Scientific Romance

Being a fan of Stableford’s work, I immediately requested a review copy when I saw it on Netgallery.

Review: Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction, ed. Brian Stableford, 1917.Scientific Romance

Before America colonized science fiction with its conquistador John Carter in 1912 and made it into a genre concerned with space and adventure, it was something different. It was, argues Stableford, a stream of literature interested in “the adoption of the scientific outlook and the attempt to employ the scientific imagination as a springboard for speculative fiction”.

Just as the Vikings colonized the New World before Columbus’s voyage, Francis Bacon and Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac discovered new frontiers for literature when they wrote scientific romances. And, just as the Viking colonization inspired no immediate imitators, no writers imitated Bacon and de Bergerac for a while. Bacon’s New Atlantis was unfinished and published posthumously in 1627. De Bergerac’s L’Autre Monde ou les Etats et Empires de la lune [The Other World] wasn’t published until the 1920s.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that authors in France, America, and England began producing work that was noticeably something different and that stuck in the public mind. These were stories about the drama to be made out of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and the peculiar psychologies of inventors and scientists. Continue reading

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume. 2: The Door to Saturn

My Clark Ashton Smith series continues.

This one has an introduction by Tim Powers, the author that got me interested in re-trying Smith.

Raw Feed (2007): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Vol. 2: The Door to Saturn, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2007.the-door-to-saturn

“Introduction”, Tim Powers — Powers observes two things about Clark Ashton Smith’s work: the pagan sense of fate and the dooming of true love. The glamours of Smith’s work, he says, are inextricable from the “merciless field-equations of Fate”.

The Door to Saturn” — Smith said this was one of his favorite works. He operates in a satiric vein, here, but the satire is more obvious than, say his “The Monster of Prophecy”. And it’s better too. Smith constantly denies expectations and dramatic payoffs and formulic plotting all the while relating his story in a deliberate, detached, yet wry, prose of wonder. Morghi the inquisitor pursues, from Smith’s Hyperboria to Saturn, fellow sorceror Eibon. The former is a devotee of the mainstream god Yhoundeh. The latter worships the primitive god — something of an alien exile on Earth — Zhothaqquah. Eibon is granted a magical escape hatch to Venus by Zhothaqquah in gratitude for his worship. The god’s relatives on Saturn can barely understand Eibon’s language, but bare him no will and speak an enigmatic phrase to him. Eibon thinks it’s important, develops a missionary zeal for delivering the message to others. After Morghi catches up to him, the two put aside their differences. They encounter a frightful animal which turns out to be a beast of burden owned by the headless Bhlemphroims — the latter are in a state of “eugenic sorrow” having devolved from their former headed condition. Rather than get caught up in tribal politics a la H. Rider Haggard and other lost race novelists or attempting to convert the tribe to the worship of their individual gods, the wizards are well treated and bored. They are expected to mate with the sole fecund female of the tribe, a “mountainous female” (a comic image reminiscent of Smith’s “The Root of Ampoi”) — and then eaten by them. The two decide to leave. But Smith doesn’t deliver a daring escape or chase. The tribe simply lets them go. Eventually coming to the Ydheem people, Eibon delivers the message of the relatives of his god. Their translation turns out to be banal, unexpected, yet still significant: “Be on your way.” The Ydheems, hearing it after their city is buried in an avalanche, build a whole new city on the divine revelation. And the two wizards settle their dispute for the rest of their life, a life of disappointments — Morghi can get an inquisition going, Eibon becomes a “minor prophet”. There are the compensations of the “potent though evil-tasting” fungus-wine and females “if one were not too squemish”. After several non-adventures it is said their life is not “so radically different from that of Mhu Thulan …”, their home, “… or any other place”. Such is Smith’s anti-adventure, the relatively mundane and mixed bag of life even if lived on an exotic planet. A final irony is that their absence on Earth, triggers the revival of Zothaqquah worship in Hyperborea.

