The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter IV

My look at Stableford’s work continues.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

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.

Continue reading “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter IV”

The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique, 2nd Edition, Brian Stableford, 2016, 2017.

Cover by Timothee Rouxel

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. 

Continue reading “The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Walking the Night Land: The Starcombers

Our next stop in the Night Land.

Essay: The Starcombers, Edmond Hamilton and The Year When Stardust Fell, by Raymond F. Jones, 2012.

Starcombers
Covers by James Heugh and Ed Emshwiller

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.

Like his “What’s It Like Out There?”, it initially questions the value of humans being in space.

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”

Proteus Combined

And it’s more Charles Sheffield.

Raw Feed (1994): Proteus Combined, Charles Sheffield, 1994.

PRTSCMB1994
Cover by Barclay Shaw

An omnibus of Sheffield’s Proteus series.

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”

“The Little Sailboat”

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.

NLGSCNCFCC2019

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.

As men, these boys do all sorts of reprehensible things. They “cooked large slabs of meat on charcoal grills, drank cold beer, and ran their air conditioners”. Continue reading ““The Little Sailboat””

“Pest House”

The James Gunn series continues.

Review: “Pest House”, James Gunn, 1996.c87e19c4f9c12b7596945497167434f414f4141

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.

Like “Jackpot for Julie” and “The Man with One Talent”, I don’t discern any flaws that would have made its publishing questionable. Page says the story would have undoubtedly been published if the science fiction magazine market had not collapsed in the late 1950s. Continue reading ““Pest House””

“The Big One”

The James Gunn series continues.

Review: “The Big One”, James Gunn, 1996.c87e19c4f9c12b7596945497167434f414f4141

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 Man with One Talent”

And the James Gunn series continues.

Review: “The Man with One Talent”, James Gunn, 1996.c87e19c4f9c12b7596945497167434f414f4141

This was Gunn’s 42nd story. I’m not sure when it was written, seemingly in 1953 based on Gunn’s autobiography Star-Begotten.

Like “Jackpot for Julie”, it was an attempt to do a light romantic story for the higher paying “slick magazines”. And, like that story, it works just fine for what it is.

This one is borderline science fiction, and I can almost see it as an episode of The Twilight Zone though I suspect Rod Serling would have rejected it for being a bit too happy in its ending.

Essentially, it’s a story of two people, one cursed by money, one cursed by a freakish talent, and how love solves their problem. Continue reading ““The Man with One Talent””

“Jackpot for Julie”

The James Gunn series continues with a look at another of his unpublished stories.

Review: “Jackpot for Julie”, James Gunn, 1996.c87e19c4f9c12b7596945497167434f414f4141

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””

“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””