“Blood Disease”

This week’s weird fiction — or, at least, it will be discussed as weird fiction.

Review: “Blood Disease”, Patrick McGrath, 1988.Blood Disease

I had not heard of McGrath before, but the collective mind of LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group voted this one for discussion. The dust jacket on the collection where it first appeared, Blood and Water and Other Tales, calls him a “postmodern-gothic storyteller”. In a sense, that’s true in terms of this story.

McGrath raises many expectations as to where his tale is going, introduces elements that go nowhere, emphasizes the exact timing of coincidences, and evokes clichés by bringing them up and not quite talking directly to the reader.

The outline is fairly simple.

Congo Bill, an anthropologist (he’s been with the pygmies so I suspect that McGrath was reading some Colin Turnbull), returns to England with a pet monkey and severely debilitated from malaria.

He is greeted by his wife Virginia Clack-Herman and son Frank whom he gives the monkey to. On the way, they stop for the night at the Blue Bat inn. Shortly after Congo Bill and company arrive, the rich man Ronald Dexter and his valet Clutch stop there too. Virginia and Dexter are old acquaintances and sexually attracted to each to other at dinner that night, so she ditches the infirm and sleeping Congo Bill to have sex with Dexter. Continue reading ““Blood Disease””

Advertisements

Pre-Modern Science Fiction

My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

Essay: Pre-Modern Science Fiction.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Gunn maintains there are two misconceptions about science fiction (hereafter, when I’m speaking, to be called “sf”) as of the year 1951: it’s pure escapism and it hasn’t changed its character since whatever ur-work you want to cite for the genre. (Gunn himself staked out the Epic of Gilgamesh in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells.)

Gunn notes, I think correctly, that pure escapism doesn’t exist. Using the example of Shakespeare and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can’t even make the case that high vs. low art are correlated to “the possible effect on the reader’s life”. Tarzan and John Carter, as the Burroughs’ worshipping Castalia House crowd would note, can serve as moral exemplars.

But sf can be a peculiar form of escape. Gunn quotes Leo Margulies’ and Oscar J. Friend’s introduction to their anthology My Best Science Fiction Story:

Science fiction is the only literary escape which the bewildered citizen can seek that offers imaginative relief while keeping him in tune with the apparently insoluble problems confronting him and his fellows.

Gunn argues virtually any work has three elements, singly or in combination, which weaken its escapist effect: didacticism, aesthetics, and philosophy. (Why aesthetics would weaken as opposed to, on occasion, strengthen the escapist effect I don’t understand.)

For Gunn the key isn’t whether these elements are in sf but whether they are useful though that’s a subjective judgement. Gernsbackian (Gunn doesn’t actually mention his name at this point) use of sf to teach science “has been somewhat overstressed”. Sf “is not primarily concerned with aestheticism”.

It’s philosophy that is important in sf as a “medium of ideas”.

Like most of the sf critics who came after him, Gunn has to devote some time to definitions of the genre and its history though, obviously, he would extensively develop his views on both in his The Road to Science Fiction series and Alternate Worlds.

As historical markers, he lays down two approximate dates: 1830 and 1930. In between those two dates is sf’s romantic period. Post-1930 is the realistic period.

Pre-1930 works do not, for Gunn, have realism based on rationality. Here he quotes anthologist Groff Conklin’s definition of sf as a sub-branch of fantasy and sharing that relationship with utopian stories, supernatural stories, and fairy tales. Gunn disagrees saying it’s possible to do any of those other three types of story in a science fictional way. It’s just a matter of rationality (or, at least, the veneer of it) and explanation. (In my look at this thesis, I’m going to go light on the examples he uses. You can supply your own or read the actual thesis.)

Sketching out the thesis of his later Alternate Worlds which talked about the proto-science fiction genres of the traveler’s tales, utopias, and satires, Gunn says 1830 is about the time when the industrial revolution started to move fantastic narratives from “wonderful journey” or “wonderful machine” to something that seemed more probable, more possible.

Incidentally, gothics are not considered to contribute much to science fiction since

their mysterious events were presented almost always without explanation and were included entirely for their own sake.

I think Gunn is on weak ground here. After all, Ann Radcliffe’s spooky gothics always end (so I’m told, I’ve only read The Mysteries of Udolpho) with mysteries explained.