The Red World of Polaris” — This was a story never published in Smith’s lifetime, a sequel to his “Marooned on Andromeda” and the result of an unexpected commission to do a series of Captain Volmar tales. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Smith said he had little interest in the “mythology of science”. However, this story sort of anticipates some later transhuman themes of sf. The crew of the Alcyone is pulled into a metal shelled world inhabited by an alien race who has transferred their brains to customizable metal bodies they discard at well. It is not an upload of a consciousness into a computer or cyborg a la the transhumans, but it has many similarities. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the world have a control over constituent atoms that is like nanotechnology. They also have a problem with runaway experiments in life conducted by various scientists. However, I think these were all incidental plot matters to Smith who was most interested seemingly, given his comments to Lovecraft, about the poetically described apocalypse that destroys the alien world at story’s end. It is an apocalypse brought on by a characteristically Smith menace — a blob of living matter that has animal and plant characteristics. It can be seen as a metaphor for the cancer gnawing away, literally, at the heart of this technological civilization which has more than a tint of racial senescence and individual decadence in the experiments of some of its scientists. Given that it’s a red world, it’s something of a worm in an apple. Continue reading

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story

Since there seems to be some interest in Clark Ashton Smith (as well there should be), I will continue my series on him.

Actually, I was going to do it anyway.

After reading A Rendezvous in Averoigne, I decided to start buying Night Shade Books The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.

Unfortunately, I was reading like a normal person in 2007 meaning I didn’t make notes on a lot of things, and that includes only partial notes on this volume.

So, it’s a …

Low Res Scan (2007): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2006.end-of-the-story

“Introduction”, Ramsey Campbell — Besides a brief account of Campbell’s youthful delight on reading the titles of a Smith collection — to say nothing of the actual stories, Campbell manages a number of concise one sentence summations of many stories in this collection as well as saying how certain stories pre-figured more famous stories by other authors.

To the Daemon” — Not a story but a prose-poem from something called Acolyte (the date is 1943, many years after most of Smith’s stories here but the work could have been written earlier) in which Smith, in his fine poetic ways, tells, in the space of less than a page, how he is tired of stories “that lies between the bourns of time or the limits of space”. He even mentions the Oriental themes of his earliest fiction — “the isles that are westward of Cathay”.

The Abominations of Yondo” — A very simple plot here: a tortured man is released by his captors into the desert of Yondo where he encounters several disturbing sights including a “monstrous mummy of some ancient king” which cause him to flee back to the comfort of his captivity. There is little here except wonderful language, especially the opening paragraph, no moral except perhaps the cynical, weird idea that even captivity and torture are preferable to some things. Continue reading

The Hollow Earth

Obviously, the Hollow Earth series is continuing.

Raw Feed (2005): The Hollow Earth: The Narrative of Mason Algiers Reynolds of Virginia, Rudy Rucker, 1990.hollow-earth 

I didn’t care for this novel very much.

First off, I’ve never been keen on the lost race/primitive alien culture story which is what you get when the narrator and Edgar Allan Poe reach the Hollow Earth.

Second, I was bored by all the details of that Hollow Earth. I didn’t even bother to follow all the details of the central Anomaly and Mirror Earths. Rucker’s afterword says it is a description of an Einstein-Rosen bridge which is also mentioned in Rucker’s non-fiction The Fourth Dimension.

The only thing I really liked about the book was its description of the alternate Poe as a con-artist and counterfeiter and how bits of Poe and his language (particularly “Berenice” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) are worked in to Rucker’s story.

 

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

Reviews of Poe-related material is indexed at the Poe page.

Eric S. Rabkin’s Science Fiction Lectures

As a consumer of the Great Courses lectures, I’ve looked at Eric S. Rabkin’s Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works for a few years. But somewhere in the back of my mind I had the idea — maybe from paging through something he had written, that he was a dry writer full of tedious literary theory.

I was mostly right.

