Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 7

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

We’re still in the “plots of circumstance” categories. To recap, these are plots with a protagonist struggling with some problem imposed on them by events in the world.

The next major category of this plot is “a past being in the past”.

It’s a strange plot category, and, if no story example comes to mind, that’s not surprising. After all, we’re dealing with historical people in an historical setting. That’s not the circumstance that readily comes to mind with the phrase “science fiction”.

Of course, Gunn firmly states the obvious. The past here is the author’s past. These are not time travel stories.

Theoretically, stories of set in the world of the author’s recent past could be done, but Gunn says he can’t think of any example he’s ever read.

So, authors using this plot, usually go back to a point in history incompletely documented, where mythology and folklore overshadow the historical record. These are stories of “mysterious archeological remains or historical situations”.

Only one story, in the five anthologies he sampled, fits into this category, and Gunn expresses his disapproval as to how this plot type has a “tendency to degenerate into adventure for its own sake”.

There are three subcategories of this plot. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 7”

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Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 1

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with a look at what, in 1951, he thought and predicted about the use of plots of circumstances.

Of the 145 stories Gunn looked at in his five sample anthologies, 123 fell in this category.

The reasons why plots of circumstance are so overwhelmingly favored are not so hard to find. Plots of creation are limited and difficult to write; plots of circumstance provide an immediate dramatic suspense and identification with the characters: few of us are creators but we all know what it is to battle against circumstances. In this category the possibilities are unlimited.

Being in an Alien Environment

Gunn says this is probably the favorite type of science fiction plot. It has fundamental suspense and drama. That suspense can carry something beside “reader’s escapist interest” is what makes this a significant plot for writers to use and to develop sf in a more literary direction.

Oddly, Gunn says

The alien is placed only in a human environment; presumably one could write a story about an alien in a non-human but still alien environment, but this belongs in the same category as the “alien in an alien world in the present” discussed above. It is possible but without significance. Somewhere along the line there must be some relationship to earth or earth problems to push the story across the line from fantasy to science fiction.

That leaves out stories using aliens in an alien environment. Hal Clement’s novels, using that idea, were just a few years in the future.

The idea that such stories can’t have any relevance to humanity and its life on Earth ignores symbolic uses or even naturalistic narratives that exhibit how the physical environment affects human biology and behavior and human societies.

Gunn is on solid ground when he says a modern man as a protagonist allows the greatest reader identification and bestowing of empathy on the character.

Gunn looks at a variety of time travel stories, modern man in the alien environment of the past. He says something provocative about that sub-genre at the end of the discussion:

All things considered, science fiction’s use of time has made some interesting, at times dramatic, at times amusing, but seldom significant stories.17 There is nothing of any thematic importance involved in concepts of time travel and in visits to the past.

The time travel story is still going strong today, stronger than it was in 1951, so strong that sf critic Gary K. Wolfe has argued that it’s escaped the genre of sf. It’s become its own category like the gothic birthed sf.

I think Gunn may be on to something, though, about its ultimate significant. Many stories of time travel involve logic puzzles and paradoxes. The time travel romps of Robert Silverberg, perhaps sf’s heaviest user of the subgenre, are fun. But do they say any thing of “thematic importance”? On the other hand, time travel can be a proxy way of commenting on history and, like the alternate history story, the contingencies that created our world.

Gunn is even more dismissive of the variation of “modern man on a distant world, in space, or another dimension”. After looking at some works of this type, including Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series and “Goldfish Bowl”, a Robert A. Heinlein story inspired by Charles Fort, he says:

Alone, this plot type has resulted in nothing particularly important to science fiction or the world at large.

I’m not so sure that claim is bore out either. Granted, a lot of these stories are of exotic wonders, but it would seem an author could work in some insights on humanity and human nature. Then again, Gunn only is passing a value judgement on past uses of that plot.

Of the “modern man in the future” variation of the “being in an alien environment”, Gunn is somewhat more sanguine.

