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”.

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Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.] Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 5”

Hawkmoon

While I work through my backlog of pending reviews, we continue with old stuff and the Michael Moorcock series.

The Eternal Champion was volume 1 in White Wolf Publishing’s Moorock series. This is volume 3. I made no notes on volume 2, Von Bek, but I’d recommend it just on the basis of The War Hound and the World’s Pain being in it.

Raw Feed (1998): Hawkmoon, Michael Moorcock, 1967, 1992.Hawkmoon

Introduction” — Short piece where Moorcock says this series of four novels was written as popular entertainment with no profundity despite some allusions to “The Beatles or well-known politicians”.

The Jewel in the Skull — I liked the character of Hawkmoon with his emotional detachment, near catatonia, awakening to become an enemy of Granbretan. I liked the Black Jewel threatening to eat his mind. I liked the villains Granbretan (Great Britain of a far future Europe). The emotional reserve and fascination for eccentric behavior, animals, and heraldry of the British is here satirized by the Orders who constantly go about in animal masks. I liked the knight in Jet and Gold.

The Mad Gods’ Amulet — Hawkmoon’s fight against the Dark Empire continues with a classic fantasy ploy – the diversion to quest after a magical item necessary for the main fight/quest. Though here Hawkmoon is unaware, for a long time, that the Runestaff has manipulated him into seeking the Mad God’s Amulet. He thinks he’s pursuing his betrothed Yisselda. I liked the Mad God and his minions (particularly the army of naked woman). I also liked the ambitious villain D’Averc with his affected illness. Hawkmoon warily accepts him as an ally. I also liked the ethereal city of Soryandum. I also liked the far future setting of this series with is antique cites and forgotten cities. Continue reading “Hawkmoon”

Explorers of the Infinite

The Lovecraft series, sort of, with a book I read because it contained some material on Lovecraft.

Raw Feed (2005): Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction, Sam Moskowitz, 1957, 1963.Explorers of the Infinite

I read this book now for its chapter on H. P. Lovecraft. (I had read the chapter on Edgar Allan Poe years ago as research for an English paper.) There wasn’t a whole lot there that I didn’t know except for the letters from other writers about Lovecraft and the stories of others inspired by Lovecraft.

Moskowitz’s great strength is the uncovering of a lot of obscure stories and others. His particular interest is tracing the treatment of certain technological and scientific ideas which is a valid school of sf criticism though I think it’s a mistake to think, and I don’t think Moskowitz does, to think sf exists to prophesize.

Most of the chapters are titled with the name of a science fiction author and were originally published in sf magazines. However, most chapters end by connecting a particular author — as well as more obscure authors — to the subject of the next chapter.

As with most sf criticsm, it makes me want to read a lot of this stuff.

Moskowitz sums up a lot of work including non-English language stuff. However, describing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as combining the travel tale, utopia, and “science story” makes me wonder about the accurateness of those descriptions. I’ve read Frankenstein twice and recall no element of the utopian in it.

I found the chapters on Hugo Gernsback; M. P. Shiel; Lu Senarens aka Frank Reade, Jr; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Philip Wylie, and Olaf Stapledon of particular interest.

Moskowitz details Gernsback’s importance as an inventor as well as publisher.

M. P. Shiel’s work, especially The Purple Cloud, seems interesting.  The plot descriptions seem to bear out Brian Aldiss’ remark, in his Billion Year Spree, that, “if ever there was a racist, it was M. P. Shiel.” Jewish Moskowitz simply lets Shiel’s work speak for itself in its anti-Semitism.

Frank Reade, Jr had an amazing career in its early start, prolificness, and financial success. Verne was an admirer. I never paid attention to the dates before, but Reade’s adventures started in 1876 with The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward F. Ellis, a dime novelist (Senarens continued the series to great success); therefore, its steam man and horse (imitated by Jules Verne in his The Steam House, which I have read) is sort of contemporary steampunk.

I was surprised to see how many of Burroughs novels were written to compete with his many imitators in setting and story.

Moskowitz’s covers the popularity of Wylie as both a fiction writer and, in his attack on “Momism”, a social critic.

Olaf Stapledon’s career as fiction writer and philosopher is nicely covered.

 

Reviews of more works touching on Lovecraft and his legacy are on the Lovecraft page.

“Opening Minds”

The review series on the entries in Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature continues with a look at the titular essay.

Review: “Opening Minds“, Brian Stableford, 1976.Opening Minds

Science fiction has, of course, long had a problem defining itself or now, with the blended genre crowd, wondering if it should define itself at all.

I say it should and that a definition is possible, but I’m not going to get drawn into that argument now.

Once you have a definition, the understandable tendency is to put writers on a spectrum of purity from defenders of the faith to those beyond the pale. I’m sure there are attempts to do this on more than just one-dimension. Stableford’s spectrum isn’t there as a genre purity test but to define two approaches to writing science fiction.

Others have created such continuums of genre purity. Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree put writers on the critic/daydreamer spectrum defined by H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, respectively. Stableford also uses Wells and the much more obscure Albert Jarry. Continue reading ““Opening Minds””

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 “An Island Called Moreau”

The World Set Free

 

The H. G. Wells series continues while I’m off reading new stuff for review.

Raw Feed (1996): The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, H. G. Wells, 1914.World Set Free

“Introduction”, Brian Aldiss — Introduction that emphasizes that Wells’ claim to being a prophet (a reputation he garnered in his day) rests on his prediction of atomic warfare in this novel and tanks in “The Land Ironclads”. The technological inspiration came from the work of Frederick Soddy who won a 1921 Nobel Prize for radioactive chemistry. Soddy wrote a popular account of his work in 1909. Aldiss points out the technical flaws of story construction and character in the novel.

This novel gets much credit for being the first sf story to depict atomic warfare. Wells certainly shows warfare of incredible destructiveness and long lingering effects, but those effects are not from radioactivity but from continuous explosions, in effect perpetual volcanoes where the bombs land. I’m not sure if this accurately reflects the scientific opinion of the day. Continue reading “The World Set Free”