“Ill Met in Lankhmar”

This week’s weird fiction I approached with a sigh and a bit of trepidation.

I’ve been bouncing off the appeal of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser since first encountering them in grade school in “The Sadness of the Executioner” in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords #1 anthology. I’m a fan of much of Leiber’s science fiction, and his horror and weird fiction was very innovative. But, to date, I’ve been unimpressed with his sword and sorcery.

Review: “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, Fritz Leiber, 1970.Ill Met in Lankhmar

Leiber started his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series in 1939, but it wasn’t until 1970, with this story, that he told how the two met.

The story starts with Fafhrd and Gray Mouser independently ambushing a party of thieves in the smoggy city of Lankhmar. The city is ruled, de facto, by the Thieves Guild. I’m not aware of any historical society that had anything like a Thieves Guild, but sword and sorcery writers love the idea. (I suspect it started with Robert E. Howard, but I don’t actually know.) Later in the story, Leiber lavishes a lot of detail on what training the Thieves Guild offers to its apprentices and those in the associated Beggars Guild.

Congratulating themselves with lots of wine and ale, the two new friends go home to Gray Mouser’s den in a decrepit, slummy attic where he keeps love Ivrian – rescued from her father’s torture chambers – in a sort of solitaire confinement which Fafhrd privately thinks leads to Ivrian being rather anxious and flighty. Continue reading ““Ill Met in Lankhmar””

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“The Whip”

The James Gunn series continues, and I’m starting my look at The Unpublished Gunn, Part Two.

Review: “The Whip”, James Gunn, 1996.c87e19c4f9c12b7596945497167434f414f4141

Seemingly, from the introduction in The Unpublished Gunn, Part One, this story was written in late 1952 or early 1953.

Gunn said, in that volume, that he thought this story might have been rejected by editors because it was too depressing. It’s a near miss, but I think the story suffers from the same problem many other unpublished Gunn stories do: too obscure. This one also has some loose ends I would have liked wrapped up.

It’s a fairly long story, the 23rd that Gunn wrote. It takes up 20 pages of a 68 chapbook. Continue reading ““The Whip””

“Sane Asylum”

The unintended James Gunn summer project continues, this time with a look at more of his fiction.

Starting in 1992, two chapbooks of Gunn’s work were issued: The Unpublished Gunn, parts one and two.

They included nine of the 92 pieces of short fiction he had written to that date. In his introduction to part one, Gunn says he’s publishing these stories because he has a sense of unfinished business at not seeing a completed story in print. In particular, he is puzzled as to why these stories were rejected when he discerns no difference in quality between them and stories he did get published at the same time. He wants to them put before the world.

I’ll be looking at each of those nine stories individually.

Review: “Sane Asylum”, James Gunn, 1992.Uncollected Gunn 1

This was the fourth story Gunn wrote, and he says his initial ambition was to publish it in Bluebook. (Presumably this refers to Blue Book Magazine, a general fiction pulp magazine that had a long run from 1905 to 1956.)

Using the chronology of Gunn’s compositions in Michael R. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction, that would mean this story was written in 1948 or 1949, so the influence of Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”, a story much admired by Gunn, is not present. Yet, despite the different subjects and themes of the two stories, both are science fiction tales that postulate social changes and little or no technological changes. Here, the only bit of advanced technology is radio earpieces worn by the attendants at Willows Mental Hospital and that look like hearing aids. In fact, Gunn’s agent, Frederik Pohl, tried to sell the piece to the non-science fiction magazine Suspense.

Gunn’s story actually is more reminiscent of Philip K. Dick though there is, of course, no direct connection given that Dick hadn’t published anything yet. But we are in a sort of similar territory with the questioning of reality. Continue reading ““Sane Asylum””

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 4

 

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

Modern Man in the Modern World

This time we’re looking at another subcategory of the plots of circumstance category.

In Gunn’s sample, it’s the most popular subcategory in the most popular category.

The reasons for this are obvious: the situation is immediate, the characters are easy to identify with, the world is familiar, “the problems presented are often as real to the reader as they are to the characters”. Even if the problems are novel to the reader, they can be made to seem real. If you want to do significant “political, social, and psychological observations and analyses”, this is the plot for you.

