The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter VI

My look at this work by Brian Stableford concludes.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

In Chapter VI, “Conclusion: The Communicative Functions of Science Fiction”, Stableford puts forth some theories on sf’s communicative functions. 

Stableford notes that both Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell believed in the directive, i.e. didactic, function of sf.

Gernsback thought sf could educate people about science. Stableford says that goal was never really achieved. There is better evidence that sf did achieve Gernsback’s hope that it would inspire people to become scientists and inventors. It certainly did make more people interested in the future as Gernsback also hoped.

Campbell wanted people interested in realistic versions of the future. Stableford is not convinced this occurred. That’s not surprising. All other popular literary genres serve the maintenance and restorative functions. With the possible exception of rocketry, sf had no influence on the history of science and invention. (Post-William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it might be argued that computer applications and technology may have been influenced by that novel.) 

Stableford thinks a case might be made that sf did change attitudes (at least among some people) regarding technological innovation. He specifically notes that it may have primed the mind of people who joined Scientology or the Aetherius Society. After all, he notes, why did UFOS become almost universally (at least for decades) associated with alien spaceships? 

Continue reading “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter VI”

Turn Off Your Mind

I’ve longed liked Gary Lachman’s articles in the Fortean Times. I’m also an admirer of his work, under the name Gary Valentine, with the rock band Blondie, particularly his song “X Offender”.

So, it was only a matter of time before I decided to read one of his books.

Review: Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, Gary Lachman, 2001. 

Lachman’s basic thesis is that several elements of the mystic 1960s led not just to the Summer of Love but the murders of Charles Manson and that the strains of thought that produced both go back to the late 1890s.

It’s an interesting story, but most parts of it were familiar to me already, and I’m not going to talk much about them. I am also not sympathetic to mysticism, the Summer of Love, or the spirit of the 1960s.

What I am going to talk about is the surprising amount of material in the book about writers and works of fantastic fiction and how they were connected to the mystic Sixties.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s not only wrote the very popular The Morning of the Magicians, but Bergier also wrote a letter praising H. P. Lovecraft that appeared in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales. The Morning of the Magicians, published in 1960, had Fortean material and centered on mysticism, transcendence, mutation and the evolution of consciousness. It was a heady mix that drew from the zeitgeist.

Continue reading “Turn Off Your Mind”

Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950

Well, I’ve known about this book for years, but it was pricey on the second hand market, but I got it for Christmas.

A lot of science fiction crit books from the 1980s I’ve purchased recently seem to be deaccessioned from university libraries. This one came from the Columbus College Library in Columbus, Georgia.  It seems to have been checked out only once, in 1995. That matches Brian Stableford stating, in his essay “The Profession of Science Fiction” that he only sold “157 copies in the UK, not counting remainders”.

While several of the blogs I read are interested in this kind of thing, it’s definitely a niche interest.

Review: Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, Brian Stableford, 1985. 

Stableford makes a convincing case that the British scientific romance was not the same as American sf though the two merged around 1950. The two differed in many respects: publishing markets, tone, subject, and the types of authors that wrote it..

American sf could be published in many magazines. The authors of scientific romances had only the low-brow penny dreadfuls in England, and, until around 18890, novels were published in three-volume installments intended for the upper classes. It also was about that date that magazines aimed at the middle class were first published in the UK. I was also interested to learn that Britain had paperback books slightly earlier than America.  However, they had nothing like the American pulp magazines though you could buy bundles of them (so-called “Yank mags”) that were brought over, supposedly, as ship’s ballast.

The tone of the scientific romance, particularly after World War 1, was pessimistic. Its stories often dealt with civilizational collapse or decadence. American pulp sf was optimistic.

The latter was defined by stories of space travel and interplanetary adventure. British scientific romance produced more stories with evolution and mutation as themes. The scientific romance also frequently featured future war stories.

There was a big drop off in scientific romances in Britain from 1918 through 1931 though the presence of an almost entirely British form, the “speculative essay”, increased in popularity in those years. It was closely related to science fiction and first started at least as far back as Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and took off in 1923 with J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus; or, Science and the Future.