There is, it should be said, a distinctly American emphasis in this thesis. That’s understandable given what Gunn had access to and how sf developed. The genre really accelerated into consciousness as a separate genre in the pulps, and the pulps were predominately American. While Brian Stableford has shown how English and French works were significant in terms of philosophy and artistry and theme, they weren’t significant in influence. They were like the Vikings colonizing the New World. Few Europeans paid any attention until centuries later when Columbus arrived in the New World. (That’s my analogy.) Gunn himself tried to rectify this oversight with the last two volumes of his The Road to Science Fiction dealing specifically with stories not from Americans.

What the industrial revolution brought to the public’s mind was that things were going to change – for many people and perhaps keep changing. The machines and ideas that changed life weren’t isolated to the heads and labs of crank scientists who were going to come to a bad end. (That’s my bald statement, not Gunn’s.)

Before about 1830

there were isolated men writing isolated stories, inspired individually and more by external circumstances than by any consciousness of writing within a literary movement.

Then came the “elder statesmen of science fiction” – no names are given at this point but presumably he means Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – from about the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1920s.

A “brief third section of science fiction’s romantic period” was initiated in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

That first phase of the romantic period was marked by Richard Adams Locke and Edgar Allan Poe, literary hoaxers. (Gunn mentions the Shaver mysteries as a “recent and horrible example” of hoaxes in sf.) Poe gets a bit of a short shrift as “running more to dark and mystic fantasy than to science fiction” though Gunn acknowledges Poe’s ratiocination started several trends science fiction picked up on.

Brian Aldiss, years after Gunn wrote his thesis, claimed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sf story. Gunn certainly thinks she may have started a “significant pattern”, but it wasn’t a good one:

 … the theme of the mad, incautious, or unwise scientist who endangers individuals, a society, or a world through his experiments. With slight modifications, this trend produced a science that could contribute nothing in a moment of crisis. For humor it offered the inept, impractical, or absent-minded scientist.  … The patterns of thought that produced this literature were symptomatic of the attitudes of several generations impressed by the iniquities of early industrialism and sighing for the safe, sane, good-old-days.

To Gunn, the mad scientist is a distrust of knowledge and science, a continuation of the Faust theme that became a stereotype of this period of sf.

Shelley’s novel seems, particularly in its 1831 prologue about the benefits of selectively distorting reality that sf affords in order to better examine something, to be a strong contender as one of the first novels of that genre.

Curiously, Gunn thinks the second period of science fiction’s romantic period is characterized not only by the mad scientist but “world cataclysm”.

The causes were almost always external and unilateral: the machine that gets out of control; the sun which becomes a nova or grows old; the cloud of poisonous gas, sun obscuring dust motes, or meteorites which invades the solar system; the nomad planet which menaces the earth; the natural law which runs wild.

The practioners were a collection of famous and obscure names: H. G. Wells, George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint, Garrett P. Serviss, and Julian Hawthorne.

Gunn doesn’t really see the “atomic cataclysm” story – common enough by 1951 that some magazines “placed an editorial ban on all stories involving the threatened destruction of earth” – as a continuation of this. The atomic apocalypse is caused by “internal and/or multilateral” factors, not universal law. It is human centered.

Predictably and validly, Gunn picks three authors of this period as epitomizing a John W. Campbell, Jr. classification system of genre stories:

  • The prophecy story – Jules Verne
  • The philosophical story – H. G. Wells
  • The adventure story – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Gunn argues those types still exist in modern sf, but they didn’t develop a “distinct philosophy” until the pulps.

The next post will talk about what Gunn considers the philosophy of modern science fiction and what makes it “modern”.

The War Amongst the Angels

The Michael Moorcock series continues with a look at the concluding book in the Second Ether Trilogy.

Raw Feed (1998): The War Amongst the Angels: An Autobiographical Story, Michael Moorcock, 1996.War Amongst the Angels 

Moorcock, when venturing outside the straightforward fantasy novel format of his Elric and von Bek series with their straightforward plots, grows on you with his psychedelic, initially incomprehensible plots in this, the culmination of the trilogy beginning with Blood then Fabulous Harbors and in his Multiverse comic book series which retells and expands on the trilogy.

A cynic would view Moorcock’s multiverse with its theoretically endless variations on certain characters, archetypes, plots, symbols as a lazy excuse to constantly recycle the same stories or an inability to collapse the story potentials of an idea via the act of observation, i.e. writing, into an artistic statement.

