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

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

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.

The Stars My Destination; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Gully Foyle is my name

And Terra is my nation.

Deep space is my dwelling place

And the stars my destination.

I did have a review of sort in the archives for my favorite science fiction novel.

Does it have plausible science? No, but Bester works out the implications of mentally powered teleportation well.

It has vengeance.

It has an epic opening.

As the late reviewer Baird Searles titled his review of a re-issue of the novel: “Better. Best. Bester.”

The plot? Spacer Gully Foyle, a “stereotype Common Man”, is the sole survivor of a wrecked starship. After figuring out how to survive for 170 days in space, a ship, the Vorga, arrives.

But it doesn’t pick him up.

It leaves him stranded. The “door to holocaust” is opened, and Foyle begins his transformation into a juggernaut of vengeance with a face that flares with tiger stripes when angered and the words “‘Vorga,’ I kill you filthy” on his lips.

It’s a science fiction version of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It even has the same number of syllables in the title as writer and poet and fan of the novel Joe Haldeman pointed out.

The verse at the beginning showed up, in of all places, an episode of the animated tv show Phantom 2040 from 1994. (I believe it was one of the three “Dark Orbit” episodes.) It was a science fiction updating of The Phantom comic strip, a strip Bester wrote for.

Reviewer parallax provided by Speculiction.

Raw Feed (1990): The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester, 1956.Stars My Destination

I enjoyed this book even more the second time around.

The first time I read it, I was swept away by the excitement and suspense of the story, the depth of Gully Foyle’s obsession for vengeance, and Bester’s splendid working out of a society built on the ubiquitous principle of personal mental teleportation, the jaunte.

Those things were all there on the second reading but I noticed other things as well.

The theme of transcendence was obvious even on the first reading, but this time I noticed its many faces. Foyle not only develops himself physically and intellectually but morally; he thinks about his place in society. At one point, it is said, “The man who upsets the morphology of society is cancer.”  A curiously helpful, wise but malfunctioning, robot says a person is a member of society first, an individual second.

Foyle seeks a purging in punishment. Foyle will transform the millions like him who are stereotypically Common Men squandering their talents until he forces them, like him, to undergo a change.

Foyle seemed much more complex on this reading, and, ultimately, Foyle learns that not only should he not have been rescued since he was bait in a trap but also that Vorga would have just killed him after he was picked up since they were killing the refugees they were hauling.

Though Bester seemed, like many wimpy revenge stories, to have an ending where vengeance seems wrong, it doesn’t feel contrived since his novel is so concerned with questions of transformation and transcendence besides the obsession and justice of revenge.

On this reading, Foyle is somewhat contradictory character.  Bester deliberately shows this when he puts two scenes almost back to back. Jisbella McQueen discovers Gully Foyle is Fourmyle of Ceres. Foyle could kill her in Martian Commando Killer moder (I’m sure, in addition to other baroque touches, this is one of Bester’s influences on the cyberpunk authors) but doesn’t. The idea doesn’t occur to him.  Despite his denial and McQueen’s own statements, there seems to be a residue of love or, at least, faith and loyalty between the two. Yet in almost the next scene Foyle lies to Robin Wednesbury to get her to reveal Rodger Kempsey’s location on the moon. He promises to let her go then reneges on his word and forces her to still accompany him on his quest for revenge.

There also seems to be, at least on Wednesbury’s part, love between her and Foyle. She says, “You’re in love with her?  Olivia Presteign? … Ah, now you have lost me.” When Foyle becomes enamored of Olivia Presteign, Wednesbury seems to obliquely reveal a love of Foyle. Foyle, for his part, uses Wednesbury as a tool after once raping her.

Foyle’s dual side is revealed in the novel’s early part when McQueen speaks of his obsession.

Some of the novel’s best writing is at the end of the first part when Foyle, unable to control his obsession, leaves McQueen behind. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s entry for Bester, written by Willis E. McNelly, speaks of this novel’s Jungian aspects. I don’t know much about Jungian theory but the observation seems valid. Certainly Bester, in personal statements, has talked about an interest in psychological theories and his The Demolished Man certainly shows Freudian themes.  Foyle’s tiger tattoo seems to be (Why didn’t the publisher keep Bester’s wonderful title Tiger!  Tiger!?) symbolic of what, I think, Jung called the shadow side. It is a stigmata of possession by dark, uncontrolled passions.

I believe the same thing is evident in Foyle’s strange, sudden (though Foyle attributes this to her being an Ice Princess, a Snow Maiden, symbol of the unattainable — a Jungian archetype) to Olivia Presteign. Or is this an example of the duality Jung saw in every person, ying and yang, male and female?

