The Martian Epic

It’s backward in time to cover my reading of the past five months.

And it’s back to Brian Stableford though, this time, only to one of the works he translated and annotated for Black Coat Press. After reading his co-authored Timeslip Troopers, I wanted to read more Théo Varlet.

Review: The Martian Epic, Octave Joncquel and Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2008.

Cover by Arnaud Demaegd

The two novels in this omnibus, Les Titans du ciel [The Titans of the Heavens] and L’agonie de la Terre [The Agony of Earth], were originally published in 1921 and 1922. Stableford notes they were some of the most important works of roman scientifique published in France between the wars.

They certainly are remarkable, especially for an Anglo reader. That isn’t just because they are, as Timeslip Troopers was, a sort of sequel to an H. G. Wells’ work, but because they feature a significant strain of French cultural and scientific thought in the 19th and early 20th century: spiritualism, the idea of discarnate souls not only on our planet but others, souls capable of travel by thought.

There certainly are plenty of thrills in the wake of a Martian invasion in the year 1978, an invasion which the genius Wells’ had a sort of cloudy precognitive vision of: massive destruction social collapse with strange new cults and political movements springing up.

The Titans of Heaven is a compelling novel told as sort of a memoir as it happens by the narrator, Léon Rudeaux, Besides the intended echo of The War of the Worlds, the work is almost precognitive itself in anticipating H. G. Wells’ later The Shape of Things to Come. Like that work, Joncquel and Varlet give us a world state created out of war.

Ironically, it comes into existence when at the very moment the idea of a “yellow peril” is maligned. China and Japan set out to establish an empire by conquest. Fortunately, a secret committee of scientists thwarts them by the Great Discovery, an electromagnetic device that renders metal weapons dangerous to use.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter V

My look at Stableford’s doctoral thesis continues. My review of this chapter, the book’s longest at 48 pages, is going to be shorter than normal. While thematic criticism is my favorite type of science fiction criticism, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this chapter because much of it is very much like the thematic entries in the first edition of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were cut and pasted from Stableford’s entries for it or vice versa. However, I did not do my blogger due diligence and check my copy of that book. My boxes of books aren’t labelled that exactly and there are scores of them. And I’ve lifted a lot of them lately

I’ll also note that Stableford talks about now more obscure stories because over 40 years of sf history has been added since he wrote this book.

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

Chapter V is titled “Themes and Trends in Science Fiction”. 

The first section is on “Machines” and opens with a quote from Miguel de Unamuno stating that Don Quixote was right to attack the windmill as a dangerous enemy. Stableford goes on to say,

Today the marriage of man and machine, after a long courtship, has been consummated. The honeymoon is over, and we begin to doubt whether we have done the right thing. Science fiction tells the story of our passage from infatuation to the brink of disillusionment with remarkable clarity. 

This section includes coverage of things that have been categorized into entries like “automation”, “computers”, “cyborgs”, and “robots” in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia.  Stableford sees the development, particularly in the case of the robot stories, as largely pro- technology authors losing faith in man and not machines, in our ability to morally and intellectually handle them post-WWII.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter IV

My look at Stableford’s work continues.

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

In Chapter IV, “The Expectations of the Science Fiction Reader”, Stableford tries to discover what sf readers get out of the genre. He looks at three questions: what sf readers say they get out of the genre, how the various definitions of sf serve as rules for composing sf works, and what writers and apologists of sf say about the genre’s function and value. 

Stableford argues that the whole question of science fiction as a genre is that reading a work of sf is different than reading another sort of novel. That’s what defines the genre. He quotes Darko Suvin as defining a genre as a system of expectations, based on prior reading experience, of a particular type of material. Even innovations in the genre are just an evolution of expectations based on past experience with sf.

What are those expectations? To get an idea, Stableford turns to the letters columns of sf magazines. There are a couple of methodological problems with this acknowledges Stableford. 

