The Cornelius Chronicles

I suppose the time has come in the Michael Moorcock series to look at some of the Jerry Cornelius books.

I didn’t really enjoy these books that much. However, if you realize going into them (and I didn’t), that Moorcock is doing his version of Commedia dell’Arte, they will be a lot more understandable.

However, I really can’t recommend them.

Raw Feed (1999): The Cornelius Chronicles, Michael Moorcock, 1977.Cornelius Chronicles

The Repossession of Jerry Cornelius”, John Clute — While I find Clute’s entries very useful in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (the shorter format curbs his excesses), I find his book reviews less than useful with his self-confessed fondness for obscure words and extended metaphors. I don’t know if Moorcock commissioned this introduction to the omnibus or if Clute’s opinions on these four novels bear any resemblance to the books. From what I gather, Clute (a resident of London where this piece was written and where Moorcock was born and lived a number of years and has written about) views these novels as a metaphor for city life in London from 1965 to 1977, the span of years in which these novels were written.  (And, to a lesser extent, a comment on the contemporary scene in Europe and worldwide.) I don’t agree with Clute’s sociological observation that life in the city is theatrical and involves putting on personas to perform on the metro stage (at least no more than personas are adapted in any social setting). It also seems that Clute is hinting that The Condition of Muzak, the fourth novel in the series, may imply that the previous three books are the daydreams of loser Jerry Cornelius.

The Final Programme — I enjoyed this novel (and certainly found it more enjoyable than Moorcock’s The Black Corridor and The Distant Suns) but found it oddly structured.  It’s light and airy, the dialogue archly ironic and droll, and easy to read, but I never got the feeling of building up to a climax. In fact, since I had seen a film adaptation of this novel, I expected the final ending of Jerry Cornelius (a sometimes callous and ruthless figure given to incest with his sister and, like Moorcock’s Elric, vampirically feeding off others – albeit with no instrumentality like Stormbringer) and merging with Miss Brunner to become a hermaphrodite. However, despite all the talk of a new world emerging, the cycle of time perhaps being broken, and millions following “Cornelius Brunner” into the sea to their deaths (and plague breaking out all over Europe), I never got the sense of a new order (or, at the very least, a significant new order) emerging.  The idea of a dream being used to create a new social order is something in many of the Eternal Champion stories, but I couldn’t tell if Cornelius was an agent of Law or Chaos, or just the new. I’ve seen it claimed that Cornelius was a proto-cyberpunk hero. I doubt that he had much influence and, if he did, it probably was the importance of contemporary popular culture, an international setting, trade and brand names (Moorcock probably was inspired by Ian Fleming in this since the James Bond series, partially parodied here, was big on brand names), and fashion (meticulously described here). Cornelius probably has his place amongst sf characters (this omnibus if frequently cited in lists of classic sf.) because it so stridently (and was probably the first to do so) tries to capture its time and the portents that seemed to be in the air of the very influential sixties’ London. Continue reading “The Cornelius Chronicles”

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Cybele, with Bluebonnets; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

I was in Texas a couple of months ago, so I took along this novel for its Texas setting.

I had been looking at it for years in Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. An atypical plot and setting for Harness made me reluctant to buy it, and I also hadn’t read all of his earlier novels. (I still haven’t read The Catalyst and Krono.) I finally bought it about a year-and-a-half ago.

Review: Cybele, with Bluebonnets, Charles L. Harness, 2002.Cybele, with Bluebonnets

Harness’ last novel is atypical and familiar, charming and enticing in its episodes, and memorable in its overarching story of a deep love that survives death.

Harness’ final novel is a masterpiece in that it skillfully weds his most characteristic theme, what George Zebrowski’s introduction calls “the denial of death and the power of hope”, to a plot that transforms the “dreams and what-might-have-beens” from Harness’ life to “artful alternate realities”.

The milestones of Harness’ early life are here. Birth in Colorado City, Texas in 1915, a move to Fort West (which seems to be Fort Worth in its proximity to Dallas), Texas; an early interest in chemistry; a brief foray into seminary at the behest of his mother; employment as a fingerprint technician in the red light district of Fort Worth; employment at the U. S. Bureau of Mines during World War II, and eventually becoming a patent attorney. Oddly enough, Harness makes no reference to the early death of his older brother which shows up in other novels.