However, amongst all the Freudian references (how can anyone still use the old fraud’s theories for any literature written before he published his work?), post-modernism, and symbolism (does no one see that the surface details of a story can be worth studying?), there are some things of value. Maybe even enough to justify its current selling price of $29.95.

For me the deck didn’t really get cleared for service until lecture six, “H. G. Wells: We Are All Talking Animals”. The idea is proposed that The Island of Dr. Moreau is told by an unreliable narrator. (Personally, I see it as Wells’ unintended satire on the folly of blank-slatism. The flesh, in other words biological drives and identity, can not be molded by the surgery of Moreau’s mini-island state.)

It’s sort of a semi-arid spell to lecture 14, “Mary Shelley: Grandmother of Science Fiction”, where Rabkin puts forth the idea, I think plausible, that Frankenstein is about the dangers of putting yourself outside of the human community. Doctor Frankenstein choses to exile himself. His creation has no choice.

“Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complexion” among other things talks about how Poe used the rhetoric of science (passive voice, precise and objectively quantified details) and romanticism.

“Wells — Industrialization of the Fantastic” actually convinces me that there are several Christian symbols in The War of the Worlds. (We are increasingly entering an age where people have to have even basic biblical allusions explained. In my English major days, a professor rightly said every one of us should have read the King James Bible so we knew the sources of allusions and phrases. If you were studying medieval lit, you had to read large chunks of the Catholic Vulgate.)

“The History of Utopia” actually mentioned in passing a couple of titles I hadn’t heard of and made Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We sound more interesting than it is (though it’s an important predecessor to more famous dystopias). However, I don’t buy the assertion that Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was a response to Thomas More’s Utopia.

“Science Fiction and Religion” is a good (and too brief) look at an important topic.

“Asimov and Clarke — Cousins in Utopia” provoked the thought that Judaism was a more important influence on Isaac Asimov than I thought. His Three Laws of Robotics (which he actually credited to John W. Campbell, Jr.) is rather rabbinical. And I certainly agree that Asimov was a believer in technoutopia. That seems to me a manifestation of the Jewish belief they should work to perfect the world. The theme of machines to beneficially manage our affairs is there in Asimov’s robot stories. But (and Rabkin doesn’t mention this) Asimov’s essay “By the Numbers” endorses the idea of rule by impersonal, bureaucratic computers.

“Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond” is very wrong-headed. The influence of the spy and noir genres — John Le Carre and Dashiell Hammett– seem as important to William Gibson as postmodernism not to mention the fact that Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17‘s opening paragraph is rather similar to Neuromancer (and Gibson is a Delany fan). Claude Shannon’s information theory and digital technology, the idea that information can be easily recorded, edited, combined, analyzed, and synthesized, I contend is more important than literary theory to cyberpunk. On the other hand, Rabkin does make the intriguing observation that the plot and images of Neuromancer closely follow T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

nEvermore!

After my less than enthusiastic review of EDGE’s Expiration Date, I feel like I’m kicking the company with my less than enthusiastic review of another of their offerings.

I don’t really have it out for the company. I liked their Technicolor Ultra Mall, my first ever commissioned review.

Still, it was a struggle to write this one up because so many of these stories were mediocre and unmemorable. By mediocre, I don’t mean bad or of unacceptable quality, just unremarkable. Unlike the stars of a recent podcast I listened to, I know by definition that the outputs of any profession, including that of writers, is going to be mediocre. (Assuming, as Mr. Taleb would note, the range of quality follows a Gaussian distribution.) You probably live in a house with mediocre plumbing with mediocre food in the refrigerator, but you’re not going to forsake either.

Still, I promised a review in exchange for this book from LibraryThing. I’m not going to skimp on coverage. As usual, everyone and everything will get covered.

 

So … let’s get this over with.

Review: nEvermore!: Tales of Murder, Mystery and the Macabre, eds. Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles, 2015.nEvermore!

