Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction

This one gets a low-res scan designation because it seems rather pointless to spend a lot of time on some of the pieces in this reprint collection.

Low Res Scan: Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction, Brian Stableford, 2007.

In “Slaves of the Death Spider: Colin Wilson and Existentialist Science Fiction”, Stableford talks about Wilson’s Spider World series in a way that convinces me there’s probably not much of merit in them. He finds them not that original – specifically derivative of Star Wars and Murray Leinster’s “Mad Planet”. He finds it ironic that Wilson, who once accused science fiction of being fairy tales for adults who have not outgrown fairy tales, has written, inspired by his occult interests, a story that seems to suggest, a la L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, that mankind’s salvation will come. In short, Stableford says Wilson neither delivers a new plot or anything conceptually satisfying

H. G. Wells and the Discovery of the Future” is a very informative essay on Wells. Stableford points to Wells’ 1901 futurological work Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought as marking a change in his career and approach to speculative fiction. From that point on, Wells’ would attempt to forecast the future rather than just deal with possibilities. His classic works – The First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes – predate this turn. These, and three short story collections between 1895 and 1901, are realistically, what Wells’ reputation as a vital sf writer rests on – not the turgid utopias he wrote later on. Interestingly, Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is seen as an example of Wells’ new direction. Begun as a scientific romance, it diverted to a new direction with the giants becoming an example of  what Wells’ thought humanity should be concerned with in the future. The giants are an example of a “new wisdom and new spiritual strength”. Stableford sees Wells’ participating in a general turn, around 1902, by British sf writers to pessimism, most specifically seen in the natural catastrophe and future war story. As the world became more secular, the belief that salvation and ultimate survival was not guaranteed begun to have effects. After World War I, the British scientific romance became fatalistic to the point of nihilism. Hope for civilization was in short supply. Optimism took a peculiar turn in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men where man goes through various cyclic rises and falls in his civilization. But, says Stableford, Wells’ earlier approach did not go to waste. It was taken up by American sf. Ultimately, Stableford is fairly critical of the later Wells saying his work had a large element of folly. He says that the best of modern sf tries to strike a balance between the two Wells: an energetic, fun, romantic exploration of possibilities tempered with a desire to see and shape the future.

The Adventures of Lord Horror Across the Media Landscape” is a history of a notorious British novel and accompanying multimedia adaptations of it.

Continue reading “Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction”

Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 6”

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 2”

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”

Shadows Over Innsmouth

One of the many books I’ve read and hope to review shortly is Darrell Schweitzer’s collection Awaiting Strange Gods from Fedogan & Bremer.

I haven’t done any weird fiction postings lately, so I thought I would post what little I have on other books from that publisher.

They’re relatively easy to come by in my part of the world since I have access to two specialty bookstores, Uncle Hugo’s and Dreamhaven Books, and Fedogan & Bremer started out in Minneapolis. These days it’s headquartered in Nampa, Idaho, but one of the shareholders still lives around the Twin Cities and keeps the above stores stocked with them — and genially urges the titles on me when I run into him in those stores.

Raw Feed (2004): Shadows Over Innsmouth, ed. Stephen Jones, 1994.shadows-over-innsmouth 

