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.

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”

Lost Continents & the Hollow Earth

The Hollow Earth series concludes with a retro review from August 21, 2011.

Review: Lost Continents & the Hollow Earth: I Remember Lemuria & the Shaver Mystery, Richard Shaver and David Hatcher Childress, 1988.lost-continents

Ever since I heard about the Shaver Mysteries in The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I’ve wanted to read them. Deranged robots, “deros”, hanging around in Earth’s caverns using degenerate tech from an old civilization to corrupt a modern world? Sign me up!

Well, the experience of actually reading two of Richard Shaver’s “true” accounts of life in the past proved less exciting.

The dullness of most of “I Remember Lemuria” — seemingly, according to Childress’ rather sketchy details in his accompanying essay “The Shaver Mystery“, a 1948 book reprint of the first Shaver story “I Remember Lemuria!” from the March 1945 issue of Amazing Stories — reminds me of the typical utopian novel. Our narrator, one Mutan Mion, who inscribed his stories on metal plates for Richard Shaver to find, is a not very talented artist sent to Tean City for better education. Mutan is an ordinary man living in Sub-Atlan which is in the hollow earth beneath Atlantis. There he not only meets the love of his life, the “variform” Arl of purple fur, a tail, and cloven hoofs, but encounters an atmosphere of paranoia and fear as one of the Titans – humans unpoisoned by the sun and who continually grow in body and brain, wisdom and intelligence, throughout their life – is killed and another hints at a plot to overthrow the government. (Shaver ignores most of the consequences of this biological peculiarity of continual growth, but he does note that this world’s buildings have no roofs.) Continue reading “Lost Continents & the Hollow Earth”

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

A retro review from May 28, 2012:

Review: Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, Jim Steinmeyer, 2008.Charles Fort.jpg

The influence of Charles Fort on popular culture isn’t that of some seeping, hidden stream percolating out of the depths of history to mysteriously water modern ideas. It’s more of a shaded river whose twisting path abuts a surprising number of cultural vegetation. The subtitle is a bit of marketing hyperbole. As Steinmeyer himself notes, Fort said the word “supernatural” had no place in his vocabulary, no meaning. But his peculiar works, four bizarre mixtures of satire and philosophy; compendiums of strange events and sometimes whimsical, sometimes sinister, sometimes absent explanations, known as The Complete Books of Charles Fort: The Book of the Damned / Lo! / Wild Talents / New Lands, are an important source stream for the torrents of writing on the paranormal the 20th century saw, Berlitz and von Daniken, ufology and raining frogs. His works are explicitly referenced in horror fiction as long ago as H. P. Lovecraft and as contemporaneously as Stephen King and Caitlin Kiernan. His ideas show up in the film Magnolia and an actual character in the recent movie The Whisperer in Darkness. He even gave us the word “teleportation”. And, of course, his name lives on in that indispensable journal of oddities, The Fortean Times.

This isn’t the first work from a major publisher on Fort. Damon Knight, the science fiction writer, did the worthy biography Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained in 1970. But this has several advantages, besides availability, over Knight’s work. Not only does this work have photographs, but it also has numerous quotes from Fort’s earlier writings before 1920’s The Book of the Damned as well as the reactions, in private and in reviews, to those works. There are also selections from Fort’s unpublished autobiography Many Parts. This edition helpfully sets these quotes off in italics which further makes this a handsome production. After an unhappy childhood under a domineering and sometimes violent upper-middle class father, Fort left home at 17; worked as newspaper reporter for about three years; bummed about America, South Africa, Canada, and Britain for a couple of years; and returned home where he married, in 1896, Anna, a woman four years his senior. For the next 12 years, Fort and Anna lived poorly, supported by numerous stories, mostly of a realistic nature and noted for the verisimilitude of their dialogue and setting, that were published in several well-known magazines of the time. These brought him to the attention of Theodore Dreiser who was to become a lifelong friend. Dreiser used his growing reputation and fame to get Fort’s first novel published: The Outcast Manufacturers. Steinmeyer presents some interesting selections from this comic yet realistic novel of slum dwellers – usefully drawn from the Fort’s own impoverished circumstances. Continue reading “Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural”

Sinister Barrier

Presumably, I’m off actually catching up on making my notes for my next article.

Since I covered another Russell novel in the last post, here’s another.

