Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life

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The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with “plots of creation”, specifically ones where life is created.

Gunn is no vitalist, so he draws no distinction between “chemical life” and “mechanical life”. The former is based (as far as we know) exclusively on carbon, the former is based on inorganic compounds. Chemical life is “vitalized in the cell; mechanical life is vitalized in the ‘mind’ and power center”.

Of course, the creation of artificial life and seemingly sentient machines has a history before sf. It features in legend and folklore. There’s even a flying brass horse in The Canterbury Tales.

Creating “chemical life” seems more magical, a veritable resurrection of the dead according to Gunn. By doing that, humans assume God-like powers as opposed to creating “mechanical life” which has more the air of supreme artisanship or mechanical skill though, especially when creating machines that seem or are sentient, it can also seem God-like. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life”

Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

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

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

Transgalactic

Essay: Transgalactic, James Gunn, 2016.

Transgalactic
Cover by Thom Tenery

”That sounds like some ancient space romance. … Full of incredible adventures and near-death escapes.”

So says mad scientist Jak, making an on-stage appearance here after being mentioned in the first novel, Transcendental, of the Transcendental trilogy.

Whereas that novel was full of interrogative statements and a density of question marks unparalleled in my reading (except, maybe, in my dim memories of Plato’s The Republic), its follow up is full of confident declarations, declarations that echo other works of Gunn and of Gunn’s friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl.

And it is full of adventure, romance, and near-death escapes.

Gunn has, to my knowledge, the longest career of any living English language science fiction author – 69 years though that is still less than Williamson’s 83 year-long career. Continue reading “Transgalactic”

Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War

The Jerry Pournelle series continues with a look at one of his anthologies that characteristically mixed fiction (not always science fiction either) and nonfiction.

The fiction selections were reprints and writers selected from the slush pile.

Unfortunately, this is the only one of his anthologies I have complete notes on.

Raw Feed (1987): Imperial Stars, Vol 1.: The Stars at War, eds. Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, 1986.Imperial Stars

Introduction: Empire”, Jerry Pournelle — Pournelle logically expounds on the thesis that empire is the government most natural to man and that its time, no matter what democracies naively think, is not done. He also well shows the advantages of empire and that empires can take many forms including the possibility the U.S. is heading toward empire.

In Clouds of Glory”, Algis Budrys — Good story but would liked more exploration of how Agency would open way for an Earth empire. Extensive surgery and conditioning of main character was reminiscent (or, rather, predates) Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered. Would have liked more on future Earth history and how global government founded. Technically, story is interesting in that all military action occurs off-stage and story is a “thought-piece” on historical and political matters. Not as good as other Budrys I’ve read.

The Star Plunderer”, Poul Anderson — First read this story in Brian Aldiss’ excellent anthology Galactic Empires. I only remembered the bit with a slave revolt, but I liked this  story the second time as well. Pournelle, in introduction, goes further with rationalizing space barbarians (How, in story, did they get the tech to begin with?) than Anderson does. Anderson has a talent for invoking flavor of epic in language. Manuel Argos, who brings order out of an environment obviously reminiscent of late Republican Rome though he is personality-wise, no Augustus. He is a cold, manipulative, ruthless character who unsentimentally realizes what desperate measures need to be taken. Not a pleasant character but realistic one. Excitement and desperation and the degradation of servitude were all well-depicted. Nice touch in Earth being liberate, and an empire being established, but this is subordinated to the poignancy of narrator losing his love. The only flaw of story was the rather cliched early description of their romance, and Kathryn “instinctively” choosing a figure like Argos. Love is never so simple or instinctive a matter. Continue reading “Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War”

Year’s Best SF

Yes, I am well aware that the countdown is going backwards on all these Hartwell anthologies I’ve been posting reviews of. Like the previous ones, this has alternate history material.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1996.years-best-sf

Think Like a Dinosaur“, James Patrick Kelly — Hartwell, in his introductory notes, says this story is part of a dialogue about Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”. That’s true. It does involve the killing of an innocent to balance some equations, here the obscure equations involved in quantum teleportation of humans to an alien world. However, the story, in its plot of birth and death via teleportation, has echoes of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. This story is more emotional than Godwin’s tale. The narrator, a person counseling skittish people on how to handle the teleportation process, kills, rather gleefully, one of his charges. He learns to “think like a dinosaur”, like the alien Gendians who are the ones who insist on the equations being balanced in their teleportation process.