There are asides on Texas history and chemistry – lots of chemistry since Harness was a trained chemist. Continue reading “Cybele, with Bluebonnets; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Soft Targets

The next author I’m going to cover with a series of Raw Feeds is Dean Ing — survivalist, engineer, psycholinguist, and author of a series of popular technothrillers.

Dean is not without his faults and his plotting is, as John Clute noted, pixillated. I find him interesting though I haven’t read all his work yet.

Raw Feed (2001): Soft Targets, Dean Ing, 1979.Soft Targets

Given the times, I thought I’d read Ing’s novel about how he thought terrorism might be handled. Given that it was first published in October 1979 and this paperback edition, with a new afterword by Ing, was published in May 1980, I expected it to have dated some given that it’s sort of a near future piece of sf. (Very near future given that the plot takes place in late 1980 and early 1981.) In the afterword, Ing justifies calling this sf since it speculates on the application of two “sciences”, psycholinguistics theory and media theory. But it fails on several levels and not all have to do with the passing of time.
Ing has learned a lot about writing since this novel. The novels I’ve read of his were all written later and much more enjoyable. His story is too sparse in parts, particularly describing the collusion between Federal Communications Board member and protagonist, Maurice Everett, and the media. His descriptions of the media war on terrorism, on the other hand, are bloated. Basically, they consist of mocking terrorist actions and refusing to publicize terrorists’ political points. However, Ing, perhaps because of his advanced degree work in psycholinguistics and media theory and the desire to put the story on a scientific footing, dresses this basic idea up with too much jargon. The presence of Gina Vercours was annoying. (Must all espionage thrillers have beautiful babes in them? This one has two — Vercours and the terrorist Leah Talith.) Her combination of bodyguard and journalist was very implausible and never convincingly explained. (She guards one Wallace Conklin, a pretty obvious stand-in for Walter Cronkite. Comedian Charlie George might be a stand-in for George Carlin.)

The novel is surprisingly filled with rather unconventional sex given its brevity. Of course, there is the eventually consummated Vercours and Everett relationship. Homosexuality is mentioned several times, and one male homosexual is killed via the exotic method of a poison filled dildo put in his mouth. Ing seems to have a thing for exotic sex since the Quantrill novels featured a female committing bestiality with a giant wild boar. The KGB’s interest in destroying Hakim, head of the terrorist organization Fat’ah, was not adequately explained.  Continue reading “Soft Targets”

The Green Face

This title is mentioned in John Clute’s “World War One” entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

Given its mystical and occult preoccupations, I expected not to like this novel. A family member once described me as the “most unspiritual person I know”. An accurate description. While conspiracy theories and theologies sometimes interest me, mysticism does not though I appreciate its important effects in the world and history.

Meyrink’s work was compelling though. Perhaps that was because he was, as German literature scholar Franz Rottensteiner says in this edition’s afterword, a methodical skeptic. He may have belonged to several occult societies, but he also satirized elements of the occult. He particularly didn’t like astrology or mediums.

On the other hand, rumor has it that he was involved in the occult enough for accusations to stick that he used occult methods in his banking practices, and he ultimately was forced out of the profession.

Afterwards, he supported himself translating English language works including Charles Dickens, Lafcaido Hearn, and Rudyard Kipling. However, he doesn’t seem to have been aware of the supernatural writings of contemporaries like Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood.

The occult wasn’t the only thing he mocked. His satires on the Austro-Hungary army — some fantastic, some not — got him into trouble in 1917 when the German government launched a press campaign against Austrian Meyrink.

The Green Face was not his first novel. That was the very popular The Golem (seemingly not the inspiration for the early silent film). Still, it sold 90,000 copies.

While I will return to the novel as part of my World War One in Fantastic Fiction, I’m not exactly sure if this novel has any historical connection to that war. Specifically, was the refugee-crammed Amsterdam of this novel and the apocalyptic conclusion some kind of reaction or extrapolation of the war? Or something he wanted to write even before the war?