“Introduction: Spawn of the Deep Ones”, Stephen Jones — Brief history of the story that is at the center of this accretion of tales: H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. I was surprised that, unlike most of Lovecraft’s famous tales, it was not first published in Weird Tales, but in a small (only 150 were ever actually printed though 400 were planned) hardcover published by Lovecraft’s friend Frank Utpatel. It’s now highly collectible. The story did finally show up in Weird Tales but only in the January 1942 issue, some five years after Lovecraft’s death.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth“, H. P. Lovecraft — This is either the second or third time I’ve read this, one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. This time I noticed a couple of new things. First, it is interesting that this story, perhaps even more than Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is an example of the passive, scholarly hero. There is action here when the narrator flees Innsmouth and when he reveals to the authorities what he has seen, but the main horrors of the town are revealed by others: a railroad agent in Newburyport, a young man from outside of Innsmouth working at a national chain’s grocery story there, and Zadok Allen, a 90 year old man who remembers the beginnings of the horror in Innsmouth. It is their dialogue, rather than any efforts on the part of the narrator — who is, after all, just passing through the town — that reveal details of the horror’s past and present. Rather than histories and diaries like in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, this story’s revelations are through history but oral history. The narrator’s moonlit glimpse of the shambling horrors that threaten man’s existence is just a confirmation of what he’s been told. The second thing I noticed is the details of Lovecraft’s visions. We usually think — because of his characteristic adjectives and habit of having heroes (this story is no exception) faint or go mad at the moment of ultimate revelation — of Lovecraft as a vague writer. Here his descriptions of Innsmouth are rather detailed. After reading Tim Powers say he carefully generated his plots and outlines using techniques developed by Lovecraft, I wonder if he actually drew up a map of Innsmouth. (I didn’t pay close enough attention to know if the narrator’s journey makes sense and is consistent.) I did see remnants of the Old Ones’ magic that Brian Lumley uses in his Cthulhu tales in the magic the Kanakys’ neighbors use. The story, written in 1931, strikes a modern note with its opening talking about massive government raids, and secret internments in “concentration camps” (not yet a consistently pejorative term — for that matter, a magic symbol of the Old Ones is described as resembling a swastika) as well as the “complaints from many liberal organisations” about those internments. In some ways, this is the archetypal Lovecraft tale: an alien race threatening man’s existence, miscegenation, possible madness, and a hero discovering his tainted blood. I thought the moment of supreme horror was Allen saying:

“Haow’d ye like to be livin’ in a taown like this, with everything a-rottin’ an’ a-dyin’, an’ boarded-up monsters crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ araoun’ black cellars an’ attics every way ye turn? Hey? Haow’d ye like to hear the haowlin’ night arter night from the churches an’ Order o’ Dagon Hall, an’ know what’s doin’ part o’ the haowlin?” Continue reading “Shadows Over Innsmouth”

Dreadful Sanctuary

In honor of Megan’s review of Three to Conquer at From Couch to Moon, and to note my return from travels during which, I will add, only one book was purchased (though many magazines — think of it as an alcoholic dropping the bourbon for lager), I give you more hard-bitten Eric Frank Russell.

Dreadful Sanctuary

Raw Feed (2002): Dreadful Sanctuary, Eric Frank Russell, 1948, 1963.

I decided to read this book because, like Russell’s Sinister Barrier, it is inspired by Fortean ideas according to an article on Charles Fort and Erick Frank Russell by sf author and critic David Langford. The specific inspiration was, according to Langford, Fort’s lost manuscript (written prior to his Book of the Damned) X. (Oddly enough, Damon Knight, in his biography of Fort, doesn’t mention this connection though he talks about Russell’s memberships in the Fortean Society and Sinister Barrier and also about X).

The novel is written in sort of a not always successful, sometimes forced sounding, wise-cracking style of hardboiled detective stories. The basic premise — that Earth is literally an insane asylum for the dregs of the Solar System — certainly is Fortean. (The specifics are that each of the four inner planets of the Solar System evolved separate humanoid races roughly equal in development and intelligence. Blacks evolved from Mercury. Brown-skinned people evolved on Venus. Earth natives were Orientals, and whites evolved on Mars. This also sounds a little like Theosophy.) The Martians discover space travel first. All the non-Terran humanoids discover a way of proving definite sanity, and exile (humanely in their eyes) all their insane people, the ones stopping the development of further civilization, to Earth. Sanity is a dominant gene, and some people, members of the international conspiracy known as the Norman Club (dedicated to destroying rocket expeditions to Venus in order to keep the insane Earthmen from breaking out) know their extraterrestrial origins. Some religious figures were missionaries from other planets (except the native born Confucius).

