Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 5

 

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The detailed examination of James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re still looking at that category of plots of circumstances where the setting is the modern world or the near future and the plot is built around a problem.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Past

Gunn notes this is similar to the “ancient being or primitive being in a modern human environment” plot. This plot, though, is centered around a modern man, and it is that man that provides reader identification.

This is primarily a plot of menace. Some kind of man, animal, plant, seed, or strange alien being comes into our world from the past. (Gunn doesn’t mention disease, but that’s obviously another potential menace.) The menace arrives from suspended animation, some temporal suspension, or time travel.

In threatening human supremacy in the world, this menace allows an examination and reassessment of some human trait, the assets and debits of human nature.

H. P. Lovecraft understandably gets cited as a prime example though Gunn regards his work as “more fantasy than science fiction”; however, he does concede Lovecraft did offer explanations of varying degrees of credibility. That’s a fair assessment of Lovecraft, and Lovecraft didn’t really consider himself a science fiction writer though I’d argue that, whatever the plausibility of the offered explanations, a story that offers a scientific explanation is sf on that ground alone whatever the intended emotional effect the author was going for. Gunn says Lovecraft was one of the few writers to successfully create a new mythology to be in the background of his stories. Richard Shaver’s stories are an example of failing to do that.

Understandably, Gunn cites John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” as a fine example of this plot. However, he makes no reference of its probable influence of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” on it.

All in all, Gunn is in favor of this plot as well-suited to many purposes, including a philosophical examination of humanity, and providing suspense, the all important “reader identification”, and drama.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another Dimension

Lovecraft and his followers in the Cthulhu Mythos aren’t mentioned here. Gunn sees this as a plot type in decline. (He also says Charles Fort frequently gets cited in this type of story.)

The limitation of this plot type is that it isn’t as flexible as the problems-from-the-past-encroaching- into-the-modern-world plot. It doesn’t seem to be well-suited to comment on “the nature of mankind”. (I’m not sure why Gunn thinks that. It isn’t obviously true.) What these stories mainly suggest is that “man is not the apex of creation”.

As a tool for a horror story, it works well even “though that purpose borders closely on fantasy”.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another World or Space

Obviously Gunn is right in stating this is a popular plot. The problems you can export from another place other than Earth are unlimited. The modern world can be contrasted to the strangeness outside it. Reader identification, as in all the plots set in the modern world, is high.

It also has a higher credibility, an easier suspension of disbelief, than using a plot that brings problems into the world from the past, another dimension, or the future.

It can easily provide that old sf standby, “sense of wonder”.

And Gunn makes the interesting point that it expresses science fiction’s

natural hatred of skepticism—that type of skepticism, at least, which refuses to admit the possibility of any happening out of the ordinary.

Gunn cites the popular “aliens judging Earth” variety of this plot.

He concludes with his high opinion of this plot’s literary value and ease of use for writers:

The form itself is one of the best developed in science fiction; interesting, effective, and occasionally significant stories have been written in this form, and it has promise of even greater merit if it develops its thematic possibilities along new and perhaps more productive lines.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Future

Gunn cites two stories here as excellent examples of sf craft: William Tenn’s “Child Play” and Henry Kuttner’s and C. L. Moore’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”.

Both stories are about children’s toys from the future showing up in our world. In the Tenn story, it’s a “Bild-A-Man” kit. In the Kuttner and Moore story, it’s a toy teaching kids how to enter a fourth dimension.

But, in Gunn’s mind, those stories have no “particularly serious or significant nature”. C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” does. Specifically, it’s a commentary on overpopulation and dysgenics, and Gunn thinks, while it shows this plot, usually written and read just for pleasure, could do more.

The next post on Gunn’s thesis will look at a literary judgement Gunn got very wrong.

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Saving the World Through Science Fiction

Review: Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar, Michael R. Page, 2017.51jIRlPDtwL

Before I move on to the inevitable quibbles, let me say that anyone who is a James Gunn fan should buy this book. People who are curious about Gunn and his work should buy this.

