrys, 2014.Litany of Earth

An interesting update of the Cthulhu Mythos treating them as a “modern day” (the story is actually set after World War Two) religion, the Aeonist faith.

This story plays off the end of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” with the inhabitants of that town hauled off to concentration camps.

The narrator of this story was taken to such a camp where she met interned Japanese-Americans.

When she gets out, she gets a job at a bookstore. She is approached by a Federal agent who (in a very obvious allegory to those who think that Islam is not bad except in the hands of some extremists) wants her help to infiltrate such dangerous groups of Aeonists.

The narrator has no love of the government. Her mother died, held in the desert away from the nurturing sea, while being experimented on to find the Deep Ones weaknesses. Continue reading

A Window into Time

Review: A Window Into Time, Peter F. Hamilton, 2016.Window Into Time

I stayed in the flat by myself for the rest of the week and watched the shows I wanted—old stuff like Stargate and House, MD, which was great. I like House; he’s smarter than everyone else, and he’s not scared to show it. I’m going to act like that when I’m older.

Julian Costello Proctor is an aspergy, obsessive, thirteen years old, and the kind of bright kid who could tell you the “brace position” on an airplane isn’t there to protect you. It’s to protect your skull so the airlines can identify your body. He’s also naïve and believes everything on the Internet.

He’s also the narrator of Hamilton’s surprisingly charming novella. Hamilton frequently does family stories, but this is his most condensed, and the one we can most identify with because of its contemporary setting and characters who aren’t the superrich.

Julian has a perfect memory which is why the worst day of his life isn’t going to go away. It’s his thirteenth birthday, his divorced dad is marrying a new woman only nine years older than Julian and Julian’s not invited to the wedding, and Julian’s mother dies after slipping on some birthday cake frosting Julian spilled on the floor.

Julian is packed off for a bit with Uncle Gordon, the only relative who realizes that, yes, Julian really does remember everything. Gordon, trained as a physicist but who spent many years touring with rock bands as their sound engineer, now scrapes by selling audio accessories.

It’s after Julian has a weird experience of recalling a memory not his own — Is it time travel? Reincarnation? Some strange ability Julian shares with his ex-pat paternal grandfather in Spain? – that Gordon brings up Haldane’s famous remark about the universe being queerer than we can imagine.

Julian finds out he’s getting memories of one Michael Finsen, a man living in the Docklands of London. And Julian begins to fear that Finsen has a threat in his future, a threat Julian has to stop.

The thriller plot is well done, but side-by-side with it is the maturing of Julian. By sharing the memory and experiences of adult Michael, Julian gains some understanding about adult life and its emotions and concerns, what’s true and what isn’t, the ideas of romantic love and sacrifice, and that the world isn’t simply a division of the smart and stupid. It’s not a complete understanding, but maybe he wouldn’t even have that without his odd experience.


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

Nuggets to Neutrinos

I spent most of my school years living near, but not in, a company town: Lead, South Dakota.

The company was the Homestake Mining Company, and their prize possession was the Homestake Gold Mine.

I’ve walked through forests owned by the company. I’ve seen its buildings on back country roads and logging trucks on the way to the company’s sawmill.

We went on school field trips to see the mile-long, above-ground milling and processing of the gold ore.

I even made several visits to the house of one of the mine superintendents listed in the appendix. (His son was a friend of mine.)

The very landscape around Lead would change between trips home post-college as Homestake restarted surface mining and built large conveyer belts and tunnels to move ore about.

However, neither I nor any of my family actually worked for the company.

I wanted an historical context for all this, I wanted to know what all those Homestake buildings were for, and I wanted all the book’s pictures, so I picked this one up.

Review: Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story, Steven T. Mitchell, 2009.Nuggets to Neutrinos

Mitchell’s book reminds me of one of those old James Michener novels with a place name for a title.

Like those novels, Mitchell starts his tale back in the Precambrian past with a look at the geology of the Black Hills of South Dakota where the Homestake Mine was located. He then talks about Indian settlement in the area and early white exploration of it. The various reconnaissance expeditions the U. S. Army mounted in the upper Great Plains from 1853 to 1874 get a chapter as do early explorations by white prospectors. The Black Hills gold rush has a chapter.