I call what follows a review, but it’s like a “raw feed” entry in that it’s lightly edited notes.

And you’ll definitely get a plot synopsis, a long synopsis.

Bottom line is that it’s a surprisingly enjoyable novel from a century ago.

Review: The Green Face, Gustav Meyrink, trans. Mike Mitchell, 1916, 2004.Green Face

The story starts out in (with a bit of typography recreating the sign) Chidher Green’s Hall of Riddles with protagonist (though the novel has multiple viewpoint characters) Fortunatus Hauberisser, an Austrian engineer. He is amused by the magic tricks on offer and the old books, detailing medical fads or Victorian porn, sometimes hidden behind things like a title purporting to be on the history of cod liver oil. (“Really, isn’t that just the twentieth century in a nutshell: all scientific mumbo-jumbo on the outside and inside: money and sex”, he mutters to himself.)

He also meets the bizarre looking Usibepu, allegedly a Zulu medical man studying with a Professor Arpád Zitter, Professor of Pneumatism.  Hauberisser comes across a merchant he vaguely recognizes perusing the porn and who makes an embarrassed and quick exit. Hauberisser suddenly feels a bit sick and, perhaps alluding to the war that has ended, thinks: “It must be some kind of illness – museumitis – unknown to medical science. Or could it be the air of death surrounding all things man-made, whether beautiful or ugly?” Continue reading “The Green Face”

The White Morning

I came across a reference to this novel in John Clute’s David Langford’s “World War One” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

It’s only science fiction in the sense that all near future political thrillers are science fiction. The hopeful feminist revolution Gertrude Atherton conceived never happened, of course, and Germany’s misery did not stop even after Armistice Day. Hundreds of thousands of Germans starved to death between then and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. I’ll restrict this entry, though, to the general qualities and outlines of Atherton’s tale. The specifics of Atherton’s assumptions and perceptions and, especially, misperceptions of the war will be the subject of a future entry in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Atherton was a famous novelist. She was an acquaintance of our old friend Ambrose Bierce.  (According to her Wikipedia entry, she carried on a “taunting” relationship with him.) She mostly wrote historical novels though she also did ghost and supernatural tales. Her “The Striding Place” still gets anthologized.

Her novels were known for being, by contemporary standards, sexually frank.  (In fact, I looked up a few phrases in Richard Spears’ Slang and Euphemism. I did not come away any more enlightened. A search on the Web of a Million Lies suggests the phrase “game of the gods” is not code for coitus but instead refers to chess.)

In later years, she undertook the rather science fictional step of undergoing radiation and “glandular” therapy. The experience was the basis of her Black Oxen which was made into an early film.

Review: The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime, Gertrude Atherton, 1918.White Morning

There is little reason to read this novel unless you are undertaking a project like mine or want to read up on early feminist utopias. Atherton’s tone is pleasant enough. The novel is short. But it is not very memorable for the most part. It undertakes of several prejudices about “Prussianism”.

A contemporary reviewer, one Carroll K. Michener, reviewed the novel for the April 6, 1918 issue of The Bellman (coincidentally published around my part of the world: Minneapolis, Minnesota). Winding up for a plot synopsis, he recognized it had some kinship with science fiction: “It is unseemly , moreover, to laugh down even the most fanciful panacea for the present overmastering ills of the world; to do so would be to deny the firm triumphs of the many prophetic Jules Vernes of the world of fiction.”

I’m always willing to let others do the tedious plot synopsis – especially since it’s been a few months since I read the novel and my notes aren’t that extensive, so here’s more of Mr. Michener:

The overwhelming key-thought of the book, as might be expected, is feminism.  While it pleases President Wilson to find distinction between the German people and the German government, the author marks her cleavage in another direction: she sets up the proposition that Prussianism is embodied in German masculinity, and that the hope of democratic peace and Germany’s salvation lies in the hands of its women.

The book opens with what promises to be a valuable addition to the war literature designed to depict the German character. Its value for the reader has a priori attestation from the knowledge that Gertrude Atherton had more or less seven years of more or less continuous residence in Germany. The suppressed individuality of German womanhood and the blustering dominance of junker masculinity are given a forceful portrayal.

