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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The Mind Parasites

The Lovecraft series continues with a novel and more ruminations on Lovecraft. I should add that, while the Amazon link takes you to the edition I read, Wilson scholar Gary Lachman, whose blog you’ll find on the lists of blogs I follow, wrote an introduction to a new edition.

Raw Feed (2005): The Mind Parasite, Colin Wilson, 1967.Mind Parasites

In his preface, Wilson recounts his history with H. P. Lovecraft.

His first encounter was entirely provoked by the similar title of a Lovecraft collection, The Outsider and Others with his own first work, the non-fiction The Outsider. Wilson initially found Lovecraft a sick, pessimistic recluse who weakly turned away from the world he was alienated from, taking vengeance on it in “gloomy fantasy”.

While he doesn’t come right out and say it, this seems to back up S. T. Joshi’s contention that Wilson found Lovecraft a pessimistic (Lovecraft would have said indifferent) materialist to be the polar opposite in temperament to Wilson and reacted accordingly. Wilson proceeded to put forth this view in his The Strength to Dream “in which Lovecraft figures largely.”

Later, Wilson came to see Lovecraft as one of those rare, obsessed outsiders doomed by circumstances of economics, not able to give free reign to his powers unlike more famous outsiders like Shelley, Keats, and Byron. He speculates that a financially independent Lovecraft would have given free rein to his curiosity and produced less horror and more fantasy like “The Shadow Out of Time” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. A richer Lovecraft would have had more time and energy, probably would have produced more fiction, and, if it was well received by those he respected, he would have continued to write it. Continue reading “The Mind Parasites”

Darker Than You Think

A while back I did a Jack Williamson series and I found a few more related reviews in the archive, so I’m taking a brief detour from the H. P. Lovecraft series.

And I am working on some new material.

Raw Feed (2002): Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson, 1940, 1948.Darker Than You Think

I originally read this novel because Fortean Miriam de Ford listed it as one of the sf works influenced by Charles Fort.  I see no evidence of that.

Fort is not mentioned or even obliquely alluded to.

I think, amongst other things, Williamson was clearly influenced by the work of Rhine on psychic powers, and the notion that these strange powers (which are mentioned in, partially, Fort’s Wild Talents) may be studied scientifically almost certainly comes from there.

If there is any Charles Fort influence, it may be by way of Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier.

Both novels were published in John Campbell’s Unknown magazine, Russell’s in 1939, Williamson in 1940.

Both novels feature a broad battle between humans and non-humans, Russell’s Vitons and Williamson’s witch-people, with the evidence of those battles showing up in human psychology and odd events. Continue reading “Darker Than You Think”

“From Beyond”

The Lovecraft series.

Raw Feed (2005): “From Beyond”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1920.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

In his introduction to this collection, T. E. D. Klein notes that Lovecraft’s protagonist are usually solitary figures or, if a friend is shown, the friend is there to show the downfall of the protagonist.

This is such a story, and I liked the change of pace.

Crawford Tillinghast is described by his best friend, the narrator, as a man who should never have studied philosophy or science. He embarks on a plan to make the invisible entities around us visible — and, in turn, we will become visible to them and (as it turns out), prey.

I liked the bitterness of the story as Tillinghast, begged by the narrator not to continue his researches, kicks him away and then, eventually, tries to get one of the newly discovered entities from beyond to kill him, all the while gloating that at last the existence of his “pets” will be proven. Of course, it is Tillinghast they ultimately kill. Continue reading ““From Beyond””

“The Whisperer in Darkness”

The Lovecraft series continues.

Raw Feed (2005, 2013): “The Whisperer in Darkness“, H. P. Lovecraft, 1930.Dunwich Horror and Others

I recall that Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi at one point said this was one of Lovecraft’s greatest stories. Upon the second reading, I’m inclined to agree.

It’s not only a horror story, but it also has the feeling of a creepy sf story.  Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories frequently boosted their verisimilitude with bits of science and history and literature, but Lovecraft is particularly skilled at that here.

He gives us the Outer Ones, an alien race conducting secret mining operations in the Vermont hills (sort of a predecessor to John Keel’s Mothman), and he describes their biology as well as motives. They could conquor the Earth if they wanted but aren’t about to bother unless we give them trouble. (Narrator Wilmarth and Akeley echo what must have been Lovecraft’s disdain for real estate developers when they talk about how the rural hills of Vermont must not be inhabited.) A particularly brilliant move is equating the Outer Ones’ home of Yuggoth (a favorite piece of fabulous geography in Lovecraft’s oeuvre) with Pluto which was discovered in 1930, the very year this story was written.

Lovecraft talks about how Einstein’s contention that faster than light travel is impossible is wrong. Oddly enough, he mentions the Outer Ones as flying through the ether with their wings when, of course, Lovecraft must have been aware that ether was disproved in the famous Michaelson-Morley experiment which laid the groundwork for Einstein’s work. Continue reading ““The Whisperer in Darkness””

Star-Begotten

This will be the end of my H. G. Wells series.

