The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

Continue reading “The Day of the Triffids”

Out of the Deeps

Raw Feed (2005): Out of the Deeps, John Wyndham, 1953. 

Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Wyndham is often referred to as the founder of the “cosy catastrophe” sub-genre, a peculiarly British institution.  He is also said to epitomize post-World War II British fears. This is the first of his disaster novels I’ve read unless you wanted to stretch the point and call his The Midwich Cuckoos a disaster of alien invasion/hybridization. You could also see that novel as a metaphor for the unease of the World War II generation for their youngsters.

You can definitely call this a cosy catastrophe novel. Slickly narrated, this novel is presented as history being written by a radio reporter which allows him to present a personal encounter with the kraken and yet briefly summarive the invasion’s effect on the world and engage in lots of foreshadowing. The aliens who invade Earth, colonize the sea, and make incursions onto coastal areas are never referred to as krakens, but the novel’s original British title, The Kraken Wakes, suggests the word)

The cosiness comes in because, though the narrator and his wife narrowly escape being killed by the krakens in the Caribbean, we don’t get any closeup looks at famine victims, people battling for survival supplies, the triage of survivors, and the struggle for survival that makes the disaster and post-apocalypse sub-genres so compelling. (Wyndham — who wrote sf starting in the 1930s under a variety of names and quite successfully retooled his identity when he changed his pseudonym with The Day of the Triffids — paved the way for John Christopher whose disaster novels are far less cozy.)

We get those things, but the narrator and his wife survive in relative comfort compared to Britain’s woes.  It is those woes, Britain the naval power being denied (with virtually every other nation — though it is strongly hinted at novel’s end that the kraken will be defeated) the use of the sea, that could serve as a metaphor for Britain’s post-war dis-ease.  (Another unexpected sign of this is the complaint of the narrator and a citizen that the government — just like in World War II — doesn’t trust its citizens with weapons to defend themselves.)

Continue reading “Out of the Deeps”

The Midwich Cuckoos

While I get some more new reviews written up, it’s time to look at John Wyndham, another author Science Fiction Ruminations brought up recently.

Raw Feed (1988); The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham, 1957. 

Cover by Dean Ellis

To my knowledge, this is the first John Wyndham I’ve read. 

You could have fun finding a sort of feminist subtext in this novel which is to say it would be fun defending an essentially not quite valid premise., One of the central plot features is, of course, the sudden, unexplained, and unwanted pregnancies of most Midwich women, cosmic rape if you will. There are veiled references to abortion. Differences between men and women are discussed in passing. Zellaby talks of women’s arrogance in assuming their perpetual place on Earth. (This goes against feminist ideology, of course, but Zellaby discusses women as Mother.) Zellaby also bewails women not being more independent. 

The novel was surprisingly full of wry wit. The retired major (a minor character) was a bit like a Monty Python character. 

Surprisingly, the narrator was a bit character in the whole drama which gradually gains a sinister, foreboding air. In keeping with Wyndham’s reputation as a writer of “cozy disaster novels”,  there is little, if any, horror here, and I can’t see it rightly being marketed as a horror novel which, as I recall, when I first saw it on the rack many years ago as a child, it was. 

The theme of the story is simple:  to protect “civilization” it may mean compromising its values of peace and justice.  (Very reminiscent of arguments on how to fight terrorism.) Wyndham manages to bring up major questions in a skillful, naturalistic way. 

Continue reading “The Midwich Cuckoos”

The Martian Epic

It’s backward in time to cover my reading of the past five months.

And it’s back to Brian Stableford though, this time, only to one of the works he translated and annotated for Black Coat Press. After reading his co-authored Timeslip Troopers, I wanted to read more Théo Varlet.

Review: The Martian Epic, Octave Joncquel and Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2008.

Cover by Arnaud Demaegd

The two novels in this omnibus, Les Titans du ciel [The Titans of the Heavens] and L’agonie de la Terre [The Agony of Earth], were originally published in 1921 and 1922. Stableford notes they were some of the most important works of roman scientifique published in France between the wars.

They certainly are remarkable, especially for an Anglo reader. That isn’t just because they are, as Timeslip Troopers was, a sort of sequel to an H. G. Wells’ work, but because they feature a significant strain of French cultural and scientific thought in the 19th and early 20th century: spiritualism, the idea of discarnate souls not only on our planet but others, souls capable of travel by thought.

There certainly are plenty of thrills in the wake of a Martian invasion in the year 1978, an invasion which the genius Wells’ had a sort of cloudy precognitive vision of: massive destruction social collapse with strange new cults and political movements springing up.

The Titans of Heaven is a compelling novel told as sort of a memoir as it happens by the narrator, Léon Rudeaux, Besides the intended echo of The War of the Worlds, the work is almost precognitive itself in anticipating H. G. Wells’ later The Shape of Things to Come. Like that work, Joncquel and Varlet give us a world state created out of war.