The Norman Club is in occasional contact with the Martians. At least, this is the story big, quick shooting, quick punching protagonist (and inventor — Russell has lots of radio and electronic jargon in this story set in 1972 where videophones and tv delivered papers exist) John J. Armstrong uncovers at both ends of various interrogations. However, at the end, it is strongly hinted that Dr. Horowitz, who claims to be a Martian, is really just a clever, power-hungry scientist who has talked his way into the leadership of the deluded Norman Club. Langford claims that, in editions prior to this 1963 revision, Armstrong gets to Mars and proves no society of white Martians exist. In this edition, he fails in his mission to show a Venus journey is possible and dies in space. (Talk of creating a “new psychic factor” by making this journey is very typical of sf from the 40s and 50s — the date of this novel’s original composition — since it carries a implication of a true social science.) The cult of the Norman Club is triumphant. The exact rationale of making the desperate Venus voyage at novel’s end was lost on me. If the fuel supply has been sabotaged, the extra fuel for a test flight might make a journey to Venus possible, but, given the facts presented, it would seem the spaceship would still blow up on the return trip. I’m now curious to read an earlier version of the novel. All in all, while Russell kept the plot going with conspiracy (and the rather deus ex machina super lie detector called the “schizophraser”) and lots of action, I don’t think it worked as well, especially in its hurried ending, as Russell’s Sinister Barrier.

I also found the reference to a “short-wave therapy set” peculiar. Did Russell, in 1948, somehow think the quack radionics of Albert Abrams, thoroughly discredited in the 1920s, would really pan out? On the other hand, variations of Abrams’ ideas were being sold (and scientifically tested) in the late 40s and 50s.

 

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

The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front

I had never heard of this book until I read David R. Langford’s “World War One” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia:

Frøis Frøisland’s Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) includes sf and horror among its wartime tales.

There is surprisingly little information about this book on the Web of a Million Lies.

John Clute, in his “Froisland, Frois” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, says:

More correctly given as Frøis Frøisland (1885-1930). Norwegian journalist and writer whose Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) is a volume of tales about World War One, several being sf or Horror, including the title tale, about an American soldier whose war wound activates his x-ray vision.

A Google search for the collection’s English title turns up a couple of bookseller descriptions and two brief contemporary reviews.

I’m somewhat skeptical that either Langford or Clute has read this collection or any of the booksellers listing it. (Though I wouldn’t actually bet on it with Clute. He’s not generally in the habit of speaking about books he hasn’t read.) The reason? There really isn’t much of what we call horror (in the literary genre sense) or science fiction in this book. There are eight fiction pieces with only the titular one being obviously fantastical and one borderline case.

Which, I guess, means pretty much anything I say will be quoted in term papers for decades.

Actually, I hope people go out of their way to contradict me. That might mean this book would be reprinted, and I could actually own it because the lowest price I’ve found for it now is $168. I don’t even spend that much on big reference books. As it is, I had it from the library for a brief time.

Review: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front, Frois Froisland, translated Nils Flaten, 1930.Man with Xray

The dust jacket for the English language edition of this book has a quote from O. E. Rolvaag: “The first work of art to shed a ray of romance on the War.” (Rolvaag was a Norwegian immigrant at one time famous for his novel Giants in the Earth. These days I suspect he’s probably forgotten outside of the Dakotas and Minnesota — areas he lived and set his novels.)

“A ray of romance on the War”? I think I know what Rolvaag met. There is an element of that in the sense of exotic settings and events. There is an air of the travelogue about Froisland’s book.

The book’s core is eight stories, but they are introduced by a four part and fully realistic (and, from what I could determine, almost completely verifiable) history of “The Front”.

Froisland voices the book as if he is speaking to us and begins “They talk about the front, oh yes, the front — “. Continue reading “The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front”