“Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature continues.

Review: “Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress“, Brian Stableford, 1977.Opening Minds

Combining his training as a sociologist and literary criticism of science fiction, Stableford does a concise summary of the myth of human progress and how science fiction has used it.

Starting in the 18th century, the notion of progress in human affairs, “softened” manners, enlightened minds, and nations being connected by commerce, a move toward “still higher perfection” as French philosopher Turgot put it, started to appear.

It was an improvement sought in knowledge and technology.

However, soon the grandiose idea of “human perfectibility” was espoused by the French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also saw progress in human affairs though not pushed by knowledge but its manifestations in production technologies. Continue reading ““Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress””

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Cybele, with Bluebonnets; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

I was in Texas a couple of months ago, so I took along this novel for its Texas setting.

I had been looking at it for years in Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. An atypical plot and setting for Harness made me reluctant to buy it, and I also hadn’t read all of his earlier novels. (I still haven’t read The Catalyst and Krono.) I finally bought it about a year-and-a-half ago.

Review: Cybele, with Bluebonnets, Charles L. Harness, 2002.Cybele, with Bluebonnets

Harness’ last novel is atypical and familiar, charming and enticing in its episodes, and memorable in its overarching story of a deep love that survives death.

Harness’ final novel is a masterpiece in that it skillfully weds his most characteristic theme, what George Zebrowski’s introduction calls “the denial of death and the power of hope”, to a plot that transforms the “dreams and what-might-have-beens” from Harness’ life to “artful alternate realities”.

The milestones of Harness’ early life are here. Birth in Colorado City, Texas in 1915, a move to Fort West (which seems to be Fort Worth in its proximity to Dallas), Texas; an early interest in chemistry; a brief foray into seminary at the behest of his mother; employment as a fingerprint technician in the red light district of Fort Worth; employment at the U. S. Bureau of Mines during World War II, and eventually becoming a patent attorney. Oddly enough, Harness makes no reference to the early death of his older brother which shows up in other novels.

There are asides on Texas history and chemistry – lots of chemistry since Harness was a trained chemist. Continue reading “Cybele, with Bluebonnets; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

“Silent Thunder” & “Universe”

This is the last of my Dean Ing-related material though it’s possible you will get a review of his 2015 Tom Sawyerish It’s Up to Charlie Hardin. I started reading it after finishing Charles L. Harness’ last novel, Cybele, with Bluebonnets. Not coincidentally, both are novels based on their authors’ Texas boyhoods since I just got back from that state. (And the Harness novel is something of a masterpiece in many senses.)

The Quantrill books referred to are Ing’s post-apocalypse trilogy Systemic Shock, Single Combat, and Wild Country.  I have plans to look at those soon too.

Heinlein’s “Universe” got reviewed, of course, as part of Orphans of the Sky.

Sometimes you can figure out some underlying rationale for Ace Double and Tor Double pairings, but I can’t think of any here except for the purely commercial one of publishing an Ing novella. (Though both stories have religion as an element.) Tor has gotten into publishing novellas again, and that’s a welcome development.

Raw Feed (1992): “Silent Thunder” by Dean Ing/”Universe” by Robert A. Heinlein, 1991.Silent Thunder

Silent Thunder”, Dean Ing — I liked this techno-thriller by Ing.  It works mainly because Ing knows the clichés of the thriller story and knows his readers are aware of them too. We know Pam Garza is President Harry Rand’s ex-lover and Walter Kalvin’s toady, and Ing doesn’t try to futilely fool us. We know that Laurie Ramsay is going to get kidnapped, so that plot turn is done early.  Again, Ing doesn’t try to fool us. But Ing does tell a fast-paced, exciting story. The sf element, the Donnersprache, is an interesting device, and I wonder how much reality there is in the background details of German research into electronics and psychoacoustics. Spider Robinson once said Ing wrote moral fiction and that’s true. Here Ing uses the Donnersprache to get in a few truthful observations on the manipulability of democratic populaces and how not everyone has the right to his opinion if it’s founded on emotion and not fact. (Interestingly, Ing never gets into an obvious application of the Donnersprache. If it can electronically enhance the credibility of someone’s voice, why couldn’t the same techniques be used to create a very negative impression of a speaker? Perhaps this is what Kalvin does when Rand deviates from the former’s scripts. ) The violent way in which Laurie escapes her captor was surprising, and Ing’s way of showing the error of her former non-violence stance (a stance fostered by her mother). A child forced into violence to survive is something of an Ing theme as witnessed in his Quantrill books. I liked Ramsay being able to forgive dupe Garza and marry her and how traitor Terrence Unruh tries to kill Kalvin. Ing makes a nice point that a man may sell out for personal reasons (Unruh wants money for his family after he dies), but be unwilling to totally sell out his country. This statement has a counterpoint to Ramsay not saying anything until his daughter is safe. And Rand is furious at being unwittingly manipulated and used by Kalvin. He may be a dopy, repressive preacher, but he’s got integrity that helps save the day. But the very best thing about the story is that America is saved from fascism by a conspiracy of moderate-minded Masons — who assure a cabinet member that their handshake and promise has been good enough for centuries. It’s nice to see this much maligned group (the villains of many a fictional and alleged conspiracy) being the heroes.