However, as of 1951, Gunn saw this plot in decline. Post-Hiroshima it was the vehicle for so many post-nuclear war stories that editors grew sick of them.

Gunn warns there is a “minor writing problem” in using this plot: “the lack of common knowledge of the event described” needs an explanation. Stories can be set in secluded areas or news of them suppressed.

Or, since Gunn says his use of “modern” is elastic, you can just take the obvious tact of putting the story in the near future. To him, if your world has “no inventions or industries impossible to our science or engineering ability today”, your story is modern.

Given that the temporal setting of these stories is all the same, Gunn doesn’t use a time-based classification system for this categories varieties. He does it on the basis of the problem introduced into the “modern” world.

Facing a Continuing Problem

This, Gunn says, is a plot that amalgamates study of a human trait and the problem to various degrees.

Gunn uses, as case studies, a couple of stories. One is Clifford D. Simak’s “Lobby”. The other is Philip Wylie’s “Blunder”. Both deal with problems about nuclear technology. But, Gunn says, these are not pure examples of this plot. He postulates that such a story would have

no wars or threats of war or any other unusual circumstantial occurrence. The story would deal completely with human impulses and the human mind.

But he doesn’t think such a story, at least such a science fiction story, can be written.

Or he did until he read Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”. Gunn spends a great deal of time on that story showing a remarkable eye for its significance since Gunn finished his thesis in May 1951 and Leiber’s story only came out in November 1950. He praises its “techniques of characterization and symbolism”. At the end of several pages discussing it, he says Leiber’s story and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are “two of the most hopeful and pregnant possibilities of the future of science fiction”. If science fiction continues in their vein, it will become a “literary medium for literary critics to reckon with”.

Facing a Problem Raised by New Technology

This is the plot that got (at least in a few instances) science fiction the reputation of being a prophetic genre. It’s the stereotypical Analog story (probably more in the breach than practice).

Gunn draws on an analogy from his naval days:

Science fiction is engaged, in one segment of its personality, in the business of prediction, just as it indulges in flights of fancy and considerations of the fictional possibilities of relatively improbable events. It is the same sort of prediction as that produced by the Navy’s gun directors, with an input of the known factors of the target’s position, course, and speed, these directors compute mathematically the target’s future position at any given time.

Not surprisingly, John W. Campbell gets quoted here in regard to prophetic sf stories.

Gunn sees this as a firmly established plot in science fiction, well-exploited and that probably won’t develop further sophistication. It could be argued that cyberpunk developed this plot further by presenting stories that didn’t content themselves to extrapolating one technology but multiple technologies.

Facing Problems in the Mental and Social Fields

This is a rather hypothetical plot since Gunn says none of the anthologies he used as resources have pure examples of it. Essentially, these would be stories where psychology and sociology have developed to become more scientific and the resulting implications explored. Gunn sees a lot of potential here with many more stories to come.

And he was right. The 1950s saw, in the pages of Galaxy and Astounding Stories, many stories where the soft sciences were rigorous and produced spectacular results for good and bad.

Facing Problems of a New War

Not a lot of comment needed here. It’s the near future war story – as opposed to the E. E. “Doc” Smith far future war story of improbable weapons. It doesn’t have to center around weapons technology. Gunn mentions Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses” which centers around the question whether the U.S. should launch a retaliatory nuclear strike on Russia.

Gunn was quite right that the temporary fatigue with future war stories would pass and that this would be an enduring plot that would even show up outside of science fiction magazines.

Modern Science Fiction

This summer’s project seems to be James Gunn.

I’m only going to do a brief review of this book. Following a pattern similar to what I did with Brian Stableford’s book of critical essays on science fiction, Opening Minds, I’ll have some thoughts on individual chapters and do separate blog posts on them.

I’ll also be looking at some Gunn short stories and will comment on how they relate to Gunn’s theories.

Review: Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis, James Gunn and edited and annotated by Michael R. Page, 2018.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Anybody interested in science fiction criticism will want to pick this one up. It’s the first real critical study of contemporary science fiction.

Its only predecessors are J. O. Bailey’s Pilgrims Through Space and Time (a doctoral dissertation from 1933 and published in 1947) and Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon from 1948. But Bailey, a Victorian scholar, concentrated on works from that period and barely looked at pulp magazines. Nicolson’s work was only about a certain type of science fiction.