Wonders of the Invisible World“, Patricia A. McKillip — I’m not really sure what the point of this story was. Most of it concerns the narrator’s interaction, as a time traveling researcher, with Cotton Mather (the story’s title is an allusion to a work of Mather’s) as part of a project to investigate the imagery of primitive, “Pre-Real” (presumably as in “virtual reality”) peoples’ mind. At first, the narrator seems appalled by both the poisonous uses that Mather puts his rather impoverished imagination to yet sad by the lack of imagination by most adults in her world. Yet, she’s appalled by the atavistic imagination of her boss. The narrator seems to reach the conclusion, at story’s end, that the powerful computer tools of her age enable a much healthier imagination for her son — though that imagination may be lost when he gets older. Why a library of pre-conceived icons and notions should necessarily mean greater imagination among the youth is not really explored — though it probably would. And McKillip definitely doesn’t explain why this imagination should suddenly be lost in the narrator’s society when people reach adulthood. It seemed like more of an excuse to comment and criticize Mather than anything else.

Hot Times in Magma City“, Robert Silverberg — Once again Silverberg proves why he’s a master. He takes a rather hackneyed idea, Los Angeles threatened by volcanic eruptions, and breaths new life into by sheer technical skill and a little technological extrapolation. (To show what a hackneyed idea this is, about two years after this story was published, the movie Volcano came about — about Los Angeles threatened by an eruption.) Silverberg has the great metropolis threatened by a whole series of magma eruptions. The technical skill of the story comes in telling it in a chatty, present-tense style and, perhaps even more importantly, who he selects as the heroes: a bunch of drug addicts sentenced to mandatory community service. They fight the magma upwellings in special suits. Silverberg handles those action details well. But it’s the addition of their interactions, the flaws and quirks that made them addicts, and their attempts at self-rehabilitation through their work fighting magma, that make the story special. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF”

Pandora’s Star

Since I haven’t made much headway on the backlog of titles to be reviewed, the Peter F. Hamilton series continues.

Raw Feed (2005): Pandora’s Star, Peter F. Hamilton, 2004.Pandora's Star

As with his Night’s Dawn trilogy and Fallen Dragon, Hamilton’s exhibits his characteristic strengths of worldbuilding — the technology, politics, science, topography, geography, and most especially (and rarely — and least in a credible sense — for sf writers) the economics of his worlds.

In a certain sense this is a fond, sf version of the British Empire in the Belle Époque era, a Commonwealth of worlds literally bound together by trains that travel through wormholes, the only fly in the ointment being (as with troubles in the Balkans pre-World War One) some terrorists who are convinced that the government has been infiltrated by a vast alien conspiracy.  This rather utopian world is then suddenly propelled into a war with aliens.

Despite the absence of a schism in the human ranks as represented by the Adamists and Edenists in the Night’s Dawn trilogy, the flavor of the Interstellar Commonwealth is quite similar to the Confederation. The world of both features mysterious aliens and alien ruins.  In Night’s Dawn it was the Kulu and their ruins. Here it is High Angel and the mysterious, rather moronic seeming Silfen.

The longevity of the humans — people put aside money for their physical regenerations like we put aside money for retirements and “first lifers” are regarded sexually, psychologically, and socially as something special by those who have lived long enough to undergo rejuvenation therapy — is reminiscent of the longed lived characters in Hamilton’s stand alone novella “Watching Trees Grow“. (Those whose physical bodies are actually destroyed and who find their edited and recorded memories loaded into cloned bodies have a traumatic time of it.) Continue reading “Pandora’s Star”

Rogue Moon; or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased looked at this novel recently.
Raw Feed (1993): Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys, 1960.Rogue Moon
Budrys writes in a concise, clear style that makes it clear he’s considered the many implications of his idea of a matter duplicator and transmitter. Not only is there a clear working out of the details of scanning matter, recording its information, and the attendant problems of sending the signal from one duplicator to another, but Budrys goes into the political implications. The U.S. matter teleporter on the moon is kept a secret from the world in this novel. The shadow of the Cold War hangs over a lot of Budrys’ work – understandable given his history as a Lithuanian exile. The main focus of the novel is the psychological and social implications for those who are scanned and transmitted.  Budrys does not go into the economic implications of his device.