Sinister Barrier

Raw Feed (2002): Sinister Barrier, Eric Frank Russell, 1939, 1948?.

“Introduction”, Jack L. Chalker — Brief introduction about Eric Frank Russell, who was one of John W. Campbell’s favorite short story writers before writing, at Campbell’s suggestion, his first novel, Sinister Barrier.  It was published in the first issue of the fantasy magazine Campbell started, Unknown.  Chalker also talks about Russell’s interest in Charles Fort’s works and the debt this novel owes Fort as well as Russell’s involvement with British Forteans.

Sinister Barrier  — After first reading this novel about 15 years ago, and I read it over again because, having recently read the works of Charles Fort, I wanted to spot the full amount of his influence on this novel.

Fort would be proud.

Not only is he explicitly mentioned in the first paragraph, but the novel may be the most Fortean of all sf works.  The whole premise is taken from Fort’s remark that “I think we’re property.”  Russell mostly uses the metaphor of humanity as cows to serve alien masters, our emotions of violence and anger and agony being milk and meat to them.  (And the question as to the origin — extraterrestrials or native to Earth — of the Vitons is never answered.  It is suggested at one point that humanity is a cattle species brought by the Vitons to Earth from elsewhere.)

But Russell wraps up a lot more Fortean items in his story:  the wonders and miracles of psychics and religious figures may be a Viton disinformation campaign to discredit paranormal observations (sort of the “occult police” idea from Fort’s Lo!); ball lightening is dying Vitons; UFOs are observed Vitons (Russell may have pioneered the idea of alien abduction in this book); odd coincidences of death and odd disappearances; the allegedly superstitious coastal dwellers and sailors are able, because of a diet high in iodine, able to see the Vitons more often; feelings of dread may be Viton tendrils drinking your emotions.

Russell uses other Fortean paraphernalia:  the Fortean magazine Doubt is mentioned, and, after the knowledge of the Viton’s existence is widely disseminated, the U.S. government and newspapers look through newspaper files to spot formerly hidden references to Vitons.  Russell mentions some things (like spontaneous combustion and psychic powers) that are included in Fort’s works. Other mentions of Fortean knowledge postdate Fort’s death in 1932.  I suspect they are real, and Russell used his Fortean Society membership to gain access to them.

I’m curious as to when this novel was revised.  Chalker’s introduction just says it was after WWII which is obvious due to references to Hiroshima and the 1947 harbor explosion in Texas City.  On the other hand, there are some odd omissions, the main one being no explicit references to the Japanese in WWII though, especially since an Asian Combine fighting the West features them, kamikazes are mentioned.  Other signs of post-WWII revision are a reference to Pakistan and UFOS over North Ireland in 1942.  An odd bit of prose is a reference to the 1938 disappearance of a ship Anglo-Australian and Professor Beach saying “no solution had been found in ten years” — an odd thing to say for a story set in 2015.  (I wonder if it originally had a contemporary setting with the war breaking out between American and some portion of the Axis given an original publication date of 1939.)

Russell’s prose is pulpy, sometimes carrying his metaphors on too far, sometimes it has a melodramatic vigor like the first line from Chapter 1:  “’Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking,’ mused Professor Peder Bjornsen.”

The plot is roughly similar to Russell’s other Fortean novel, Dreadful Sanctuary.  Both start out with a string off odd, seemingly coincidental events.  Here it’s the seemingly natural deaths of several prominent scientists.  In Dreadful Sanctuary, it was the destruction of several spaceships bound for Venus.  In both cases, the protagonist uncovers a vast conspiracy of possibly extraterrestrial origin (though in the revision of Dreadful Sanctuary the Martians are really an Earth cult and here the Vitons may be native to Earth).  In both, the protagonists meets a babe related to a dead scientist.  This novel is much more involving and epic with America embroiled in a war with the Asian Combine while simultaneously trying to defeat the Vitons and a deadline counted down in hours (though Dreadful Sanctuary with its rocket launch, also has that).

This novel ends happily with the old problem of man’s violent emotions solved (now that we’re no longer provoked by aliens we can all live in rational harmony — indeed the Asians are not subjected to vengeance but education).  Like Dreadful Sanctuary, this novel also seems to make reference to the quack theories of Albert Abrams with its reference to “shortwave therapy”.

 

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