Back in 1996, I knew there were a few Wells fantasy and science fiction works I missed. I didn’t bother to read The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution. However, since I’ve seen the film based on it several times, Things to Come with a screenplay by Wells, I didn’t see the need to read it. (I’m quite fond of Raymond Massey thundering to the citizens of Well’s future city “Time enough to rest in the grave” after they bitch about their version of future shock.)

However, the “H. G. Wells” entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia shows  I missed several other titles — though I’m sure they are minor works. Either I wasn’t paying attention 20 years ago or just not that ambitious.

Yet another reading project to get back to.

In future posts, I’ll be looking at some Wells’ related novels, and yes, I am working on reviews of books actually published in 2017.

Raw Feed (1996): Star-Begotten: A Biological Fantasia, H. G. Wells, 1937.Star Begotten

This 1937 novel by Wells evoked some of the same responses in me that his In the Days of the Comet did.

First, I liked Wells’ satire against everything from women’s fashions to politics and the psychology of his characters – particularly protagonist Joseph Davis, who vehemently writes propagandistic works of history to defend a sociopolitical order he has doubts about; Harold Rigamey, an “ultra-heretic” (I wonder if Wells had Charles Fort in mind) who writes wildly speculative essays throwing pseudo-science and science together; [I don’t wonder anymore.] Lord Thunderclap, a paranoid, conspiracy-mongering newspaper tycoon.

I liked several bits.

The public’s inability, due to the rapid rate of change even at the time of this novel’s writing, to give any but the most trivial and mundane reaction to even remarkable news (here the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence manipulating humans genetically) is mentioned. Wells sees Americans as too ready, in fits of anti-rational, anti-intellectual, misplaced egalitarianism, to denounce any new ideas and recognize no intellectual authorities over the common man and belittle ideas. Continue reading “Star-Begotten”

Paratime

Since his name recently came up in some of the discussions about the ongoing “pulp revolution”, I thought I’d pull a couple of items on H. Beam Piper out of the archives.

Raw Feed (2002): Paratime, ed. John F. Carr, 1981.Paratime 

“Introduction”, John F. Carr — A long and detailed introduction to Piper and his Paratime series. Carr gives a very brief summary of Piper’s life, but he mostly details how Piper’s belief in volitional reincarnation (essentially, being sentient between physical incarnations and being able to choose your next body) and interest in the theory of time put forth by one J. W. Dunne were combined for his Paratime series. Dunne’s theories held that a person’s “supermind” existed outside and apart from a person’s entire life. He also postulated a “supertime” which measured the rate other “times” pass, an infinite number of them. The supermind exists at all points in a person’s life. It exists outside the life. It’s rather (Carr doesn’t note this) like Boethius’ notion of God existing outside of time thereby explaining how he knows the future without causing it. Dunne’s supermind becomes detached, when we are unconscious, from our “ego”. This explains recovered memories and precognitive visions. Piper seemingly combined these notions to conceive of a vast series of parallel worlds where people’s superminds can hop from line to line. Piper’s interest and knowledge of history came into play in conceiving this series in which alternate histories are the central feature. He created a classification system for his multitude of worlds. The most interesting part of his alternate histories is that their basic grouping is based on how successful the Martian attempt to colonize Earth was 75,000 to 100,000 years ago. In some worlds, it succeeds entirely. In others the colony regresses, and the people of Earth forget their origin (our world belongs in this category) and in others the Martians all die out, and quasi-humans evolve a civilization on Earth. Carr also presents pretty conclusive proof that attempts to link the Paratime series (which also includes Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen) with Piper’s Terrohuman Future History series are misguided. [See my review of Piper’s Federation.]

He Walked Around the Horses” — This story was the motivation for reading this collection since it was inspired by an incident mentioned in a Charles Fort book: the disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst, British envoy to the Austrian Empire, in November 1809 as he walked around some coach horses to inspect them. Disappointingly, Piper simply snatches Bathurst up and transplants him to an alternate Europe of 1809 without rationalizing the mechanism by which this is done. Still, Piper presents an interesting alternate Europe without Napoleon (though there is a Napoleon Bonaparte, he’s just a “brilliant military theoretician” who is loyal to the French crown). The deviation seems to start with Benedict Arnold’s death at the Battle of Quebec in January 1776. He is not there to help win the Battle of Saratoga (thus Piper reminds us that Arnold contributed greatly to the cause he later betrayed), and the Revolution fails (George Washington dies at the Battle of Doylestown though no year is given). The European consequences are that, lacking the inspiration of an American Republic, the French Revolution does not take place, and Napoleon does not become a would-be conqueror. The epistolary story ends on a humorous note as the British officials in this world are puzzled by the documents Bathurst carries from our world. In particular, Sir Arthur Wellesley is puzzled by continual references to the Duke of Wellington. Jerry Pournelle, Piper’s friend, says that Piper claimed this story was based on a past-life experience of his. Continue reading “Paratime”