Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8

 

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

We’re in the next subcategory of Gunn’s “plots of circumstances” where a protagonist must deal with problems inherent to the world he finds himself.

That subcategory is “a future being in a future world”.

The future is a great place to set a story, and a successful science fiction story only has to worry about the credibility of his imagination, and Gunn notes “credibility can be stretched a long way”.

However, Gunn isn’t too keen on past examples of stories in this subcategory. He thinks its potential has been abused more than any other plot category. Writers wrenched

the future into any shape they liked – utopian writers the foremost among them. They set up unlikely characters doing implausible things in absurd places; the plot form was undisciplined and chaotic.

Modern sf, realistic sf, occurred when readers started to demand plausible future and writers responded. Attendant to that was better characterization and dialogue. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8”

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Gift From the Stars

Last summer, while I was waiting to get my hands on James Gunn’s latest novel, Transformation, I decided to fill in one of my few gaps in reading his fiction, so I took this one off the shelf.

It turns out it has some unexpected similarities to Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy and interesting on its own.

Review: Gift From the Stars, James Gunn, 2005.Gift from the Stars

As explained in Gunn’s preface as well as the introduction by Gregory Benford, this novel is part of a feedback loop with SETI research as well as Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Sagan was a great admirer of Gunn’s The Listeners, a set of novelletes turned into a novel which depicts the decades long quest for a signal from an alien intelligence and the effects of receiving one on humanity. Gunn took his ideas from SETI researcher Frank Drake as well as Sagan, and Benford says Gunn’s novel, in turn, influenced the paradigms of SETI efforts.

Sagan’s Contact was a response to Gunn’s novel, and Gunn started this novel, another one of his characteristic fix-ups of several shorter works, in response to the movie adaptation of Sagan’s novel. Specifically, Gunn didn’t find the end alien message or its purpose credible.

The result is an upping of scale from section to section. Benford says it puts him in mind of A. E. van Vogt’s famous method of writing 800 word scenes and then introducing a new wrinkle into the narrative. While that led, according to Benford, “gathering incoherence” in van Vogt, it leads to “expanding vistas” in this novel. Continue reading “Gift From the Stars”

The Golden Man

The PKD series continues.

Raw Feed (1989): The Golden Man, ed. Philip K. Dick, 1980.the golden man

“Foreword”, Mark Hurst — Standard collection intro on why book was done and its history.

Introduction” — Brief tour of the life of Philip K. Dick, a subject as fascinating as any of his novels. We hear of Dick’s anger and love of sf and his friends in it (particularly Norman Spinrad and Thomas E. Disch but also Roger Zelazny and Robert Heinlein — who loaned Dick money and who, though Dick was almost completely opposite politically to him, Dick loved. His adoration in France, his fascinating life on the streets, his many loves of women and music, is all dealt with. It reminds me how much, more than any other author, I wish I would have met Dick while he was alive.

The Golden Man” — I’m sure too much prior knowledge of this story ruined my enjoyment of it. The story is structured to make one sympathetic towards the Golden Man (Dick comes up with an interesting assortment of mutants) and, as Dick points out in his story notes, this was the Golden Age of the sympathetic mutant in John W. Campbell’s Astounding and A. E. van Vogt’s Slan. At the end though, we are faced, like the androids in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with beings that seem outwardly human but are not. The pre-vision talent of the Golden Man was interesting, and Dick tried to go into some of its implications. The idea of a mutant’s sexual attractiveness was original and valid. The main strong point of the story is the turning of reader’s sympathy from the Golden Man to his hunters. Unfortunately, I spoiled my surprise. Continue reading “The Golden Man”

The Penultimate Truth

I’ve read a lot of Philip K. Dick. That includes most of his science fiction except the VALIS books.

However, I didn’t write any notes on most of that reading.

Still, since Dick seems to interest several readers, I’ll put up what reviews I have while I work on new posts — some of which have been written, but they’ll be put up as part of a long series.

Raw Feed (1989): The Penultimate Truth, Philip K. Dick, 1964.Penultimate Truth

The influence of A. E. van Vogt on Dick’s plotting is quite obvious here. Virtually every chapter wrings a new wrinkle on the plot. However, the plot of this novel is its weakest point.

Not only do we never have the origin of David Lantano’s time oscillating explained, but we only get a vague reference to him taking a few “starring roles” in history prior to the war. Why didn’t he make alteration in events so the war would be avoided if he was so powerful? For that matter why didn’t he exhibit his allegedly humanitarian side then? Why did he wait 15 years to make his move?

Thematically the book never really comes to making a statement.

At one point, when explaining the rationale for keeping the general populace underground, it is said it will spur their leaders on to war if they know the U.S.S.R. is relatively untouched (and did spur the military to war 15 years ago).