However, after awhile, the variations (complicated by the non-linearity of time in Moorcock’s Multiverse) become hypnotic. Continue reading “The War Amongst the Angels”

The Revenger’s Tragedy

The Jacobean drama series, and the best is the last.

The Revenger’s Tragedy was not written by Cyril Tourner but Thomas Middleton.

This was news to me until I bestirred myself into making a very rare appearance at a theater.

It was a community production in a small theater, but I had to go. It’s my favorite Jacobean drama and performed seldom. (The Duchess of Malfi is the usually performed Jacobean drama.)

In the program notes, it was noted that local professor Peter Murray had established Middleton’s authorship.

Which I hadn’t heard. I knew Murray. He was the professor I had for Shakespeare though not Jacobean drama.

Murray was a chemist who took up English literature after being injured in a lab accident. He was also a former technical writer who was very particular about how your papers were written and final essay exams that had all of us pondering half an hour before we even began writing.

Peter B. Murray also wrote Shakespeare’s Imagined Persons: Psychology of Role-Playing and Acting. I think, though I haven’t read the book, he incorporated some quite useful background material he gave us on the medieval and Renaissance context of Shakespeare’s plays. (For instance, the Hamlet you see is not the Hamlet its first audience saw. To them, human vengeance is not to be sought. And you definitely should not be taking the word of a ghost about things.)

It turns out, besides actually seeing The Revenger’s Tragedy performed, there was something else notable in the performance.

In the cast was one Sara Jane Olson, I think she played the Duchess, who was something of a revenger herself.

Sara Jane Olson was, I’m sorry to say, a North Dakotan gone bad and a wanted terrorist. In 1974, she was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and participated in a bank robbery and attempt to blow up some police cars.

And then she disappeared to become housewife, a neighborhood fixture, and community actor, until 1999 when the long arm of the law caught up with her.

You don’t have to check the local theater listings to check out the play. Repo Man director Alec Cox did a modernized movie version which isn’t too bad. It has Doctor Who actor Chris Eccleston as Vindici (so IMDB list’s the name, it’s Vindice in the play).

I’m not the only fan of the play.

For his essay in Kim Newman and Stephen Jones Horror: Another 100 Best Books, Robert Silverberg chose The Revenger’s Tragedy.

Raw Feed (1990): The Revenger’s Tragedy, Cyril Tourner [really Thomas Middleton], 1967, 1971.Revenger's Tragedy

“Introduction”, Brian Gibbons — This is the first critical work I’ve read on this, my favorite, Jacobean play. It mostly concerns the dispute over authorship, the use of motifs drawn from the Dance of Death, and Tourneur’s use of comedy. Gibbons places the play in the farcical Greek tradition of comedy. This I found interesting. What I, as a modern reader, see as very sarcastic and malicious may, in fact, have been intended to be much broader, more slapstick (certainly less punny than Shakespeare) than we generally think. I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion one way or another. It’s just one example of what a reader’s background brings to a work, for better or worse, regardless of the author’s intent. And, of course, another example of the endless debate in literary criticism (at least when literary critics didn’t devote themselves to “signifiers”) is what degree of supremacy the author’s intent should have in interpretation.

 

This is the second (maybe the third) time I’ve read The Revenger’s Tragedy, my favorite, Jacobean tragedy.  Continue reading “The Revenger’s Tragedy”

The Disciples of Cthulhu

The Lovecraft series and now we’re getting into Lovecraftian authors rather than the Gentleman from Providence.

Raw Feed (2005): The Disciples of Cthulhu, ed. Edward P. Berglund, 1976.Disciples of Cthulhu

“Editor’s Foreword”, Edward P. Berglund — Brief summation of the various waves of H. P. Lovecraft imitators.

“Introduction”, Robert Bloch — Bloch talks about how the reputation of his old mentor, H. P. Lovecraft, has been on the ascendant unlike the celebrated mainstream authors of 1929 the year Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” was actually published. He talks briefly about the religion/cult of Lovecraft of which he is one of the oldest members.