These are, first of all, a self-selected sample, and, of course, not all the letters received were printed though Stableford notes early sf pulps frequently had letters insulting certain stories.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter III

My chapter-by-chapter review of this Stableford work continues.

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

Chapter III, “The Evolution of Science Fiction as a Publishing Category”, starts out with some possible definitions of sf and, thus, its origins. 

If sf is just fantastic tales, the beginning is Lucian of Samosata’s True History. If it is mythology for a modern age, one can go back to Homer’s Odyssey. If sf is a “didactic medium” to popularize science and awaken dull minds to new vistas of imagination, you can go back to Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae. If you see sf as intimately tied to scientific thought, you go with Johannes Kepler’s Somnium. If you are interested in sf as a means of social speculation, you cite Plato’s Republic as the origin point. An “etymologically-minded critic” might insist that the term science fiction loses all meaning before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. An American reader of pulp magazines would trace it to 1926 and Astounding Magazine

However, Stableford argues that it wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that enough kinds of things we would call sf were produced for it to be recognized as a literary genre, and that label basically starts with H. G. Wells’ work. (I’m not sure if his work on French romans scientifique have changed this.) 

Sociologically, there were four trends Stableford sees as sparking the popular imagination and setting the ground for the public to be interested in sf as a genre:

the revolution in transportation; the theory of evolution; the socialist movement; and the anticipation of large-scale war.

The inclusion of the socialist movement is a significant addition to usual theories of sf developing as a genre.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter II

My look at Brian Stableford’s doctoral thesis continues.

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

In the Chapter II of the book, “The Analysis of Communicative Functions”, Stableford looks at how the directive, maintenance, and restorative communicative functions work in sf.

Stableford says you would think that sf, deemed escapist fiction, would all be done in the restorative mode, but that’s not the case. Only a naïve, very inexperienced sf reader would think that. 

The crucial task would be to ask sf readers what they get out of reading the genre. 

There is, however, a sociological problem with creating a questionnaire to do that since it runs the risk of creating data artifacts. Fortunately, American sf magazines have long had feedback by readers in their letters columns. There is a problem of “content analysis” in regard to sorting sf into the three communicative categories.

Directive and maintenance are easy. Directive content is novel. Maintenance is familiar. 

Restorative is harder to pin down. Stableford says that, rather than using individual texts, he will do content analysis by theme. 

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter I

And we’re on to the first chapter of Stableford’s work.

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

In Chapter I, “Approaches to the Sociology of Literature”, Stableford starts by quoting sociologist Leo Lowenthal. Like so many others, Lowenthal emphasizes works of fiction as a product of a creative process and is not interested in the readers of that fiction. This type of sociological examination is interested in why the author chose the subject and method of presentation he did. Psychologists of literature followed Freud’s interest in the psychology of creation. For Freud, literature was an expression of neurotic tendencies.

Most of these approaches ignore literature as a means of expression. Madame de Staël was interested, so she said, in literature’s effect on religion, custom, and law, but she didn’t actually write much about that. Like her contemporaries, Hegel and Herder, she mainly saw literature as expressing a spirit of the age. In this view, all a writer can do is express that spirit, well or badly.

But this, argues Stableford, is hardly a scientific notion. It can’t be falsified. Twentieth century sociologists Georg Lukas and Lucien Goldmann were no better. The latter saw literature as expressing a “world vision”, the “whole complex of ideas, aspirations and feelings” of a class. Goldmann’s ideas led him to ignore large swathes of literature as “accidental” and not expressing this world vision. These theories don’t explain how aesthetically satisfying works are never created accidentally.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Intro

Where was I . . .

Stableford, yes, Brian Stableford before the whole tediousness of moving on short notice to another state for another job, the culmination of an eight month project.

And so I have. But not much reading got done and even less blogging and that was further disrupted by books being packed away and some books not making the journey at all.

