Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

Dust

The Lovecraft series has ended, and I still haven’t got any new reviews written.

So, since the idea of a “bug apocalypse” has been showing up a bit in the news lately, I thought I’d get put this up.

Raw Feed (1998): Dust, Charles Pellegrino, 1998.Dust

This is the second Pellegrino novel I’ve read, and I really liked this disaster tale though, and Pellegrino admits he changed his original ending of humanity’s death, I thought the ending of resurrecting old insects to save humanity was improbably cheerful.

The premise that insects might have a millions of years death cycle – and that this death cycle preceded, and perhaps caused, the decline of the dinosaurs (which were finished off by an asteroid impact) was novel and speculation based on science according to the Afterword in which Pellegrino outlines the historical and scientific facts behind his tale.  (I like that feature of his novels.)

The effects of insects dying off – lethal swarms of dust mites, plagues of fungus, the death of higher level insectivores, a lack of plant pollinators – were horrifying and fascinating – exactly what a sf disaster novel should offer. Continue reading “Dust”

The Best of Murray Leinster

While I work on a review of a World War One history book, the pulp series continues.

Raw Feed (1999): The Best of Murray Leinster, ed. John J. Pierce, 1978.Best of Murray Leinster

The Dean of Science Fiction”, John J. Pierce — Besides being a brief summation of the stories in this collection, this introduction talks about Leinster’s themes and career. It also relates some surprising information about Leinster. His first story (a fantasy) was written in 1919 (no date for his last work is given – he died in 1975). He converted to Catholicism, and it relates information I knew already – Leinster’s career as an inventor of the optical Jenkins Systems used as a rear projection system in movies and tv. [Leinster’s actual name was William Fitzgerald Jenkins.] Leinster also emphasized rationality and was an admirer of Thomas Aquinas.

Sidewise in Time” — This story is the original reason I bought this collection. It’s generally credited as being the first parallel universe story, and it holds up very will since its publication in 1934. Later on this type of story was rationalized with, as in Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats, the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Here Leinster introduces some twists on the notion that many later writers didn’t. First, his plot does not simply have a character or characters leave their own timeline willingly or unwillingly. Leinster introduces the notion of a tile-work Earth where each bounded area enters a different parallel universe than its neighbors do. One world has a strong Viking presence, another has China settling North America, another universe still has dinosaurs, in another the Roman Empire still endures, and in another the South won the Civil War. Leinster’s main character is a mathematician, Professor Minott, who is the only person who knows a cosmological upheaval, which eventually thrusts a quarter of the Earth’s surface into other universes, is about to take place. But he tells no one. He hopes to use the event to become more than just a mathematics instructor in an obscure community college. He wants to find a universe where his knowledge and technology can make him king – and husband of one of his students. His attempts to do this are fascinating as are the alternating sections showing what happens to some when their homes are suddenly bounded by other universes. Eventually, the students Minott tricks into joining him on his adventure (and they don’t follow him willingly for long) leave him except for a female student with a crush on him. The universe settles down, but the story ends with not all the tiles returning to their proper timelines. This is the first example of a parallel universe story and still holds up well. Leinster puts forth many intriguing alternate histories and works out or hints at the implications of his idea, and I liked the notion of a man who seeks to use such a cataclysm to gain respect and power. It’s a very human idea.

Proxima Centauri” — This is, in its notion of sentient vegetable men, a pulpy story in conception, but Leinster carries it off well, and there are several elements which make it a sophisticated sf tale, especially one published in 1935. Leinster takes some trouble to describe the construction of an artificial ecosystem in his interstellar ship. That, the inclusion of crews’ families to facilitate morale, and a mutiny from the psychological effects of a seven year voyage to the next star were all, I suspect, novel in 1935. Leinster does a credible job rationalizing, via atomic physics, his starship drive but it’s still unworkable. The vegetable men of Proxima Centauri seem brutal, but Leinster cuts them some slack by rightly pointing out that that aliens made of precious metals would probably be met the same way by Earth men, and he tries to construct a biological rationale (which doesn’t really work but it’s the attempt that makes it sf) whereby these mobile plants need animal flesh to live and how it excites them (they’re destroyed just about all animal life on their world). Actually, they’ve learned to live on vegetable matter but instinctually still crave animal products. This may also be one of the first sf stories to introduce an alternative to a fire and metal technology: the Centaurians mold protoplasm to their ends. I liked the human commander, at story’s end, contriving to get all the Centaurians to return to their home world to eat their Earth trophies and celebrate a new source of animal matter. Then he blows the planet up with a sabotaged starship engine. Continue reading “The Best of Murray Leinster”

The Cassini Division

Another retro review and another series I need to get back to.

This one is from August 7, 2000.

Review: The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod, 1998.Cassini Division

Post-humans. Uploaded human minds inhabiting the robots and computer networks of a civilization in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Sneering at those still living in the “meat”, they bombard the inner solar system with computer and “mind viruses.” They brought on the Collapse, the destruction of man’s computer-dependent civilization, and ushered in the age of the Solar Union, a socialist anarchy.

But some in the Union have had enough of the post-human threat, namely the Cassini Division, self-appointed cold warriors manning their version of the Berlin Wall on Jupiter’s moon, Callisto. They want to wipe out the Jovians once and for all with a cometary bombardment. And they aren’t listening to any arguments from “appeasers” or those who think the Jovians are sentient and deserve to live or don’t pose a threat. Continue reading “The Cassini Division”