White expropriation of the Black Hills, granted to the Sioux Nation by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, is covered. Mitchell gives an even handed, yet concise, summary of white-Indian relations in the context of the Black Hills and the treaty violations on both sides and resulting wars.

It’s only after five chapters and 133 pages that Mitchell gets to the discovery of the Homestake lode. The outcropping of rock which provided the “lead” to the gold ore gave its name to Lead, South Dakota where the mine operated from 1876 to 2001. Continue reading

Cow-Boys and Colonels

And the American West series continues.

Raw Feed (1992): Cow-Boys and Colonels: Narrative of a Journey Across the Prairie and Over the Black Hills of South Dakota, Edmond Baron de Mandat-Grancey, 1984.Cow-Boys

“Introduction”, Howard R. Lamar — An introduction putting Frenchman de Mandat-Grancey’s jourey in historical perspective, remarking on de Mandat-Grancy’s wit and sharp reporter’s eye as well as his failing as historian and prejudices as a royalist and not a democrat. The man led an enviously varied life traveling not only to the Black Hills but to French Indo-China, Madagascar, and Hong Kong and was a naval officer.

As to the main text, it’s a rare pleasure to read about a place I’ve actually been to and know something about. Grancey is a witty, keen observer. I liked his accurate descriptions of Western dialect, the failings of frontier women and cuisine, his constant attempts to show how America needs a monarchy (like Canada), the adventures he meets, the descriptions of Western life. I was interested to hear of the geography and fauna of the Black Hills in 1883: swamps, rivers (not creeks as now), and mosquitoes — few of these prominent features exist now.

Grancey has some faults. As Howard Lamar points out in the introduction, Grancy is an awful historian. His accounts of Wild Bill Hickok’s death (apart from Jack McCall’s execution in Yankton) and Custer’s Last Stand are strangely, uniquely very inaccurate. I suspect the same holds true for the second hand stories of frontier violence. (Was someone pulling his leg or was he just bad at noting others’ statements?)  Grancey seems determined to show that, while the Americans are marvelously skilled at making money (but not enjoying it), are egalitarian, skilled craftsmen, economically ambitious (he notes their potential threat to France’s economy), they are very violent and in need of monarchy and not democracy.


An index exists for more reviews on books about the American Old West.



And Die in the West

My mini-series on books about the Old West continues.

And more gunfighters this time in a book about the most famous gunfight in the history of the West. It was largely forgotten, as Wyatt Earp was, until Stuart Lake’s hagiography of him in 1931.

I left it out of my review, but Marks addresses the contention that the Earps and Doc Holiday may have been part-time stagecoach robbers.

As for the inevitable movie question — which cinema version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral hews closest to history? — I have hardly seen them all, but Tombstone, in its depiction of the gunfight and the surrounding history, is fairly accurate. It even shows Wyatt Earp’s favorite tactic of “buffaloing” and pistol whipping troublemakers.

Raw Feed (1991): And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight, Paula Mitchell Marks, 1989.And Die in the West

This book is so interesting because it scrapes off myth and fading memories and wishful thinking about the legendary event and goes straight to the primary source documents: court statements and newspaper accounts. As far as I know, Marks’ work is still considered the definitive history.

It’s hard to tell what happened October 26, 1881 in the vacant lot between Fly’s Boarding House and Harwood’s house.

There are many different versions. Continue reading

Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes

Since I’ll be putting up a review soon of another book touching on the American West, I thought I’d go back in the archives and put up material on some related topics.
McGrath has written a very detailed and entertaining look at violence in two trans-Sierrian mining camps, Aurora and Bodie. The stories are intriguing, exciting, and often funny given vernacular and sentiment of the time. McGrath challenges some of the myths of the popular West by looking at history as documented in the newspapers of these two camps.
His study reveals no rape, bank robberies, racial violence, gunfights at high noon, or lynch mobs.  He shows a West of little property crime, little violence against women (except prostitutes), opium addicts, high suicide amongst women, and at least token law enforcement and adjudication by courts.
McGrath does verify one conception of the West, though. It did have an extraordinary rate of homicide, most of it provoked by challenges to honor and manhood (a great many other homicides were averted by intervening friends, bad shooting, misfiring guns, and luck — some remarkable recoveries were made from gunshot wounds). The public attitude towards this usually took into account the circumstances of the shooting and the character of the victim.

Continue reading