Since I was reading works by Stableford and translated by him, I decided to cover another of his critical works. People seem to like those entries. And, even if they didn’t, I’d still do them.

This is Stableford’s doctoral thesis, begun in 1972 and completed in 1978 and published by Borgo Press in 1987.

I’m going to do a post on each chapter. I think the work has value for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a new way of looking at some disputes in the field. (Though, looking at the last issue of Locus, I’m reminded that I am in no way au courant with the genre.) Second, I’m hoping the framework Stableford provides will provide a scaffold to view works and trends in the field in the 43 years since it was written.

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

While working on this thesis, Stableford was supporting himself by writing science fiction novels and was fascinated by the question as to why people chose to read what they did and the effects their reading had on them. Those questions were generally met with hostility on the part of readers and some writers. (And, of course, there is, he notes, a more basic question: why do people chose to read anything rather than nothing?)

Writers and literary critics don’t like the suggestion that what writers produce “is to some extent explicable in terms of their social situation and of various social pressures to which they are subject”.

The resistance to those questions can be explained.

First, there is the notion that what people chose to read says something about themselves. This generates the well-known tendency to lie if one likes to read “low prestige” genre fiction. Thus, an explanation of their reading habits may be suspected to be unflattering to these readers.

Second, writers and critics don’t like the question because literature is a sacred cause for them. It is to be discussed in terms of aesthetics and value judgements. To cite influences outside the author is, by this group’s lights, devaluing the authors’ work. The writer is God over a private cosmos of their creation. Suggesting otherwise is blasphemy.

Stableford says his intent is not to threaten readers, writers, and critics of sf or be subversive.  However, good sociology, he says, should shatter illusions, and Stableford worries his thesis is not annoying enough. He wryly says he hopes followers of sf will be reluctant to recognize themselves and react in “pure paranoid horror”.

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The Castaways of Tanagar; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I read a novel translated by Brian Stableford, I had to get a Stableford novel off the shelf.

Review: The Castaways of Tanagar, Brian Stableford, 1981. 

Cover by H. R. Van Dongen

The review of this book on the Brian Stableford website suggests that it is a science fictional working out of ideas from Plato’s The Republic. Tanagar society has three classes, and Stableford combines Plato’s ideas with William Sheldon’s theory of personality determined by body type. Intellectuals are passionless, thin, ascetic, and supposedly not given to emotion. Pragmatists, also not given to much emotion except at chosen times when they “jeckle”, are strivers, rightfully regarding themselves as the only ones who can get things done between the other two classes’ indecision and indiscipline. They are medium-framed, Sheldon’s mesomorphic body type. Hedonists are fat and emotional. 

The novel also partakes of some common themes of science fiction from the 1970s and 1980s: biofeedback, skills obtained through memory implants, nuclear holocaust, and resource depletion on Earth.

Our castaways are those who just couldn’t fit in to Tanagar society. That was the planet settled by a generation starship fled Earth before a nuclear war broke out. The Tanagarians put them in cold sleep.

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Timeslip Troopers

In keeping with the World War One theme I started with The Russian Origins of the First World War, I picked this book off the shelf.

Review: Timeslip Troopers, Théo Varlet and André Blandin, trans. Brian Stableford, 1923, 2012. 

Cover by Mandy

When Lieutenant Renard rotates into command of a group of poilu defending on a small French village, he finds out that the officers have a very well-stocked wine cellar. But the Englishman who left it – he was shot as a German spy — also left behind a time machine and his journal. While the tone of the book is closer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is explicitly a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine since that Englishman is Well’s time traveler.

When Renard discovers the journal and machine, he shows it to Sergeant Dupuy, the unit’s clever radio man and a mechanic before the war in the factory owned by Renard’s father.

When an accident with a time machine transports a group of French soldiers from the Western Front of World War One to the Spain of 1321, we get a wry, entertaining novel. It’s the first science fiction work I know of in the tradition of radically displacing earthly soldiers in time and space. It blazes – without, presumably, any influence on those later works – the path followed by Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze, Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries, and Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World series.

