As laid out in his “Introduction”, this is the second anthology of French science fiction or, more properly, roman scientifique that Stableford has done for Black Coat Press.
Unlike the first, which attempted to define and show the “fundamental pattern of development” of the French roman scientifique, Stableford merely seeks to come up with representative samples from the entire period of the genre. Unintentionally, it ended up being somewhat biased towards humorous stories, he says. When authors defend themselves against the charge of absurdity by being absurd, their narratives are pushed to the limits.
Following the turmoil of the French Revolution, propagandizing for progress was harder. The skepticism about the benefits of progress and the perfectibility of human society was a common theme. Many of these stories have the theme that Isaac Asimov dubbed the “Frankenstein complex”: no good can come from technological progress. Stableford’s “editorial sieve” wasn’t interested in the “more pragmatic aspect of antitechnological sentiment” because that’s rather mundane in the context of science fiction. He opted for the more extreme and interesting cases. And, of course, some stories touch on the growing conflict between society and religion which, in the romanscientifique, played out in two distinctive ideas not seen much in American science fiction or the British scientific romance: the “plurality of worlds” and cosmic palingenesis – the transmigration of souls.
I’m not going to mention much about the background of each writer, but Stableford does introduce each story with a useful literary biography of its author, their place in the roman scientifique, and any probable influences on their work.
In Chapter IV, “The Expectations of the Science Fiction Reader”, Stableford tries to discover what sf readers get out of the genre. He looks at three questions: what sf readers say they get out of the genre, how the various definitions of sf serve as rules for composing sf works, and what writers and apologists of sf say about the genre’s function and value.
Stableford argues that the whole question of science fiction as a genre is that reading a work of sf is different than reading another sort of novel. That’s what defines the genre. He quotes Darko Suvin as defining a genre as a system of expectations, based on prior reading experience, of a particular type of material. Even innovations in the genre are just an evolution of expectations based on past experience with sf.
What are those expectations? To get an idea, Stableford turns to the letters columns of sf magazines. There are a couple of methodological problems with this acknowledges Stableford.
These are, first of all, a self-selected sample, and, of course, not all the letters received were printed though Stableford notes early sf pulps frequently had letters insulting certain stories.
This is Stableford’s companion to his four volume New Atlantis series on British scientific romances.
As usual, Stableford writes in a clear way with some nice turns of phrase though he lets some of his snarkiness and sarcasm show at times and has some nice turns of phrase.
The book starts out in 1657 with Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune [Other Worlds] and goes through 1939. Because of World War Two, little French work was published in the 1940s. Like the British scientific romance, it was subsumed into the dominant American mode of science fiction after the war.
Stableford mentions, as did James Gunn’s in his Alternate Worlds, some of the genres that fed into sf/roman scientifique: traveler’s tales (le merveilleux), imaginary voyages, utopias, and satires. (He talks about how French censorship of books meant many were published with bogus foreign printing information and under pseudonyms.) However, a unique French element was what Voltaire coined contes philosophiques. The interest in telling “fay stories” in the French court also played a role.
Stableford divides his analysis by historical eras and themes within them.
I would never have known that Edmond Hamilton wrote something possibly influenced by William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land if Andy W. Robertson hadn’t mentioned this novel at his Night Lands website. (Robertson even quotes Hamilton on Hodgson.) I would have guessed, if any pulp writer paid homage to Hodgson’s creation, it would have been, judging by the title alone, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Earth’s Last Citadel – except I’ve read that novel and the only thing Hodgsonian is the title.
Hamilton is in his gritty mode in this 1956 story. His characters are tough and treacherous, his spaceships lived in.
The titular starcombers are scavengers with four spaceships. They have their families with them. Harry Axe (which is a good name for a raider and scavenger) is on his second wife, Lucy. She comes on to men, including protagonist Sam Fletcher, out of what seems to be vain need to have her physical attractions validated. She manages to seem almost naked even in a spaceman’s coverall. Continue reading “Walking the Night Land: The Starcombers”→
Sheffield is known as a hard sf writer and has written some good hard sf – he’s certainly got the technical background for it.
However, I suspect (like James Gunn’s The Immortals) this story owes more to some fanciful playing with dubious, but popular notions of biomedicine than real science. Here Sheffield takes the 70’s notion of biofeedback to a bizarre level: the human form can actually be changed with the help of computerized biofeedback.
In Sight of Proteus, Sheffield develops the idea while wending a way through a complicated plot involving secret and illegal form manipulation for the benefit of man and space travel and alien contact.
There are catalogs that cater to fashion in forms, form change to prolong life, illegal forms that hero Bey Wolf searches out for the government, and conflict over the use of forms (“spacers” don’t like them), and the redefining of humanity as someone who can use biofeedback equipment at an early age.
I liked the plot element with some humans – under the influence of illegal form change equipment – being contaminated with Logian viral DNA and changing into aliens. Loge – and I have no idea if the purported pre-1975 science listed is real – is the planet that supposedly existed (according to Bode’s Law and evidenced by the asteroid belt and the calculated origin point of some comets) between Mars and Jupiter. Aliens lived on it as evidenced by transuranic elements. Continue reading “Proteus Combined”→
I’m not resuming my James Gunn series yet, but I happen to come across this story in a recent issue of Analog.
Review: “The Little Sailboat”, James Gunn, 2019.
This is a “Probability Zero” story. That’s an Analog feature of short-short stories. Many are humorous. Some, like this one, are fabalistic or outside of Analog‘ usual scope of hard science fiction.
Gunn, in Crisis!, was operating in science fiction guru mode. This is Gunn operating in, unfortunately, in sort of an Elijah mode.
A man builds a sailboat in his driveway. However, the driveway is “hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean”.
Since this story is sort of a combination of “The Little Engine That Could” and the building of Noah’s Ark, the sailboat is personified as “the Little Sailboat”, and neighborhood boys mock the Little Sailboat as they pass.
This was Gunn’s 64th story. Michael R. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction puts the composition date at 1957. As of the 1996 publication date of The Unpublished Gunn, Part Two, it was his last unpublished story. Page says it was also the last piece of fiction Gunn wrote until the late 1960s.
This was a story aimed at the “slick” science fiction magazine market. Gunn defines that market as having
a more general theme, a setting in the not-too-distant future, and an idea that did not present serious difficulties for an unsophisticated readership.
This was Gunn’s 45th story. Like “Jackpot for Julie” and “The Man with One Talent”, it was an attempt to break into the “slick”, higher paying magazines. It seems to have been written in 1953 or 1954.
It is not at all science fictional.
It’s a boxing story.
It’s the classic setup: our narrator Champ – and that’s all he’s ever called, but, at 34, he’s an over-the-hill champ vs. Johnny, a 23-year old up and coming fighter with a contract and the chance to make a reputation. Continue reading ““The Big One””→
The James Gunn series continues with a look at another of his unpublished stories.
Review: “Jackpot for Julie”, James Gunn, 1996.
In the early 1950s, bolstered by the number of stories he’s sold, Gunn decided to crack the slick magazine market. He decided, after analysis, a “light romantic story” was his best bet, and the result was this, his 35th story.
It doesn’t have any fantasy element, but I think it’s a successful story. I’m surprised it was not accepted. Perhaps the competition was just better. I could see this as a light hearted tv drama from the era.
The story is set in Las Vegas and is full of coincidences appropriate to a story centering on gambling. The style is quite different and more humorous than Gunn’s usual. Continue reading ““Jackpot for Julie””→