Actually, since it’s the first and only book about Gunn, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter anyway.

I’ve long thought, even before starting this blog, that Gunn was an author unjustly neglected and that I should write a series on him. However, while I’ve done some posts on Gunn and read all his novels and most of his shorter works, I didn’t make notes on a lot of them. I’d have to do a lot of rereading and make careful notes.

Page has largely saved me the trouble. He says many of the things I noticed about Gunn. He also says many things I didn’t notice. Continue reading “Saving the World Through Science Fiction”

The Roads Between the Worlds

The Michael Moorcock series continues not with sword-and-sorcery but science fiction.

Raw Feed (1999): The Roads Between the Worlds, Michael Moorcock, 1964, 1971.Roads Between the World

Introduction” — An interesting introduction in which Moorcock not only talks about the three novels in this omnibus but his relation to sf. Moorcock cites Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man as an influence which made me eager to read the novels in this omnibus. Moorcock has said he doesn’t have a lot of interest in “modern sf” but liked the works of Fritz Leiber, Philip K. Dick, and the Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth collaborations. This explains his dislike of Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein. He doesn’t like conservative sf with its preeminence of rationalizing with hard science its fantasy elements. For him, sf (he’s hardly alone in this nor is it an illegitimate stance) is a way to understand our world. The fantasy element in his sf is both a symbol as well as a device to move the story. He says these three novels trace the evolution of the “rationalist apparatus” of sf from “stage machinery” to symbolic writings. Moorcock also, as I didn’t know, worked as a writer for the British Liberal Party for awhile. These novels were written in one draft and very slightly revised for this edition. Evidently, they were written in a hurry to provide more traditional far for the experimental magazines Science Fiction Adventures and New Worlds.

The Wrecks of Time — I liked this novel a lot more than I thought I would. Its plot of Earths being built and destroyed and altered (and the inhabitants amnesiac about the alteration of their planet’s geography) reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s themes of what is reality and simulating it. The scheming groups of D-Squads and aliens obsessed with recreating the society that birthed them reminded me of A. E. van Vogt (also an influence on Dick). Continue reading “The Roads Between the Worlds”

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued,

Looking back in my posts after posting a review of volume six in this series, I see I hadn’t posted anything on volume one. I suspect that’s because, for whatever reason, I didn’t make notes on the last story in the book.

That makes this a …

Low Res Scan: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: To Be Continued, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2006.Robert Silverberg 1

Introduction” — An interesting introduction to this, the first volume in what Silverberg says is the third attempt to collect his stories. Silverberg continues to amaze me with his prolificness while not working weekends and while in college. Here he casually mentions all the stories, as a professional writer (not working weekends but while in college), he sold in the years 1953-58. He says that he will let his mediocre sports and mystery stories languish. Silverberg is unapologetic about being a hack to fund sf projects he did care about. It was only years later that he discovered that the writers he admired, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon weren’t supporting themselves by in the same way. Leiber had an editorial job. Bradbury sold to the high paying slicks. Sturgeon simply lived near starvation — which Silverberg decidedly didn’t. However, he is happy to reprint his early pulp stories which he thinks show compentency and that he has affection for.

Gorgon Planet” — Silverberg justly points out that this, his first professional sale, is nothing special. But it is pretty good for an eighteen year old, and he’s right in showing that he had an early command of effectively linking exposition and dialogue. The plot itself is a lackluster retelling of the Perseus-Medusa myth in a sf context. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued,”

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”

Year’s Best SF 4

The alternate history series continues though there are only two stories in this book that fits that description.