This anthology has an even more diffuse effect than Ellen Datlow’s Poe. Both allowed a variety of stories in, not all of a fantastic nature. Poe was a more protean author than generally realized. (A point Uwe Sommerland’s opening article, “A Rather Scholarly View of Edgar Allan Poe, Genre-Crosser“, makes well.) He wrote in a variety of tones and styles and more than just the macabre and mystery stories he is most remembered for.

The connection many of the stories have to Poe is not obvious apart from the authors’ foreword though some are quite explicit takeoffs on Poe’s work.

Lest you get bored, let’s start us with the best.

The razor-wielding orangutan of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” gets to tell his side of things in Robert Lopresti’s “Street of the Dead House”. He’s one of those science experiments gone wrong. A large mansion on the shores of British Columbia, a large family, and a family secret are the heroine’s inheritance in Robert Bose’s effective “Atargatis”. An archaeologist’s involvement in a police investigation and a pagan cult result in the oh-so-Poe ending of burial alive in Michael Jecks’ “The Deave Lane”.

Loren Rhoads places her series heroine Alondra DeCourval in Venice to put a stop to a rash of suicides in “The Drowning City”. Tanith Lee’s “The Return of Berenice” ruminates on the follow up to Poe’s odd tale of obsession and dental horror, “Berenice” — moody and effective. Continue reading

Private Perry and Mister Poe

Before reading the Poe tribute anthology nEvermore! (review forthcoming), I decided to read this, the only unread Poe-related book left in the house.

Review: Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831, ed. William F. Hecker, 2005.Private Perry and Mister Poe

As I’ve said elsewhere, the United States Army was the one institution that appreciated Edgar Allan Poe in his lifetime – even if he did get expelled from West Point.

But what did Poe do when he was at West Point and in his days as a private soldier?

The late Major William F. Hecker answers those questions with some unique expertise.

Hecker, before he died from an IED in Iraq in 2006, taught English at West Point. He passes on the folklore surrounding Cadet Poe – stories Hecker’s father and great-uncle heard when they were at the school and that Hecker heard when he was a cadet and from his students. These are stories are drunkenness and wild ill-discipline.

In fact, Poe doesn’t seem to have drank when at West Point and made a conscious decision to get himself expelled by failing to show up for roll call and not going to class. Continue reading

Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories

I am off preparing new material.

So, for now, you get another retro review. This one is from May 23, 2010.

Review: Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories, Harry Lee Poe, 2008.Edgar Allan Poe

This is a good, short, sympathetic biography of Poe written by a descendent of Poe’s uncle and former president of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia.

It isn’t as dry as Quinn’s Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography or full of silly Freudian nonsense as Silverman’s Edgar A Poe: Mournful and Neverending Remembrance. On the other hand, its brevity sacrifices an in-depth look at all but a few of his famous works and their composition. It’s a chronological look at Poe with brief asides that include the villainy of his adopted father John Allan, his time at Sullivan’s Island and West Point, his probable and “shameful” employment as a manual laborer, his one and only suit, and the circumstances surrounding the famous “Ultimata Thule” daguerreotype showing a doomed-looking Poe shortly after a suicide attempt. Continue reading

The Man Who Called Himself Poe

Another Poe related retro review, this time from April 13, 2009.

Review: The Man Who Called Himself Poe, ed. Sam Moskowitz, 1969.Man Who Called Himself Poe

This is a theme anthology that doesn’t even stick to its stated theme: stories and poems that feature Edgar Poe.

Moskowitz’s introduction contrasts Poe with Sherlock Holmes. The latter, as a fictional character, has an immense accretion of fictional biography about him. His fans want to bring him into the real world and settings never imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle. Poe, a real man with a real, fairly well-documented past, has a legion of fans who want to make him a character, introduce him to realms never seen in his life.

A reprinted 1962 from Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott concisely sums up Poe’s life, his influence, and scholarly work on him.

The book then starts into presenting various fictional Poes, each usefully introduced by Moskowitz. Continue reading