He notes stories of this type “tend to more thoughtful or provocative analyses, to utopias and satires”. He says modern sf is “essentially anti-satirical, anti-utopian” in its realism. That means this plot type can’t be used in a realistic way, predictably, though “occasional amusing or satirical story of note” may be hoped to come from this type.

Gunn implicitly warns sf writers that the “ancient being or primitive man in a modern human environment” doesn’t get used much for good reason because readers have trouble switching from their natural identification with a version of “modern man”. It has technical difficulties and “the results are seldom sufficiently rewarding to overshadow them”. Its realism is also hampered because this plot type tends to the satirical. “It is doubtful .. that anything significant will ever be done with it.”

Pre-Modern Science Fiction

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

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Gunn maintains there are two misconceptions about science fiction (hereafter, when I’m speaking, to be called “sf”) as of the year 1951: it’s pure escapism and it hasn’t changed its character since whatever ur-work you want to cite for the genre. (Gunn himself staked out the Epic of Gilgamesh in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells.)

Gunn notes, I think correctly, that pure escapism doesn’t exist. Using the example of Shakespeare and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can’t even make the case that high vs. low art are correlated to “the possible effect on the reader’s life”. Tarzan and John Carter, as the Burroughs’ worshipping Castalia House crowd would note, can serve as moral exemplars.

But sf can be a peculiar form of escape. Gunn quotes Leo Margulies’ and Oscar J. Friend’s introduction to their anthology My Best Science Fiction Story:

Science fiction is the only literary escape which the bewildered citizen can seek that offers imaginative relief while keeping him in tune with the apparently insoluble problems confronting him and his fellows.

Gunn argues virtually any work has three elements, singly or in combination, which weaken its escapist effect: didacticism, aesthetics, and philosophy. (Why aesthetics would weaken as opposed to, on occasion, strengthen the escapist effect I don’t understand.)

For Gunn the key isn’t whether these elements are in sf but whether they are useful though that’s a subjective judgement. Gernsbackian (Gunn doesn’t actually mention his name at this point) use of sf to teach science “has been somewhat overstressed”. Sf “is not primarily concerned with aestheticism”.

It’s philosophy that is important in sf as a “medium of ideas”.

Like most of the sf critics who came after him, Gunn has to devote some time to definitions of the genre and its history though, obviously, he would extensively develop his views on both in his The Road to Science Fiction series and Alternate Worlds.

As historical markers, he lays down two approximate dates: 1830 and 1930. In between those two dates is sf’s romantic period. Post-1930 is the realistic period.

Pre-1930 works do not, for Gunn, have realism based on rationality. Here he quotes anthologist Groff Conklin’s definition of sf as a sub-branch of fantasy and sharing that relationship with utopian stories, supernatural stories, and fairy tales. Gunn disagrees saying it’s possible to do any of those other three types of story in a science fictional way. It’s just a matter of rationality (or, at least, the veneer of it) and explanation. (In my look at this thesis, I’m going to go light on the examples he uses. You can supply your own or read the actual thesis.)

Sketching out the thesis of his later Alternate Worlds which talked about the proto-science fiction genres of the traveler’s tales, utopias, and satires, Gunn says 1830 is about the time when the industrial revolution started to move fantastic narratives from “wonderful journey” or “wonderful machine” to something that seemed more probable, more possible.

Incidentally, gothics are not considered to contribute much to science fiction since

their mysterious events were presented almost always without explanation and were included entirely for their own sake.

I think Gunn is on weak ground here. After all, Ann Radcliffe’s spooky gothics always end (so I’m told, I’ve only read The Mysteries of Udolpho) with mysteries explained.

There is, it should be said, a distinctly American emphasis in this thesis. That’s understandable given what Gunn had access to and how sf developed. The genre really accelerated into consciousness as a separate genre in the pulps, and the pulps were predominately American. While Brian Stableford has shown how English and French works were significant in terms of philosophy and artistry and theme, they weren’t significant in influence. They were like the Vikings colonizing the New World. Few Europeans paid any attention until centuries later when Columbus arrived in the New World. (That’s my analogy.) Gunn himself tried to rectify this oversight with the last two volumes of his The Road to Science Fiction dealing specifically with stories not from Americans.