Gunn’s thesis is from 1951 and addresses what he terms science fiction in the realistic mode and definitely looks at contemporary works.

His sample drew from the pulps and also from five reprint anthologies.

What is peculiar to Gunn’s work is his emphasis on plot types, and he gives a schematic classifying them all. In the foreword, science fiction scholar Gary K. Wolfe, who was put on his lifetime vocation by encountering parts of Gunn’s thesis when it was reprinted in Dynamic Science Fiction, remarks that this reflects Gunn’s work as a writer. A science fiction writer could use this thesis to think about story generation, and Gunn gives his advice on which plots are and are not worth pursuing. Continue reading “Modern Science Fiction”

The Roads Between the Worlds

The Michael Moorcock series continues not with sword-and-sorcery but science fiction.

Raw Feed (1999): The Roads Between the Worlds, Michael Moorcock, 1964, 1971.Roads Between the World

Introduction” — An interesting introduction in which Moorcock not only talks about the three novels in this omnibus but his relation to sf. Moorcock cites Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man as an influence which made me eager to read the novels in this omnibus. Moorcock has said he doesn’t have a lot of interest in “modern sf” but liked the works of Fritz Leiber, Philip K. Dick, and the Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth collaborations. This explains his dislike of Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein. He doesn’t like conservative sf with its preeminence of rationalizing with hard science its fantasy elements. For him, sf (he’s hardly alone in this nor is it an illegitimate stance) is a way to understand our world. The fantasy element in his sf is both a symbol as well as a device to move the story. He says these three novels trace the evolution of the “rationalist apparatus” of sf from “stage machinery” to symbolic writings. Moorcock also, as I didn’t know, worked as a writer for the British Liberal Party for awhile. These novels were written in one draft and very slightly revised for this edition. Evidently, they were written in a hurry to provide more traditional far for the experimental magazines Science Fiction Adventures and New Worlds.

The Wrecks of Time — I liked this novel a lot more than I thought I would. Its plot of Earths being built and destroyed and altered (and the inhabitants amnesiac about the alteration of their planet’s geography) reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s themes of what is reality and simulating it. The scheming groups of D-Squads and aliens obsessed with recreating the society that birthed them reminded me of A. E. van Vogt (also an influence on Dick). Continue reading “The Roads Between the Worlds”

Tales from the Texas Woods

The Michael Moorcock series continues.

Moorcock lived in Texas for a while — in Austin, of course, given his political proclivities.

Raw Feed (1998): Tales from the Texas Woods, Michael Moorcock, 1997.Tales from the Texas Woods

Introduction” — An interesting introduction in which Moorcock reveals, surprisingly, (I saw no clue of this before reading his collection Fabulous Harbors), a long standing fascination with the American West and tales of it. Indeed, some of his first sold writing was pulp Westerns.

The Ghost Warriors” — A tale featuring a new Moorcock hero, the Masked Buckaroo (mentioned in Moorcock’s Fabulous Harbors and The War Amongst the Angels), Count Ulrich aka Monsieur Zenith, his nemesis Sexton Begg, and some marauding Apaches. The disguised Ulrich leads a band of Ghost Warriors in an elaborate ruse to get the trumpet note (supplied by a pursuing military party) needed to magically open the pathway to the Grey Fees or Realm Below and the multiverse beyond. Besides the story’s wit, I liked the deliberate echoes of the Ghost Dance in the Ghost Warriors and their quest for a land of “lost dreams” where herds of buffalo still roamed, justice prevailed, and virtue is rewarded. I also like that, though the Masked Buckaroo is willing to let Count von Bek escape unpursued, that indefatigable force of Law, Sexton Begg, is not about to give up the chase just because Ulrich went to the Grey Fees.

About My Multiverse” — Short explanation of how mathematician Mandelbrot’s chaos theory and fractal sets lent coherence to Moorcock’s conception of the multiverse, its use as a political propaganda metaphor for the “Happy Mean” (which seems to resemble the unconvincing “Third Way” between capitalism and communism), and Moorcock’s belief that popular culture is where authority can be attacked. Continue reading “Tales from the Texas Woods”