Ironically, it comes into existence when at the very moment the idea of a “yellow peril” is maligned. China and Japan set out to establish an empire by conquest. Fortunately, a secret committee of scientists thwarts them by the Great Discovery, an electromagnetic device that renders metal weapons dangerous to use.

Continue reading “The Martian Epic”

Timeslip Troopers

In keeping with the World War One theme I started with The Russian Origins of the First World War, I picked this book off the shelf.

Review: Timeslip Troopers, Théo Varlet and André Blandin, trans. Brian Stableford, 1923, 2012. 

Cover by Mandy

When Lieutenant Renard rotates into command of a group of poilu defending on a small French village, he finds out that the officers have a very well-stocked wine cellar. But the Englishman who left it – he was shot as a German spy — also left behind a time machine and his journal. While the tone of the book is closer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is explicitly a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine since that Englishman is Well’s time traveler.

When Renard discovers the journal and machine, he shows it to Sergeant Dupuy, the unit’s clever radio man and a mechanic before the war in the factory owned by Renard’s father.

When an accident with a time machine transports a group of French soldiers from the Western Front of World War One to the Spain of 1321, we get a wry, entertaining novel. It’s the first science fiction work I know of in the tradition of radically displacing earthly soldiers in time and space. It blazes – without, presumably, any influence on those later works – the path followed by Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze, Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries, and Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World series.

The two take it out on some test flights for a bit of R & R in Paris before and during the war. Both trips are near disasters, and the Germans unexpectedly attack the unit during one, and Renard has to come up with an unconvincing story about why he and Dupuy were gone at such a critical time.

Continue reading “Timeslip Troopers”

“Some Words with a Mummy”

It’s a welcome return to Poe this week over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones.

Review: “Some Words with a Mummy”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1845.

The plot on this one is pretty straightforward, and it’s less weird fiction than sort of American proto-science fiction as well as being a satire. A mummy is revived and discusses Ancient Egypt and nineteenth century America with the narrator and three other men.

So, with some help from Stephen Peithman’s annotations, let’s look at this one.

Poe’s humor doesn’t always work here. Jokes tend not to age well in literature. After all, many modern Shakespeare productions omit some of his humor which, if you’re reading it, often has to be footnoted to get the joke. A joke explained is no longer a joke. Still, the story does have its funny moments.

Continue reading ““Some Words with a Mummy””

The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins)

This one ended up being a Low Res Scan for a few different reasons.

First, I was feeling a bit lazy last January when I read it and didn’t make notes on every story.

Second, there are a lot of stories and a few poems in this book, 18 French pieces and 18 English pieces. It’s a sampler of British and French literary Decadence.

Third, a lot of the stories are quite short and a review risks spoiling their often surprise endings.

Fourth, not all of the pieces were fantastic. Since the blogging madness has to have some kind of limit, I don’t normally review fiction that isn’t fantastical in some way.

Review: The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins), ed. Brian Stableford, 1990, 1993.

If this book just had Stableford’s long introduction, it would still be worth reading. Stableford has been writing about weird and decadent fiction almost as long as he’s been producing critical work on science fiction. Here, he produces a useful history and definition of Decadent fiction

Decadence is a concept going back to Montesquieu’s writings on the fall of the Roman Empire, and the first true Decadent work was Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection Fleurs de Mal in 1857. Decadent fiction was a short-lived phenomenon in France in the 1880s and works in it are sometimes cataloged in the Symbolist movement (which, in my vague understanding, involves non-realistic narratives with allegorical symbols). 

The English Decadent movement was in the 1890s, and, after Oscar Wilde’s conviction for sodomy, few people wanted to be associated with the label. 

Stableford usefully lists Decadent fiction’s primary themes: a celebration of artifice and skepticism of the Romantic ideal of nature (that virtue reposes in nature), impuissance (the feeling of powerlessness), and spleen (an angry melancholy). There was also a drug element. Sometimes, as in Théophile Gautier’s case, drugs were taken under supervision of medical men; however, in other cases, like Arthur Rimbaud seeking his “rational derangement of the senses”, they were not. 

Continue reading “The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins)”

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”

Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950

Well, I’ve known about this book for years, but it was pricey on the second hand market, but I got it for Christmas.

A lot of science fiction crit books from the 1980s I’ve purchased recently seem to be deaccessioned from university libraries. This one came from the Columbus College Library in Columbus, Georgia.  It seems to have been checked out only once, in 1995. That matches Brian Stableford stating, in his essay “The Profession of Science Fiction” that he only sold “157 copies in the UK, not counting remainders”.

While several of the blogs I read are interested in this kind of thing, it’s definitely a niche interest.