What the industrial revolution brought to the public’s mind was that things were going to change – for many people and perhaps keep changing. The machines and ideas that changed life weren’t isolated to the heads and labs of crank scientists who were going to come to a bad end. (That’s my bald statement, not Gunn’s.)

Before about 1830

there were isolated men writing isolated stories, inspired individually and more by external circumstances than by any consciousness of writing within a literary movement.

Then came the “elder statesmen of science fiction” – no names are given at this point but presumably he means Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – from about the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1920s.

A “brief third section of science fiction’s romantic period” was initiated in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

That first phase of the romantic period was marked by Richard Adams Locke and Edgar Allan Poe, literary hoaxers. (Gunn mentions the Shaver mysteries as a “recent and horrible example” of hoaxes in sf.) Poe gets a bit of a short shrift as “running more to dark and mystic fantasy than to science fiction” though Gunn acknowledges Poe’s ratiocination started several trends science fiction picked up on.

Brian Aldiss, years after Gunn wrote his thesis, claimed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sf story. Gunn certainly thinks she may have started a “significant pattern”, but it wasn’t a good one:

 … the theme of the mad, incautious, or unwise scientist who endangers individuals, a society, or a world through his experiments. With slight modifications, this trend produced a science that could contribute nothing in a moment of crisis. For humor it offered the inept, impractical, or absent-minded scientist.  … The patterns of thought that produced this literature were symptomatic of the attitudes of several generations impressed by the iniquities of early industrialism and sighing for the safe, sane, good-old-days.

To Gunn, the mad scientist is a distrust of knowledge and science, a continuation of the Faust theme that became a stereotype of this period of sf.

Shelley’s novel seems, particularly in its 1831 prologue about the benefits of selectively distorting reality that sf affords in order to better examine something, to be a strong contender as one of the first novels of that genre.

Curiously, Gunn thinks the second period of science fiction’s romantic period is characterized not only by the mad scientist but “world cataclysm”.

The causes were almost always external and unilateral: the machine that gets out of control; the sun which becomes a nova or grows old; the cloud of poisonous gas, sun obscuring dust motes, or meteorites which invades the solar system; the nomad planet which menaces the earth; the natural law which runs wild.

The practioners were a collection of famous and obscure names: H. G. Wells, George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint, Garrett P. Serviss, and Julian Hawthorne.

Gunn doesn’t really see the “atomic cataclysm” story – common enough by 1951 that some magazines “placed an editorial ban on all stories involving the threatened destruction of earth” – as a continuation of this. The atomic apocalypse is caused by “internal and/or multilateral” factors, not universal law. It is human centered.

Predictably and validly, Gunn picks three authors of this period as epitomizing a John W. Campbell, Jr. classification system of genre stories:

  • The prophecy story – Jules Verne
  • The philosophical story – H. G. Wells
  • The adventure story – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Gunn argues those types still exist in modern sf, but they didn’t develop a “distinct philosophy” until the pulps.

The next post will talk about what Gunn considers the philosophy of modern science fiction and what makes it “modern”.

Kane of Old Mars

The Michael Moorcock series continues.

Raw Feed (1999): Kane of Old Mars, Michael Moorcock, 1965, 1998.Kane of Old Mars 

“Introduction” — Moorcock reveals more of his prodigious talent and history. He learned to read at age three and was a professional writer at age 15. The three novels of this volume were written in “just over a week”. [And, 19 years later, do I remember if that’s a week for each or a week for all. And I’m not going to check.] Moorcock mainly talks about his love of Edgar Rice Burroughs and how this series is a John Carter of Mars pastiche written, under a pen name, at the same time he edited the avante garde New Worlds. He cheerfully acknowledges, but does not try to reconcile, the inconsistencies of editing a magazine rebelling and denouncing genre conventions while writing a pastiche of one of the pulpiest (Moorcock loves pulp) series of all times. I found it interesting that Sexton Blake (a detective that shows up in Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse comic and Tales from the Texas Woods) and Zenith (also a character in the Multiverse comic) were not original to Moorcock. Rather the Blake series of novels goes back into the 1800s and has had many manifestations.