The two take it out on some test flights for a bit of R & R in Paris before and during the war. Both trips are near disasters, and the Germans unexpectedly attack the unit during one, and Renard has to come up with an unconvincing story about why he and Dupuy were gone at such a critical time.

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Fantastic Fiction and the Great War

This column seems to have disappeared from the Innsmouth Free Press website where it appeared in 2016.

Essay: Fantastic Fiction and the Great War

Arnyvelde, Andre. Translated by Brian Stableford. The Ark. Black Coat Press (August 15, 2015). Paperback USD $22.95. 313 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1612274324.

Atherton, Gertrude Franklin Horn. The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime. Amazon Digital Services (March 6, 2012). Kindle USD $0. 124 pages. ASIN: B007HT2OGA.

Benson, Stella. Living Alone. Amazon Digital Services (May 17, 2012). Kindle USD $0. 280 pages. ASIN: B0084BB9YI.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Lost Continent. Running Press (June 25, 2014). Kindle USD $0.99. 149 pages. ASIN: B00LAMPLG0.

Froisland, Frois. Translated by Nils Flaten. The Man with the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front. Harper & Brothers, 1930. Hardcover USD $275. 276 pages.

Meyrink, Gustav. Translated by Mike Mitchell. The Green Face. Dedalus (October 2004). Kindle USD $13.99. Paperback USD $10.75. 224 pages. ASIN: B0038U2V8S. ISBN-13: 978-0946626922.

Phillips, Forbes and Hopkins, R. Thurston. War and the Weird. Amazon Digital Services (March 24, 2011). Kindle USD $0. 116 pages. ASIN: B004TQ205O.

Robida, Albert. Translated by Brian Stableford. The Engineer Von Satanas. Black Coat Press (July 31, 2015). Paperback USD $24.95. 337 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1612274256.

Stableford, Brian. “An Accidental Prophet: Albert Robida’s Future Wars.” New York Review of Science Fiction no. 322 (June 2015). Kindle USD $2.99.

Stevens, Francis. The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy. University of Nebraska Press (October 1, 2004). Paperback USD $21.95. 404 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0803292987.

The roar of the wind was so constant, so deafening, that Hauberrisser began to think that all around was shrouded in a deathly hush. It was only when he went to nail back the trembling shutters, so that they would not be blown against the glass, and found he could not hear the hammering, that he realised how great the din outside must be.

… when he did risk a tentative glance, he saw it still towering up undamaged, but it was an island in a sea of rubble: the rest of the frieze of spires, roofs and gables had been almost completely flattened.

How many cities are there left standing in Europe? he wondered with a shudder. The whole of Amsterdam has been ground to dust like crumbling rock; nothing left of a rotten civilization but a scatter of rubbish. He was gripped with awe as he suddenly comprehended the magnitude of the cataclysm.

Published in the middle of the Great War for Civilization, Austrian Gustav Meyrink’s 1916 novel The Green Face imagined a post-war Amsterdam crammed with refugees from many nations. Hauberrisser, a man tired of “the old game of civilization: first peace to prepare for war and then war to win back peace,” wants to see “a fresh, unknown world.” Idle curiosity propels him on a mystical quest that starts with a chance entry into Chider Green’s Hall of Riddles. He moves through a city of unemployed intelligentsia and the “dregs of Paris and London, of the cities of Belgium and Russia, fleeing in panic the revolutions that had broken out in their own countries … aristocrats who would rather die than crawl.” He will meet a Zulu witch doctor, a fake Polish count, a mystical entomologist, and a group of occultists who seek eternal life by slow transformation of their bodies. One predicts his ward, Eva, who longs for death, may be Hauberrisser’s prophesied wife in a marriage of destiny out of which will come a new world.

That wind that roars through Europe at the end of the novel blows in a new spiritual order.

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