The novel shows religious symbology too. I probably wouldn’t have picked up on this without reading The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s Bester entry. Foyle is born again when Vorga leaves him and again when he jauntes out of St. Pat’s Cathedral. It is ironic perhaps that revelation of his abilities occurs there — or, at least, the conscious application of his incredible jaunting abilities. Also ironic that Foyle should be transformed in a church after earlier contemptuously commenting on religionists’ escape via their faith. He escapes his fate and realizes his abilities in a Church. Foyle is a curious combination of Moses, Christ, and a Faustian Mephistophles at novel’s end.

He sets the common man free from his mediocrity and from the tyranny of the tiger men, who Foyle sees as paternalistic, tyrannical, obsessed and also as scapegoats for the evasion of responsibility by the masses — more contradictory duality and perhaps another Jungian idea. And this time I actually got the point that Man doesn’t blow himself up for at least thirty years after getting PyrE — which, as Presteign comments, is detonated by the original creative forces of God: Will and Idea.

Foyle, with PyrE, also gives humans a terrible power and knowledge. He also serves as a liberator like Moses. The author of the Bester entry sees JXseph and MCira at novel’s end as Joseph and Mary, Christ’s parents. I don’t think so. Foyle seems to be treated like a prophet but the relation between Foyle and MCira seems like that of Christ and the woman who poured expensive perfume on him.

On a literary level, Bester uses the novel’s major characters as symbols of the major obsessions of society. Foyle — revenge, Paul Yong-Yeovil — pragmatic patriotism, McQueen — idealism, Presteign — greed and power, Wednesbury — sin and forgiveness, and Saul Dagenham  — transformation from selfish cynic to patriot. Foyle, when debating whether to reveal to the populace PyrE’s existence, questions the purity and consistency of their morals and value.

That malfunctioning robot (a seeming oracle from on high) tells him he must teach and not dictate to society, have faith in something. (It’s interesting that faith is necessary to jaunte and that Foyle, at story’s end, has faith in faith).

The description of synesthesia was breathtaking, the typography a clever device.  Bester’s elements of freakiness brilliance range from the Freak Factory to Cellar Christians, from Disease Collectors to Skoptsy to the Scientific People.


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

Odd John and Sirius; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

My Olaf Stapledon series concludes with two of his most well known novels.

One’s about a super child. The other’s about a super dog.

Alternate perspectives on Odd John: From Couch to Moon and Speculiction.

Alternate perspective on Sirius: Speculiction

Raw Feed (2004): Odd John and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon, 1972.Odd John

Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest — This 1935 novel may very well be the archetypal superman/mutant/superchild novel. It’s hardly the first. H. G. Wells certainly had an earlier version with his The Food of the Gods.

Stapledon, a professional philosopher, was clearly interesting in using the viewpoint of his super mutant John in criticizing human affairs. That, of course, is one of the time honored purpose of sf, but it was also interesting to read the author of the ultimate in cosmic tales (so much so that Stapledonian is an adjective in discussing sf) — Star Maker and Last and First Men — write a personal story though you could argue his Last Men in London was a bridge between the two scopes of story.

I suspect that every author of superchildren since has had to contend with this novel. In particular, the narrator is sympathetic to John like a dog to a human. He regards John as above human morality thus doesn’t judge him when he murders a policeman or when he commits incest with his mother Pax — an incident of incest in which the narrator coyly says he can’t describe but talks about it explicitly enough where we know what happened if not the details of the act itself. Continue reading

Last Men in London

Surely you knew that mention of Olaf Stapledon was going to start another series.

We start with one of Stapledon’s most obscure science fiction works.

I read this one out of the 1976 Gregg Press. They never seem to have come with dust jackets, so you get no cover picture for this one.

This one definitely needs a re-read for the World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Raw Feed (1996): Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon, 1932.

My reactions to reading this novel in 1996. Spoilers follow.

“Introduction”, Curtis C. Smith and Harvey J. Satty — Introduction to the 1976 edition of the novel. It talks of Stapledon’s vision that inspired his Last and First Men and Last Men in London. It also speaks of the generally harsh criticism of this sequel to Last and First Men and this novel’s obscurity. The authors also note many similarities between character Paul and Stapledon.

Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon — In many ways, this sequel to Stapledon’s Last and First Men is very different. It is much lacking in the speculative wonders of natural and social evolution of the latter novel. The only new things in that regard are the society of philosophical lemurs which predate man. Their territory is invaded by primitive man who wipes the lemurs out because, though they are philosophically and morally advanced, they’re lacking in practical knowledge, skill, and curiosity. This notion that man must have intellectual curiosity, scientific learning, dispassion and detachment, a comfortable sensuality, a morality that emphasizes community, and a sense of cosmic purpose is emphasized again and again. Every species before the near-perfect 18th Man is lacking at least one of these virtues, and, therefore, doomed. Of course, even the 18th men are doomed and revert to primitive, near-animals. Continue reading

Last and First Men; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

My concluding entry in a series of books touched on by the Wells works I’ve covered. This book is mentioned in Wells’ Star-Begotten.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do the novel justice.

Another perspectives are provided by From Couch to Moon.

Raw Feed (1996): Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, Olaf Stapledon, 1930.Last and First Men

Everything I’ve ever heard about Stapledon is correct judging on the basis of this novel. He was a totally unique voice in sf when this novel was published, and he is still totally unique. His epic style in which millions of years can routinely pass in the space of a paragraph often has a religious flavor to it harkening back to psalms (his first book of poetry was called Latter-Day Psalms).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (in a blurb at the front of this book) claims Stapledon is the second most influential writer in sf next to Wells. I think that claim is arguable. Certainly Wells introduced, or gave a big boost, to such perennial sf motifs as time travel, alien invasion, surgery on/genetic manipulation of animals, the far future story, the physical evolution of man. Stapledon creates few new ideas, but his epic style and his spiritual concerns are different than Wells’. [Certainly, I would put Stapedon in the top five most influential science fiction writers.]

Wells, in The Time Machine and, to a lesser extent, “A Story of the Days to Come“, shows us humans evolved physically and socially. However, Wells does not dwell at length on the various stages of evolution. He contents himself with showing some final end stage like the Morlocks and Eloi and giving a brief explanation as to how they evolve. Continue reading

News from Nowhere

I mentioned this novel in my review of H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia.

Raw Feed (1996): News from Nowhere; Or, an Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance, William Morris, 1891.News from Nowhere

This book may very well have been on the Unabomber’s bookshelf. [Probably not given that it’s not on the list of books he wanted back from the FBI.]  This communistic, arts and crafts tyranny would appeal to the anti-technological Unabomber with his hand-crafted bombs. Communism is the explicitly stated philosophy at work here, and Morris was famous for his works on artistic aesthetics.

Morris is resolutely anti-technological and explicitly and frequently evokes his beloved 14th century Europe as a model for living. He even dismisses their more reprehensible laws as at least being sincere unlike Victorian laws which, according to him, are repressive and hypocritically justified. To be fair to Morris, two of 14th Century Europe’s problems – plague and famine – were not yet really being alleviated by contemporary science – not that Morris really mentions them as problems of 14th century life.

This is not really, despite being frequently mentioned in sf histories, a sf novel. Essentially, it’s a dream vision (more echoes of Morris’ medievalism) of Morris’ utopia. As with all utopias, it has to be criticized on two levels: the literary merits and the merits of the ideas. Continue reading

An Island Called Moreau

Another posting about books related to H. G. Wells.

Raw Feed (1996): An Island Called Moreau, Brian W. Aldiss, 1981.Island Called Moreau

Sort of a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. The founding conceit here is that there really was a Moreau or, rather MacMoreau who conducted vivisection experiments fictionalized by Wells. Aldiss brings the story forward to 1996 and keeps much the same plot: a shipwrecked (or rather spacewrecked) man lands on the island, is horrified by the experiments being conducted on beasts, and eventually watches the whole set up come crashing down.

However, narrator Edward Prendick of Wells’ novel is rather – in the world at large – insignificant. Aldiss’ narrator, Calvert Roberts, is an ambitious, self-important, rather pompous Undersecretary of State for the U.S. (Oddly, though his primary job is as negotiator, he is unable to reconcile the Beast People and Dart.) Moreau is a rather physically strong, imposing figure. Aldiss’ island is ruled over by Mortimer Dart, a man maimed by fetal exposure to thalidomide. Like Moreau, he has set himself up as a god over the Beast People (descendants of MacMoreau’s experimental subjects), and he gives the law to them in catchy rock tunes reminiscent of Moreau’s Law chants.

Dart is interested in the effects of form and attitude on behavior (the plasticity of flesh like Moreau). He sees himself as a victim though he is just as tyrannical as Moreau and experiments on human fetus’ to create Seal People. Like Wells’ novel, this book is concerned with animal and human nature. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the narrator tries, at first, to see a sharp distinction between man and beast then realizes much of the animal remains in man. In this novel, the narrator realizes there is a continuum of animal to human nature. Continue reading