Universe”, Robert A. Heinlein — A true classic. I liked the medievalism of the society in the spaceship:  a religious based hierarchy with our hero being hauled up for trial about his views of the nature of the ship and world outside a lá Galileo, storytellers with amazing memories who serve as judges too, and an easy acceptance of slavery under the muties. I also liked mutant Jim-Joes who seems a curious Heinlein character:  a learned man with little ambition (but capable of decisiveness). I liked him (them?) unable to realize the difference between fact and fiction in what he (they?) read.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Venetian Court

The last of my onhand Charles L. Harness material though I might have a review of his last novel coming up after I finish it.

Raw Feed (1991): The Venetian Court, Charles L. Harness, 1982.Venetian Court

I read this novel on the presumption, since its hero was Quentin Thomas, that it was of the same series as Harness’ Lunar Justice (whose hero is also a Quentin Thomas).  However, I don’t think these novels are part of the same series.  There are too many inconsistencies.  Lunar Justice involves a seemingly young Quentin Thomas circa 2073; The Venetian Court has a middle-aged Quentin Thomas circa 2013.  Lunar Justice‘s Thomas has psi-powers that allow him to manipulate matter at a sub-atomic level and a headful of microchips; The Venetian Court‘s Thomas has neither of those things.  Lunar Justice involves off-planet colonization and references to a Federation.  The Venetian Court has neither.  However, The Venetian Court‘s Thomas does briefly allude to two failed marriages or, at least, romances.

This novel is another Harness story of a man and woman (here not romantically linked until possibly the end) struggling against official tyranny, here embodied by Judge Rex “Spider” Speyer.  Harness throws in an Oedepial complex for Speyer’s bloodlust, fascination with spiders, and desire to kill women legally in his court.  (Harness more extensively used Freudian ideas in his Lurid Dreams.)  Speyer is a wonderfully black character.

This story is a slight modification of Harness’ usual plot.  Thomas pulls all his best shots to free Ellen Welles from Speyer who must kill her to recharge his psychic batteries.  But all comes to naught.  As usual, Harness lays out, well in advance, his hero’s plan of action.  It’s a question of timing whether his plan works.  He is waiting for the Supreme Court ruling which will rule the Patent Statute of 2002, with its death penalty for patent infringement, unconstitutional.  (Harness tells where he got the title from by having Quentin Thomas alluding to the Venetian penalty for patent infringement — more like violation of monopolistic trading rights back then:  drinking poison).  The inventing computer Faust shows up at the end with all sorts of deus ex machina (although Harness foreshadowed this) powers like telekinetic transmutation of chemicals and power over time and space.  Faust provides the element of vague doom so common in Harness’ works  by predicting the poisoning death of someone in the courtroom.  This is a rather melancholy novel with its fixation on death, tyranny, and high justices of the Supreme Court behaving non-judiciously.  The symphony of fate weaves through this novel.  (Harness seems very fond of music, and this novel, with it’s permutations on the theme of fate, seems structured like a symphony.).  Speyer is killed by his own pet spider who also kills the corrupt opposing counsel to Thomas and General Products CEO.  Like the Thomas of Lunar Justice, this Thomas must ask himself if he’s willing to kill his legal opponents (counsel and judge) to win.  He unpleasantly realizes he very well may want that.  Faust is wonderfully ironic when he says he, after killing Speyer and the lawyers, he did it for Thomas and that he gave everyone — even his victims — what they wanted.