The central figure is Countess Gisela Niebuhr, who has sworn with her four sisters never to marry. From this family of feminine rebels she goes forth to various expansive adventures in self-expression, principal among them her life under an assumed name as a governess in a rich American family, and her university life in Munich.

In America the sentient womanhood of Gisela Döring overshadows for a time her militant feminism. She falls in love with a young German diplomat, the Freiherr Frans von Nettelbeck. The German social system engulfs their romance, and he goes back to Germany to wed a woman of his class and with the requisite dower, the countess being penniless after her father’s death, and maintaining even from her lover the secret of her high birth.

Returning to Germany, the countess, still in disguise, becomes a famous dramatist, and begins a subtle propaganda for overcoming the masculine overlordship of her countrymen. The war interrupts her programme and submerges it in more absorbing interests. She works heart and soul in Germany’s cause until two American women, encountering her in Switzerland on furlough from her Red Cross work, convince her that Germany is wrong and its cause lost. This is a naïve procedure, as is so much else in the book. The countess goes back to Germany resolved to rouse the women. This marvel is accomplished in the course of a few pages of writer’s magic, and “the white morning” finds the whole of Germany’s gigantic military machine inexorably in the grip of Germany’s unified, armed, embattled, uniformed millions of women; every munition factory and storehouse destroyed; the police and home guards murdered; the Kaiser a helpless prisoner in his palace: all this in a twinkling. (Ha! villain! Give me the papers!) After that how simple to proclaim a republic!

No less imaginative strain is inflicted upon the reader in another is inflicted upon the reader in another element of the climax. The countess, confronted with the difficulty of disposing of Freiherr Frans when he appears unexpectedly on the night before “the white morning” to renew the old dream of love, slays him with her little dagger; not, however, before amply renewing said dream with him. There are reasons for this; reasons that lose their force quickly when the reader has wandered far from the tenuous persuasion of the text.

Mr. Michener than lands a few blows in his final paragraph.

There are some things to add and subtract from this.

I rather liked the melodrama of Gisela’s final encounter with Freiherr:

Why, in God’s name could not he have come back into her life six months hence?

No woman should risk a sex cataclysm when she has great work to do. Nature is too subtle for any woman’s will as long as the man be accessible. And the strongest and the proudest woman that ever lived may have her life disorganized by a man if she possess the power to charm him.

… Gisela opened his shirt gently and bared his breast. She held her breath, but he slept on and she took the dagger from her belt and with a swift hard propulsion drove it into his heart to the guard. He gave a long expiring sigh and lay still. A gallant gentleman, a brave soldier, and a great lover had the honor to be the first man to pay the price of his country’s crime, on the altar of the Woman’s Revolution.

Ok, I mostly like the phrase “sex cataclysm”.

I would also add that Atherton forsakes three clichés in her plot.

First, you will note this is not some farcical pacifist feminist revolution accomplished by women denying men sex. Atherton would very probably been aware of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Modern viewers may be in favor of its notion of no peace, no sex. But, as classicist J. Rufus Fears mentioned in passing in his lecture series Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, contemporary Greeks would have regarded any man that allowed that trick to work as a pathetic loser.

Second, Atherton’s is free of certain modern clichés. There is no one radio station, no one government building, no one computer center, or no one Death Star that needs to taken over or destroyed to bring on the revolution. Gisela has to show a great deal of executive ability to plan the simultaneous take over of many parts of the German state.  Gisela’s female recruits are not the detestable warrior babes of modern film and fiction. Yes, they are armed. Yes, they kill, but it is entirely plausible in the quite well documented context of disparities between male and female physical abilities.

Originally, I thought Atherton’s depiction of the lives of German women as over the top. However, after learning, in her afterword “An Argument for my ‘The White Morning’”, she lived in Germany and knew these sorts of German women, I will give her the benefit of a doubt.

Those interested in some of the feminist dimension of Atherton’s novel can check out an excerpt from Karsten Helge Piep’s Embattled Home Fronts: Domestic Politics and the American Novel of World War 1.