City of the Beast — This is a pretty faithful John Carter of Mars imitation. Both heroes are expert swordsmen who spend a lot of time trying to find and rescue scantily clad princesses and, by accident, befriending nonhumans. Moorcock’s plot coincidences are better hidden than Edgar Rice Burroughs but still there. (Michael Kane just happening to live in a town populated by an ex-fencing instructor of the Romanovs and just happening to meet Shizala, his beloved princess, first thing of Mars and just happening to be rescued by a Argzoon he showed mercy to.) I didn’t find this story very interesting, but then I’m not a fan of its model. I found the most interesting aspect was learning the Martians of millions of years in the past will eventually emmigrate to Earth and give rise to Hindu mythology. Moorcock used the same idea, the reality behind Hindu mythology, in his “Flux”, the installment before this in his Eternal Champion saga as published by White Wolf. This novel has very little seeming relevance to the notion of the Eternal Champion and adds nothing to the notion. Continue reading “Kane of Old Mars”

Sailing to Utopia

The Michael Moorcock series continues with some more science fiction.

Raw Feed (1999): Sailing to Utopia, Michael Moorcock, 1963, 1997.Sailing to Utopia

Introduction” — Moorcock explains how the novels of this omnibus are collaborations in one way or another. The omnibus is dedicated to Robert Sheckley who, along with Philip K. Dick (I agree with Moorcock that the novels of Dick predict the flavor of our time more than the contemporaneous novels of Robert A. Heinlein) and Alfred Bester. Given Moorcock’s reputation of being an experimental writer in the style of the mainstream and his leadership in the “New Wave” movement of sf via his editorship of New Worlds, I was surprised to hear him chastise the “Angry Young Men” (I’m not sure what writers that refers to) as being concerned with little more than sex and power and corrupting “the tone and aspirations” of the modern novel. It was in Sheckley, Dick, and Bester that Moorock found the “substance” Victorian novels taught him to demand, and their work had more relevance, craft, energy, relevance, and imagination in Moorcock’s mind than many celebrated novelists.

The Ice Schooner — Unlike his fantasies which usually seem to fit clearly in the themes of the Eternal Champion, this early sf novel of Moorcock’s doesn’t seem to be part of the same series. However, in thinking about it, it has some of the same ideas. Arflane, the hero here, worships (as does the epitome of the Eternal Champion, Elric of Melniboné) a form of chaos, specifically the entropy symbolized by the religion of the Ice Mother. Like most Eternal Champions, he is doomed to not have domestic or romantic happiness. At novel’s end, he leaves New York to go north to find evidence of the Ice Mother. However, he leads love Ulrica Ulseen to New York where her suspicions about the fading Ice Age are confirmed. Her trip back to the Eight Cities to get them ready for the changing climate fits in with the notion of the Cosmic Balance constantly shifting due to changing circumstance. The adherants of the Ice Mother, especially the fanatically murderous harpooner Urquart, are devotees of an unchanging descent into entropy, sort of a combination of Law and Chaos in a static culture. Urquart hates what he perceives as decadence in the Eight Cities’ subconscious reaction to a warming climate. Arflare initially shares these feelings. Arflare helps, indirectly, to bring about a new Cosmic Balance. I’m a fan of stories set in polar regions and during Ice Ages, and I liked this baroque tale of iceships though I thought the land whales a bit silly. However, they were rationalized as engineered creatures. I liked the northern polar settlements went underground (or, at least, under ice) and used science to survive. The Antarctic-derived culture chose a more primitive static method. I liked the love affair between Ulrica and Arflare and the guilty conscience and miserableness from its adulterous origins. However, like many fictional romances, its origins seemed implausibly sudden. Continue reading “Sailing to Utopia”

Elric: Song of the Black Sword

The Michael Moorcock series continues with a look at his most famous character.