Not up to Lurid Dreams or The Paradox Men but a good yarn.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Lunar Justice

Usual drill.

You get old stuff while I’m working on new stuff.

Raw Feed (1991): Lunar Justice, Charles L. Harness, 1991.Lunar Justice

Like most of his novels, the novel’s elements are simple.  There is a romance between Quentin Thomas and Nadys, a scientific principle or wonder that will save the day — here a double whammy of psychically turning Jupiter into a sun and bringing the Lunarplex Dome down via seismic resonances, psi powers, and a corrupt legal system.  Harness weaves them together in a mixture that is uniquely Harness.

His romances between men and women are well done.  The three Harness novels I’ve read — Lunar Justice, Lurid Dreams, and The Paradox Men — all have plots that involve lovers against a despotic regime.  (In The Paradox Men, it was a tyrannical America, in Lurid Dreams a sleazy bunch of university professors and administrators; here the struggle is against a blatantly, amusingly, appallingly corrupt lunar justice system.

Harness doesn’t give us one of those contrived mid-book romances.  He starts his characters out in love. His characters interestingly digress to talk about history, art, music and his characters. This leads to sparkling examples of characterization and is a good example of naturalistic stream-of-consciousness toned down to comprehensibility.

Hero Quentin Thomas’ has psi-powers and superhuman powers, is the forerunner of a new human sub-species.  Like many of Harness’ plots, the suspense derives not in what is going to be done as much as getting it done in time.  Here the question is if Thomas can get Michael Dore acquitted before Martin Rile and his Peace Eternal Corporation can execute him.  Thomas’ plan is laid out about half way through the book.  The rest is timing.  Dore’s cryptic statements — inspired by his prescient psi-power — introduces Harness’ usual element of prophecy.

I liked this novel, found it’s lunar justice setting blackly humorous, Quentin Thomas a compelling (and somehow gloomy character despite his passion for Nadys) character, and the plot exciting.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

 

 

Wolfhead

Raw Feed (2002): Wolfhead, Charles L. Harness, 1978.Wolfhead

The post-apocalypse setting of this book, three thousand years after a nuclear war, is something different for Harness, but many of the themes, techniques, and plot devices of his novels show up.

As his Firebird is a sf version of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolt”, this story is a combination of Dante’s Inferno and, possibly,  the myth of Persephone.

The narrator goes on a quest for his beloved Beatra (as in Dante’s Beatrice), is kidnapped and taken to the underground city of Dis (which really stands for the District of Columbia — an underground city built thousands of years ago to house the Federal Government).  His aide is the female dire wolf Virgil.  Dire wolves are mutant wolves who are smart and can see in infrared.  The narrator swaps a portion of his brain with Virgil rendering them telepathic.

Like The Paradox Men with its corrupt Imperial America or, less so (though it still seems at least partially responsible for the extinction of man on Earth), the American government of Drunkard’s Endgame, this novel has the American government as the villain.  The constitutional offices have long since degenerated into hereditary positions.  They kidnap people from the surface.  They plan to wipe out all chordate life off the Earth and repopulate when the Vortex technology is finally unable to protect Dis from earthquakes.  Beatra is held in the Central Intelligence complex.  I suspect some post-Watergate significance in having the sympathetic rebels of Dis call themselves Democrats.

Harness’ fondness for mutants shows up by having the narrator be a rare telepath. The notion of fate shows up with the prophecies that say the narrator will destroy the gods-eye — another looming apocalypse as in The Paradox Men, The Ring of Ritornel, and Firebird (though the apocalypse does occur in all those novels}.  Here the apocalypse is limited to just Dis and, in effect, renews their corrupt culture by driving the decent underground dwellers to the surface where the re-unify with normal people and become respected members of the community.

The death of a loved one shows up here in the surprising death of Beatra after she is rescued (it fits in with Persephone not being allowed to return to the surface world full time).  I liked the obsessive ruthlessness of Jeremy Wolfhead, the narrator, and his honest statement that any one who gets in the way of his retrieving Beatra is disposable.  I liked all the clever manifestations of Wolfhead’s psychic ability to set up vortexes (and the Vortex Chamber represents, possibly, Harness’ silliest bit of pseudoscience).  The plot certainly featured more direct killings than The Paradox Men and The Ring of Ritornel, in terms of the number of people Wolfhead kills, it seems to have the highest body count of any Harness novel I’ve read.  I liked the Returner being Jeremy’s father aka Father Phaedrus.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

An Ornament to His Profession

The Charles L. Harness series continues.