Continue reading “Rogue Moon; or, Adventures in Reader Reactions”

The Man in the Maze, or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

I’m going to stick with the Robert Silverberg material for awhile.

Joachim Boaz did a proper review of the novel.

Man in the Maze

Raw Feed (1993): The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg, 1969.

I liked a lot of things in this novel.

This alien maze was much more lush and exotic seeming with its nature as a romantic alien archaeological site than the maze in Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. (I read this novel to compare it to that work.) I liked the throwaway bits of description (political, cultural, environmental) Silverberg gives for the various worlds of man — proving the truth of one reviewer saying Silverberg takes the material of space opera and recasts it into a more literate form. I liked the various technological details – the matter duplicators, drones, computer projection of probability, “women cubes” – that reminded me that the current crop of sf stories dealing with the implications of nanotechnology and computers and virtual reality are really not that new in the their concerns and findings, only in the window dressing of their rationales. I liked the giant aliens from a gas giant who see down the entire electromagnetic spectrum, who need to telepathically control other species to build their technologies.

I liked Silverberg’s skill at weaving the details of Richard Muller’s past with his self-exile on Lemnos. I liked Ned Rawlins as the young reflection of the earlier Muller: ambitious, moral, removed from humanity but also desirous of company. I liked the thematic tension – symbolized in Muller’s repulsive telepathic emissions of his emotions – between man’s repulsiveness (the physical repulsiveness of his pores, his guts, his skull – in contrast to the many sexual and sensual references in this novel – and his spiritual repulsiveness of lusts, xenophobia, fears, despairs, regrets) and his potential, his superficial beauty and grandeur, his cleverness. The novel says, in its rejection of Muller’s “sophomoric cynicism”, that man has to do the best he can with his nature, to adopt Boardman’s seemingly world-weary but really wise pragmatism.

However, I felt the novel fell a little short in a couple of respects: convincing me that naked emotions from Muller would be that bad and that Muller hated humanity (though it could be argued that he really didn’t). The ending, Muller’s soul being drained, was a bit abrupt too.

 

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

Hitler Victorious

The reading continues to outpace the writing, so you get another retro review. This one’s from June 21, 2008 …

I suppose I should apologize for more Nazis. But I’m not going to.

Review: Hitler Victorious, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin Harry Greenberg, 1986.Hitler Victorious

The weakest stories in this anthology think they can just evoke that modern totem of evil, the twisted cross of the swastika, mix it with some vengeance and moral retribution insufficiently provided by our universe, and have an affecting story. Sometimes, in an ostensible collection of alternate histories, the actual historical speculation is pretty sparse..

The worst of the lot is from the normally reliable Greg Bear. His “Through No Road Whither” has SS officers from an alternate 1985 Germany get their just deserts after crossing the path of a Gypsy woman. There is almost no explanation for this alternate timeline, no exploration of its details. The ghosts of fetuses experimented on by a death camp doctor come back to wreck justice in Howard Goldsmith’s “Do Ye Hear the Children Weeping?”, but it’s not as moving as it wants to be and we learn little about this world except that Nazi genocide proceeded apace and, somehow, America fell under Nazi rule. Editor Gregory Benford at least provides something of an interesting alternative in “Valhalla” which has the Third Reich only surviving till 1947 — but that’s long enough to complete its plans of racial extermination. But the inhabitants of another timeline asserting their jurisdiction over Hitler and his pending judgement are little more than empty wish fulfillment. Continue reading “Hitler Victorious”