Raw Feed (1999): Elric: Song of the Black Sword, Michael Moorcock, 1961, 1963.Elric Song of the Black Sword

Introduction” — Moorcock talks briefly about some of the inspirations for Elric – who he never considered an anti-hero: Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, American Beats, French Existentialists. James Dean was also an inspiration as was the early Elvis Presley. Moorcock cites a fascination for how the heroic ideal can be used to manipulate people.  (The Bastable series by Moorcock, in a way, deals with this theme.) That is reflected in the Elric saga as he initially takes the steps down the road which will lead to the death of his family and friends, the destruction of his home and world, and, eventually, his own death by seeking to rescue his lover. I was surprised to learn Moorcock started working on Elric in the 1950s, a time, he notes, when J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Howard were available only in small press editions.

Elric of Melniboné — This book is as compelling, as grim, as foreboding as it was the first time I read it more than 20 years ago. This book is a classic with the doomed Elric dependent on Stormbringer, the vampiric sword that sustains him at the cost of other’s souls. Continue reading “Elric: Song of the Black Sword”

Explorers of the Infinite

The Lovecraft series, sort of, with a book I read because it contained some material on Lovecraft.

Raw Feed (2005): Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction, Sam Moskowitz, 1957, 1963.Explorers of the Infinite

I read this book now for its chapter on H. P. Lovecraft. (I had read the chapter on Edgar Allan Poe years ago as research for an English paper.) There wasn’t a whole lot there that I didn’t know except for the letters from other writers about Lovecraft and the stories of others inspired by Lovecraft.

Moskowitz’s great strength is the uncovering of a lot of obscure stories and others. His particular interest is tracing the treatment of certain technological and scientific ideas which is a valid school of sf criticism though I think it’s a mistake to think, and I don’t think Moskowitz does, to think sf exists to prophesize.

Most of the chapters are titled with the name of a science fiction author and were originally published in sf magazines. However, most chapters end by connecting a particular author — as well as more obscure authors — to the subject of the next chapter.

As with most sf criticsm, it makes me want to read a lot of this stuff.

Moskowitz sums up a lot of work including non-English language stuff. However, describing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as combining the travel tale, utopia, and “science story” makes me wonder about the accurateness of those descriptions. I’ve read Frankenstein twice and recall no element of the utopian in it.

I found the chapters on Hugo Gernsback; M. P. Shiel; Lu Senarens aka Frank Reade, Jr; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Philip Wylie, and Olaf Stapledon of particular interest.

Moskowitz details Gernsback’s importance as an inventor as well as publisher.

M. P. Shiel’s work, especially The Purple Cloud, seems interesting.  The plot descriptions seem to bear out Brian Aldiss’ remark, in his Billion Year Spree, that, “if ever there was a racist, it was M. P. Shiel.” Jewish Moskowitz simply lets Shiel’s work speak for itself in its anti-Semitism.

Frank Reade, Jr had an amazing career in its early start, prolificness, and financial success. Verne was an admirer. I never paid attention to the dates before, but Reade’s adventures started in 1876 with The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward F. Ellis, a dime novelist (Senarens continued the series to great success); therefore, its steam man and horse (imitated by Jules Verne in his The Steam House, which I have read) is sort of contemporary steampunk.

I was surprised to see how many of Burroughs novels were written to compete with his many imitators in setting and story.

Moskowitz’s covers the popularity of Wylie as both a fiction writer and, in his attack on “Momism”, a social critic.

Olaf Stapledon’s career as fiction writer and philosopher is nicely covered.

 

Reviews of more works touching on Lovecraft and his legacy are on the Lovecraft page.