The extent writers involved themselves in sf and scientific romances also differed substantially on each side of the Atlantic. Some mainstream British writers wrote one or two works of scientific romance, most notably Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. It was not, however, considered respectable, just eccentricity. The American pulps had many writers who specialized in writing for them.

H. G. Wells, the most famous writer of scientific romance, disparaged his scientific romances when he finally got around to having an omnibus of them published in 1927. Stableford sees early Wells as just exploring ideas and looking at their implications whereas later Wells, the artistically unsuccessful Wells, offered solutions to problems and not very convincing ones either. 

Stableford sees the ideal mix of sf/scientific romance as playfulness with serious intent to look at problems in the world. For him, American sf was vigorous in its action plots and romantic settings but not very serious in looking at the real world. The British scientific romance, with its utopian works, examinations of supermen, and how to avoid another World War, was serious but in a dull way. He thinks the post 1950 amalgam of the two was a good thing. Stableford sees John Wyndham and John Christopher as the two writers who most successfully combined the two traditions.

The book is divided up into time periods with in-depth looks at important authors of the period and its general themes. Each discussed author and their works are indexed.

Stableford makes me want to re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when he notes Huxley’s succeeded where many other authors who dealt with similar issues are forgotten. Stableford credits Huxley’s lighter touch. He had more irony and didn’t, unlike Wells’, make a deliberate statement on the nature of his society. He left unanswered the question of why, exactly, the world After Ford was so bad. People are happy after all.

Interestingly, one of the many forgotten writers mentioned is Muriel Jaeger. Her The Question Mark, which may have inspired Huxley’s novel, has recently been reprinted.   

Stableford makes me now see Olaf Stapledon in a new light as a man seeking psychic communion and community. Interestingly, he was the reverse of so many of the writers Stableford discusses. He was raised by an atheist and became a sort of believer. Most of the authors covered took the opposite trajectory – sons of religious men who rebelled.

Naturally, if you are the type who would read this book, you’ll find new books and authors you want to read. The most prominent names in that regard for me are H. F. Heard, who later moved to California though, even after becoming acquainted with American sf, he still wrote in the tradition of the scientific romance. The other is John Gloag. Stableford actually got to interview Gloag before his death. Unlike many of the authors of scientific romances, Gloag (like S. Fowler Wright) was a man of the political right though Stableford puts this down to a general skepticism rather than loyalty to a particular political creed.

It’s a fascinating read with Stableford ably summarizing many a story and novel.

I would recommend this book to others interested in the history of science fiction, but, I suspect, it’s been superseded by Stableford’s four volume New Atlantis. Published in 2017, it pushes his survey back in time to some works of proto-scientific romance starting with Francis Bacon.

Half Past Human, or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

There hasn’t been a lot of posting on this blog lately.

It’s not that I’ve been idle. I’m working on a new series of which over half is written, but I won’t post it until all the individual posts are written.

In the meantime, since bloggers MPorcius and Joachim Boaz were talking on Twitter about T. J. Bass’ science fiction novels , I thought I’d put up reviews of them.

Here’s the first. Joachim Boaz’s take is here.

Fletcher Vrendenburgh reviewed it over at Black Gate.

Raw Feed (1998): Half Past Human, T. J. Bass, 1971.

Half Past Human
Cover by Michael McInnerney

 This book belongs to a subgenre that includes Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, William F. Nolan’s and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run: the dystopic city dweller trying to flee – usually with a lover – into the country and into a better society. (George Orwell’s 1984 featured lovers finding no refuge from their urban hell. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World featured a rustic commenting on its world).

This novel’s strength is that it uses the devices and character types of all these novels. Moon is the rustic never part of the Hive, its sworn enemy. Tinker, like Logan, is an enforcer (or, at least, an enabler) of the dystopian order who finds itself on its bad side and throws his lot in with the five toed aborigines. Kaia the hunter, through a pharmacological accident, goes abo and likes it. Moses the Pipe Man also is attracted to the abo life.