The Fairground Horror”, Brain Lumley — In his biography of Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi singled out Brian Lumley as symbolizing the worst of the Lovecraft imitators. I have a fond spot for Lumley though.  After being introduced by a friend to Lumley’s first two Titus Crow books (the best ones of the series), I read all the Lovecraft fiction I could find thereby filling in the gaps from reading a lot of his short stories earlier but none of Lovecraft’s novels. However, this biter-bitten story simply seemed, with its Cthulhu idol in a carnival funhouse, a takeoff on the Hazel Heald — H. P. Lovecraft story “The Horror in the Museum“. Lumley also seems determined, as Joshi noted, to work in as many references as possible to names in Lovecraft’s work.

The Silence of Erika Zann”, James Wade — Certainly not written in H. P. Lovecraft’s style and not using any elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, this story doesn’t really work. Basically, it’s about the daughter of Erich Zann, as in Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann“, encountering an extra-dimensional entity called to Earth by the strange properties of her psychedelic rock music (the story is set in a psychedelic club in San Francisco). The combination of too-explicit prose with, paradoxically, too vague of an explanation, doesn’t work. Continue reading “The Disciples of Cthulhu”

The Massacre of Mankind

Before reading Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, the sequel to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, I decided to read Wells’ novel again after 21 years.

I’m glad I did.

My initial claim, that English civilization is destroyed in the course of a long weekend, is glib and deceptive. The novel does not take place over a bank holiday weekend, and English civilization is, of course, not destroyed. The narrator of the book presents a history for a nation that still survives. However, the main action of the novel does occur starting Friday, when the Martians first use the Heat Ray, and goes through Monday when the Martians attack London. British society dissolves into a mob temporarily.

I’d also forgotten that part of the book is taken from the unnamed narrator’s brother, Frank. It is Frank that flees London when the Martians approach and whose experiences provide the memorable line: “It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.”

And this time I picked up on the apprehension, what we might term “post-traumatic stress disorder” the narrator is left with at the end of the story. Of man, the unnamed narrator says about the invasion:

 . . . it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence …

But the scars of memory are not just on general humanity. The narrator says he no longer loves to look at the night sky.

Looking at London, he no longer sees it the same:

I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body.

I also wonder if the flooding from streams and rivers caused by the Martian red weed were partially inspired by Richard Jefferies’ After London and its giant lake in central England after the fall of industrial civilization.

This one came from NetGalley, and, of course, I jumped at the chance to review it.

Review: The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter, 2017.Massacre of Mankind

You still ain’t seeing it clearly. The Martians, you know, would say they are doing us a favor. Lifting us up, as if we made a chimp smart as a college professor. And who’s to say, by their lights, they are wrong? And – pain? What of it? You clever-clogs keep telling me the Martians are above us mere mortals. Perhaps, with their heads detached from their bodies, they are above pain as above pleasure. And what need they care about the pain they inflict on us? And more’n we care about the pain of the animal in the slaughterhouse – or the tree we cut down. To recoil from this is hypocritical – d’ye see?

That’s Bert Cook, merely called “the artilleryman” in Walter Jenkins’ Narratives of the Martian Wars. Jenkins is the man we know as the unnamed narrator of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Cook isn’t the only one to complain Jenkins misrepresented him in his account of the 1907 Martian invasion. That’s the year Baxter, after consulting the astronomical clues in Wells’ story and Wells scholars, places the time of Wells’ novel.

Julie Elphinstone, the narrator of this novel and a reporter presenting us a history of the Second Martian War, isn’t too pleased with Jenkins’ depiction of her either, but at least she got a name and ended up married, briefly, to Jenkins’ brother, the Frank who supplies the London detail in Wells’ novel. Continue reading “The Massacre of Mankind”

Stealing Other People’s Homework: Network theory may explain the vulnerability of medieval human settlements to the Black Death pandemic

No, it has nothing to do with books, but the Black Death has long fascinated me.

Complexity Digest

Epidemics can spread across large regions becoming pandemics by flowing along transportation and social networks. Two network attributes, transitivity (when a node is connected to two other nodes that are also directly connected between them) and centrality (the number and intensity of connections with the other nodes in the network), are widely associated with the dynamics of transmission of pathogens. Here we investigate how network centrality and transitivity influence vulnerability to diseases of human populations by examining one of the most devastating pandemic in human history, the fourteenth century plague pandemic called Black Death. We found that, after controlling for the city spatial location and the disease arrival time, cities with higher values of both centrality and transitivity were more severely affected by the plague. A simulation study indicates that this association was due to central cities with high transitivity undergo more exogenous re-infections. Our study provides an easy method…

View original post 54 more words