I have by no means read all of his work but, between this and the novels in Rings, you get a good sense of his work.

This is the only collection of Harness fiction and includes the short novel The Rose.

Raw Feed (2002): An Ornament to His Profession, ed. Priscilla Olson, 1998.Ornament to His Profession

“An Ornament”, Priscilla Olson — A brief but informative introduction to Charles Harness’ characteristic subjects and themes.
“Charles Harness:  New Realities”, David G. Hartwell — A brief and useful overview of Charles Harness’ themes and writing career and the influence and significance of Harness’ novels Flight Into Yesterday aka The Paradox Men and The Rose.  Hartwell makes the interesting observation that, like Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick, Harness put his own spin on the type of stories written by A.E. van Vogt.  I think that’s a valid observation and explains my like of all three authors.
The Rose — This is the second time I’ve read this short novel.  I didn’t think much of it the first time.  At that time, I was rather puzzled at Ruy Jacques quest for the rose, though he won’t acknowledge the quest to Anna van Tuyl.  This time it was obvious that his quest was for his art to not only maintain immortality but equal power to his wife’s Martha’s Scionmnia Equation.  It was also obvious that love has turned to possessive, bitter competition between the Jacques.  I was even more forcibly reminded of the van Vogtian elements of using artistic concepts in a systemized way as weapons.  I have no idea how true Harness’ examples are, drawn from music, art, and ballet, of art discovering scientific principles first.  Nor do I have any idea if the Oriental five-four rhythms of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony require special training by Western musicians to play or if Delcrozian eurythmics are real.  (Harness mentions Tchaikovsky in several stories.)  After this reading, I can spot the influence of this novel on Michael Moorcock. (Moorcock wrote a very favorable introduction to the novel in another edition.)  Specifically, you can spot Harness’ influence on Moorcock’s The Winds of Limbo.  Harness’ introductory notes were interesting.  John W. Campbell rejected this story, evidently because of his lack of knowledge about music.  Harness was, as you would expect, deeply influenced by the death of his older brother, age 26.  The brother was an artist and the inspiration for the imperious artist Ruy Jacques.  Harness also said that the story was built around a story beloved by his brother:  Oscar Wilde’s “Nightingale and the Rose”.  The story provided the theme and plot outline of the novel. In Wilde’s story the nightingale, provides the dye, with the blood from its fatal, self-inflicted injury, to turn a white rose red.  The Student needs a red rose for admission to a dance.)  At the end, Harness playing with the reader’s expectations by making us believe that it is Ruy who is really to die like the Nightingale and Anna is to be the Student.  I appreciated the story’s blatantly allegorical qualities this time.  It’s another Harness tale of transcendence.
Time Trap” — This is Harness’ first published story and has many of the themes and elements of his later work.  There are the two individuals, Poole and Jon Troy who turn out to be the same individual, existing contemporaneously due to time travel.  There is the mutation, in Jon Troy, looked for by shadowy groups.  Harness throws in a scientific explanation on how Troy’s power to prevent “devitalization” and general death from violence and poisoning.  It involves manipulation of carbon dioxide and oxygen cycles in hemoglobin and was evidently good enough for the story to be published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding SF.  Harness carefully doesn’t explain how physical injuries, like a rabbit being resurrected after its head is severed, are reversed in Troy’s “viton” field.  Harness also doesn’t come up with a good explanation as to how come Poole/Troy doesn’t remember all the times he’s been through this “standing wave” of time until he goes back in time one last time.  The systemization of even prison escapes bears the hallmark of 30s–50s sf where almost any human activity can by systematized and rationalized.  Harness, in his introduction, explains that the legal chicanery of Poole claiming his younger self, Troy, is innocent of murder because, at various times and locations, the intent did not match the actual act is drawn from a real case he studied in law school.  Specifically, an attempt to murder is unsuccessful.  The wouldbe killer transports the body elsewhere, believing the victim to be dead, and then cuts the head off.  The defense is that the initial act was only assault, unintended by the perpetrator, and the actual decapitation was intended to only be a mutilation of a corpse, not murder.  Of course, legal elements were also to become part of Harness’, a patent attorney, fiction.

Continue reading “An Ornament to His Profession”