Yet, Dick celebrates, in Nicholas St. James especially, the liberation (as he always does) of the deceived and victimized population. Continue reading “The Penultimate Truth”

Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human

K. W. Jeter was one of the young, aspiring writers, along with Tim Powers and James Blaylock, who hung around Philip K. Dick in his last years.

Amongst other things Dick would do — and Powers definitely says Dick was not, per popular legend, “crazy” — is spin late night conspiracy theories out which would keep the young men in a state of paranoia for a couple of days until Dick would reveal the joke.

Jeter is also the man who jocularly invented the term “steampunk” for the sort of work he, Powers, and Blaylock did early in their careers.

Raw Feed (1999): Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human, K. W. Jeter, 1995.Blade Runner 2

This is a peculiar book, unique, as far as I know, in its intentions and starting premises.

There are several media tie-in books that use characters from tv shows and movies. There are also some books that are sequels to other authors’ works. This novel, though, combines both. To further complicate matters, there are two versions of the film Blade Runner. [My box set of Blade Runner films actually has five versions.] Jeter seems to use the original version of the film as the beginning point of his plot.

Jeter drags out all the usual Philip K. Dick elements: conspiracies (I think he outdoes Dick in this regard – more on the par of A. E. van Vogt who inspired Dick) and the tenuous nature of reality and some specific references to the universe created in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, specifically Deckard’s increasing disgust with killing androids and the nature of humanity and the constantly blurring lines between human and android and the sometimes questionable desire to make a distinction.

The plot is satisfyingly engaging though not without problems. Continue reading “Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human”

The Mind Parasites

The Lovecraft series continues with a novel and more ruminations on Lovecraft. I should add that, while the Amazon link takes you to the edition I read, Wilson scholar Gary Lachman, whose blog you’ll find on the lists of blogs I follow, wrote an introduction to a new edition.

Raw Feed (2005): The Mind Parasite, Colin Wilson, 1967.Mind Parasites

In his preface, Wilson recounts his history with H. P. Lovecraft.

His first encounter was entirely provoked by the similar title of a Lovecraft collection, The Outsider and Others with his own first work, the non-fiction The Outsider. Wilson initially found Lovecraft a sick, pessimistic recluse who weakly turned away from the world he was alienated from, taking vengeance on it in “gloomy fantasy”.

While he doesn’t come right out and say it, this seems to back up S. T. Joshi’s contention that Wilson found Lovecraft a pessimistic (Lovecraft would have said indifferent) materialist to be the polar opposite in temperament to Wilson and reacted accordingly. Wilson proceeded to put forth this view in his The Strength to Dream “in which Lovecraft figures largely.”

Later, Wilson came to see Lovecraft as one of those rare, obsessed outsiders doomed by circumstances of economics, not able to give free reign to his powers unlike more famous outsiders like Shelley, Keats, and Byron. He speculates that a financially independent Lovecraft would have given free rein to his curiosity and produced less horror and more fantasy like “The Shadow Out of Time” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. A richer Lovecraft would have had more time and energy, probably would have produced more fiction, and, if it was well received by those he respected, he would have continued to write it. Continue reading “The Mind Parasites”

The Craft of Science Fiction

This is something of an oddity and not the type of book I’ve reviewed before.

It’s mostly a how-to book for would-be science fiction writers but also includes some interesting perspectives on the art by its contributors. Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.

With Jerry Pournelle’s passing, I’m posting it now since he was a contributor, and I’ll be interrupting the Lovecraft series to post some more Pournelle material from the archives.

As usual, I’m still working on getting new reviews out.

Raw Feed (1987): The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1976.Craft of Science Fiction

“Foreword”, Reginald Bretnor — It is billed as advice from experienced writing veterans.

SF:  The Challenge to the Writer”, Reginald Bretnor — Nuts and bolts on some basics needed to practice sf craft including some knowledge of science, more intimate knowledge of sf and mainstream literature. Bretnor urges mastering basic story elements like characterization and dialogue. He recommends books to read and compiling own reference library as well as knowing how to use well a public reference library (and to know its staff).  He advises how to avoid errors by avoiding explicit details when possible and thoroughly check facts.

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come”, Poul Anderson — Like most essays in this book seem to be (at cursory glance), this is interesting as criticism as well as how-to advice. Anderson’s definition of a saga is larger than life story of a non-introspective character who wants to do something. In addition, a saga must have the right feel as far as language goes. Anderson names some of his candidates for sf epics (L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Makers and World of A; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Fury) and why he classifies things as he does is revealing. Anderson also (and I agree) says the saga is only one of many legitimate fictional modes. He also makes the valid point that sf (and maybe fantasy) is the last refuge of the outward turning hero. Other hallmarks of epic sf are (according to Anderson) bold language, a hero bending fate (or refusing to be bent). Anderson also gives interesting details on how study of Olaf Stapledon helped him in writing Tau Zero. Continue reading “The Craft of Science Fiction”