Of course most novels with this plot have the loyal supporters of the status quo. Here those figures are the clever Val (who ends up an involuntary stud for five-toed genes to the “buckeyes”) and Walter, who is sympathetic to the buckeyes but feels he must do all he can as he waits for his soul to be taken by O.L.G.A. (The book is full of acronyms. This one is a spaceship.). Only Val is pretty consistently unlikeable. Continue reading “Half Past Human, or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

“Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts”

The review series on the essays in Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts”, Brian Stableford, 1984.Opening Minds

Stableford looks at two attempts to prophecy the future.

The first is Karl Marx’s theory of communism and future social and economic developments.

The second is science fiction though, as Stableford notes, only “some of its early apologists – especially Hugo Gernsback” ever claimed to be prophetic. Still, a lot more hands and a lot more perspectives have went into trying to imagine the future in science fiction rather than Marxism.

I have not read enough Marx and none of his critic, Karl Popper, to comment on the accuracy of Stableford’s interpretation of either. He uses Popper’s criticisms to comment on science fiction’s abysmal record of prognostication.

I think Stableford is right in dismissing Popper’s claim that Marx confused law and trends. Marx’s “laws” are what others would simply call trends and predicting the future based on trends is done by a lot more people than just Marx’s disciples. Continue reading ““Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts””

The First Men in the Moon

The H. G. Wells series continues.

Raw Feed (1996): The First Men in the Moon, H. G. Wells, 1901.H G Wells

I had read this novel once long ago and found it boring.

This time I liked it much better though I could not find much of the Jonathan Swift influence other critics have mentioned other than a certain parallel between Cavor and the Grand Lunar and Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms. The Grand Lunar criticizes man and finds him barbarous after talking to Cavor just at the Houyhnhnms do after talking to Gulliver.

I suspect, with Cavor, Wells produced another influential depiction of the scientist for sf and popular culture: here the portrayal is of the naïve, unworldly, eccentric scientist purely interested in knowledge. Continue reading “The First Men in the Moon”

Stealing Other People’s Homework: “Viva Margaret Atwood!”

viva-margaret-atwood

I’m cogitating on my review of Jamie Bisher’s excellent and long (it took me over a month to read it!) The Intelligence War in Lain America, 1914-1922.

The eyes are blurred, it’s the last night of vacation, and I thought I’d post this.

Certainly, given the wailing and gnashing of teeth following the U.S. presidential elections in the science fiction world (e.g. “Radio Free America” as the title of the latest Coode Street Podcast), it’s from a source unlikely to have been seen by many who might be interested.

Bradley J. Birzer’s “Viva Margaret Atwood!” looks at Atwood’s sf work in the context of C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley and, surprisingly, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

Birzer is a biographer of Russell Kirk, himself an other of ghost stories and a political mentor to Jerry Pournelle.

Lightless

Like The London Project, this is a crime story with female protagonist in a total surveillance society.

I’m not doing a theme. The gods of Amazon Vine demanded a prompt review of this one.

Review: Lightless, C. A. Higgins, 2015.Lightless

Things are claustrophobic in the Solar System of a few centuries hence.

There’s room, plenty of room. Man lives on Earth, Luna, Mars and various planetoids and moons.

People used to live on Saturn’s moons too – before they rebelled against the System, and it killed them all.

Rebellion persists, though, in a shadowy figure, the Mallt-y-Nos, and her organization.

When stowaways Leontios Ivanov and Mattie Gale are captured aboard the System’s supersecret spaceship the Ananke, System security agent Ida Stays is sent aboard to interrogate Ivanov. She is convinced he knows who Mallt-y-Nos is.

The best part of the story is Higgins skillfully filling in the backstory mostly through those interrogation sessions.

She restricts herself, for most of the book, to three viewpoint characters: Ida, Ivanov, and the story’s heroine, engineer and computer scientist Althea Bastet.

There is a claustrophobic feel to the story because we never leave the Ananke and because the characters are always cautious about the emotions and thoughts they express because, like everywhere else humans live in the Solar System, they are watched by the System.

The various plots and subplots come together perhaps too neatly at the end, but I particularly liked the final chapters.

The overarching problem with Higgins’ story is vagueness. Continue reading “Lightless”