Review: Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, Brian Stableford, 1985. 

Stableford makes a convincing case that the British scientific romance was not the same as American sf though the two merged around 1950. The two differed in many respects: publishing markets, tone, subject, and the types of authors that wrote it..

American sf could be published in many magazines. The authors of scientific romances had only the low-brow penny dreadfuls in England, and, until around 18890, novels were published in three-volume installments intended for the upper classes. It also was about that date that magazines aimed at the middle class were first published in the UK. I was also interested to learn that Britain had paperback books slightly earlier than America.  However, they had nothing like the American pulp magazines though you could buy bundles of them (so-called “Yank mags”) that were brought over, supposedly, as ship’s ballast.

The tone of the scientific romance, particularly after World War 1, was pessimistic. Its stories often dealt with civilizational collapse or decadence. American pulp sf was optimistic.

The latter was defined by stories of space travel and interplanetary adventure. British scientific romance produced more stories with evolution and mutation as themes. The scientific romance also frequently featured future war stories.

There was a big drop off in scientific romances in Britain from 1918 through 1931 though the presence of an almost entirely British form, the “speculative essay”, increased in popularity in those years. It was closely related to science fiction and first started at least as far back as Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and took off in 1923 with J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus; or, Science and the Future.

The extent writers involved themselves in sf and scientific romances also differed substantially on each side of the Atlantic. Some mainstream British writers wrote one or two works of scientific romance, most notably Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. It was not, however, considered respectable, just eccentricity. The American pulps had many writers who specialized in writing for them.

H. G. Wells, the most famous writer of scientific romance, disparaged his scientific romances when he finally got around to having an omnibus of them published in 1927. Stableford sees early Wells as just exploring ideas and looking at their implications whereas later Wells, the artistically unsuccessful Wells, offered solutions to problems and not very convincing ones either. 

Stableford sees the ideal mix of sf/scientific romance as playfulness with serious intent to look at problems in the world. For him, American sf was vigorous in its action plots and romantic settings but not very serious in looking at the real world. The British scientific romance, with its utopian works, examinations of supermen, and how to avoid another World War, was serious but in a dull way. He thinks the post 1950 amalgam of the two was a good thing. Stableford sees John Wyndham and John Christopher as the two writers who most successfully combined the two traditions.

The book is divided up into time periods with in-depth looks at important authors of the period and its general themes. Each discussed author and their works are indexed.

Stableford makes me want to re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when he notes Huxley’s succeeded where many other authors who dealt with similar issues are forgotten. Stableford credits Huxley’s lighter touch. He had more irony and didn’t, unlike Wells’, make a deliberate statement on the nature of his society. He left unanswered the question of why, exactly, the world After Ford was so bad. People are happy after all.

Interestingly, one of the many forgotten writers mentioned is Muriel Jaeger. Her The Question Mark, which may have inspired Huxley’s novel, has recently been reprinted.   

Stableford makes me now see Olaf Stapledon in a new light as a man seeking psychic communion and community. Interestingly, he was the reverse of so many of the writers Stableford discusses. He was raised by an atheist and became a sort of believer. Most of the authors covered took the opposite trajectory – sons of religious men who rebelled.

Naturally, if you are the type who would read this book, you’ll find new books and authors you want to read. The most prominent names in that regard for me are H. F. Heard, who later moved to California though, even after becoming acquainted with American sf, he still wrote in the tradition of the scientific romance. The other is John Gloag. Stableford actually got to interview Gloag before his death. Unlike many of the authors of scientific romances, Gloag (like S. Fowler Wright) was a man of the political right though Stableford puts this down to a general skepticism rather than loyalty to a particular political creed.

It’s a fascinating read with Stableford ably summarizing many a story and novel.

I would recommend this book to others interested in the history of science fiction, but, I suspect, it’s been superseded by Stableford’s four volume New Atlantis. Published in 2017, it pushes his survey back in time to some works of proto-scientific romance starting with Francis Bacon.

The Watcher at the Threshold, Part 5: Amazon and Aegean

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, eds. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

My multi-part look at this John Buchan collection concludes.

Buchan took a cruise to the Aegean in 1910 and that’s the setting of “Basilissa”. This 1914 story is my least favorite in the collection. It mixes precognitive dreams with a standard damsel-in-distress romantic plot.

Every April since boyhood Vernon has had a dream where he enters a house with many rooms and senses a danger. On each repetition of the dream, the danger draws closer.

In Greece, Vernon will later rescue a beautiful woman from a local warlord.

Once again, the issue of racial heritage comes up. Vernon, you see, is not of pure English blood. He’s part Greek through his grandmother and that made him susceptible to those dreams and their terrors.

Continue reading “The Watcher at the Threshold, Part 5: Amazon and Aegean”