Hartwell’s series is the only one I followed fairly consistently apart from Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Best SF series which was started me reading science fiction regularly.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 4, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1999.years-best-sf-4

Market Report”, Alexander Jablokov — I like Jablokov, but I didn’t think this story was good enough to be included in this anthology (of course, I didn’t read all the sf short fiction published in 1998). Still, on skimming the story again after reading it, I appreciated it more. It has a wry humor about it with its portrayal of retired suburbanites hanging out in a planned community which they’re planning to restock with Pleistocene flora and fauna and the women have primitive rites in its jungles, and the narrator’s parents, members of that community, try to comprehend his job as a spotter of self-defined groups that need to be marketed to. At first glance, the story doesn’t seem to be about much apart from its near-future extrapolation of sociological-based marketing and Pleistocene hobbyists. But, with its plot of a man finding a home amongst parents he’s spent a lifetime trying to understand, to “catch” the meaning of their conversation and the same narrator getting over a failed marriage, I suspect Jablokov was trying to do a sf imitation of John Cheever or John Irving, writers, I believe, Jablokov has expressed an admiration for. However, not being sf writers, my exposure to them has been minimum.

A Dance to Strange Musics”, Gregory Benford — This is a brilliant, austere, unsentimental, humbling, Stapledonian, classic sf tale. Its classicism is that it’s pure hard sf, a detailed working out of a surprising ecosystem in our galactic backyard — the Alpha Centauri star system — and little emphasis on individual characters (though Benford does put in some wry bits about how scientists relate to one another). The plot progresses from one hard sf wonder to another. A vast, elevated lake is found on a planet in the star system. It seems to be formed in the remnants of a crater and literally floats kilometers above the surface, the power to do so coming from the piezoelectric forces generated by tidal stresses from the three suns in the system. The planetary system is covered by tile-like creatures who constantly move about, dancing to “strange music”. Eventually, it’s speculated that their movements (they, and the whole ecology of the planet, feed off electrical energy rather than chemical energy) represent some giant, planetary computer at work. A manned probe into the atmosphere finds, before the pilot dies, surprising levels of electrical power and a sort of memory in the system. The giant, floating lake turns out to be a giant laser system which periodically sends messages to other star systems. More die exploring the planet, learning that the tiles feed on electricity and exchange, in sophisticated protocols, data with each other, and that planet fires off messages into space not intended for man. The first expedition descends to the planet but not before they realize that the lifeforms on the planet are engineered, that the intelligent life there has either left for space or engineered themselves into the tiles. Another expedition is sent from an Earth where people live in the “disposable realities” of computer created environments. They meet odd, disconcerting facsimiles of the first expedition. The facsimiles are a disturbing group mind with facial expressions that flicker at precise intervals and who each speak separate words in their sentences while inviting man to join their Being Suite, their bodies precisely spaced in a hexagon. The humans are appalled by what they see and, out of fear, do not go to the surface. They don’t know if the first expedition was seduced or raped into becoming part of the Being Suite. The second to last paragraph has a classic passage about the unknowability of the universe, its forever closed community of sentience: “It is one thing to speak of embracing the new, the fresh, the strange. It is another to feel that one is an insect, crawling across a page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, knowing only that something vast is passing by beneath, all without your sensing more than a yawning vacancy. Worse, the lack was clearly in oneself, and was irredeemable.” A classic sf statement, a classic sf tale. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 4”

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

Another entry in the alternate history series though this one only has a single story that fits the bill.

Raw Feed (1992): The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, ed. Frederik Pohl, 1976.best-of-c-m-kornbluth

“Introduction: An Appreciation”, Frederik Pohl — Discussion of C.M. Kornbluth’s career, including many mainstream works, and his work as a journalist (which explains the wide variety of characters in his work as well as a knowledge of the world’s workings and seamier elements), his education, his intellectual traits (showing in the wide knowledge illustrated in these stories), and bursts of writing. He started early, at a high level, and got better.

The Rocket of 1955” Story of the world’s first “moon-shot”, a con put together with blackmail, for money. It fails (in that what seems to be a tragic explosion but is entirely planned), but the plot is uncovered and the perpetrators are executed. It’s main interest is Kornbluth’s characteristic economy even at this young age (18) and a cynical element (a moonshot being a con) which marks many of the stories in this anthology. Continue reading “The Best of C. M. Kornbluth”