A rather annoying aspect of Atherton’s prose, particularly for a feminist, is her tendency for physiognomy to mirror the inner spirit:

She was still a handsome woman, particularly in her uniform, but the pink and white cheeks that once had covered her harsh bones were sunken and sallow. Her mouth was like a narrow bar of iron. Her eyes were half closed as if to hide the cold and deadly flame that never flickered; even her nostrils were rigid. All her hard and sensual nature, devoid of tenderness, but dissolved with sentimentality while the man who had conquered her had lived, she had centered on her lover, and with his death she was a tool to Gisela’s hand to wreak vengeance upon the powers that had sent him out of the world.

I was also amused to see a reference to the German academy which was to influence American higher education so much and lead to today’s pernicious cult of credentialism: “He had not a grain of originality or imagination, but he too was taking the course in dramatic art, and reading for that degree without whose magic letters he could not hope to take his place in the world of art to which his parts entitled him.”

Finally, it’s pretty obvious Gisela is a wish fulfillment character for Atherton. Writers sometimes bore of thinking of themselves as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. The violent revolutionary of tomorrow can be a more pleasing fantasy. The blood and barricades are so much easier to manage from the writing desk.

 

Reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Briefing, Scolding, Questioning

Cheap Science Fiction Reference Books

More than a few of the bloggers I read and regular visitors to this site (sometimes the same crowd) like old science fiction and might find old reference books on science fiction interesting. I’m talking about books from publishers like Greenwood Press — expensive and really only intended for libraries.

Well, enough time has passed that libraries are starting to get rid of them. Their loss might be your gain.

In the past year, I’ve picked up all but one of John J. Pierce’s critical works. (He’s still working on the subject and posts infrequently on his blog.)

And, when I was in the bookstore selling off a seven volume history of the Prussian Empire, I came across another: Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, ed. E. F. Bleiler from Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. It was all of $10.

There are articles on various authors from a variety of scholars. Some are expected: John Clute, Peter Nichols, Brian W. Aldiss, Malcolm Edwards, and Bleiler himself. Brian M. Stableford has several, but I have many of his lit-crit collections from Wildside Press, so many of these are not new to me.

Other names I either didn’t expect in this context or are new to me: John Scarborough, James L. Campbell, Sr, John R. Pfeiffer, Willis E. McNelly, Robert E. Myers, Charles L. Elkins, Ronald D. Tweet, L. David Allen, Chris Morgan, Gardner Dozois, John B. Ower, Richard Finholt, John Carr, L. David Allen, Marilyn J. Holt, and Susan Wood. Colin Wilson shows up not only with the expected essay on H. P. Lovecraft but also A. E. van Vogt.

As for subjects, all are defensible and familiar except for the name Luis Philip Senarens covered by Bleiler. Favorites of mine omitted are James Gunn and Charles Harness, but I think that’s defensible.

Fritz Leiber

Speaking of Bleiler, the modern incarnation of his old employer, Dover Books, has started a series called “Doomsday Classics“. One of the reprints is Fritz Leiber’s The Night of the Long Knives.

And There Arose a Generation Which Did Not Know …

Over at the Coode Street Podcast awhile back, Kristine Kathryn Rusch talked about an upcoming anthology, Women in Futures Past. Motivated by bizarre claims she would hear from writing students about women (or the lack thereof) in science fiction history, she has undertaken an educational mission.

But why does she have to? Why does this kind of ignorance exist among the most connected people in the world?

Back in the 1970s, when I started reading science fiction as a poor student in a backwater town in South Dakota, I knew about these authors — even if I couldn’t get my hands on their books. My high school library had The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In the post Star Wars years, I managed to pick up a cheap, but new, copy of Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by Robert Holdstock. It also mentioned women science fiction writers besides Ursula K. Le Guin. So did Baird Searles’ paperback A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. So did James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction series.

I seldom, if ever mention, “diversity” issues. But even I bought, in the 1990s, three landmark anthologies on women in science fiction: Jean Stine and Janrae Frank’s New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow and Pamela Sargent’s two-volume Women of Wonder anthology.

Bought them and read them.

So why does the generation that grew up with huge amounts of data available with the twitch of fingers on the keyboard as opposed to a drive to the library or weeks long wait for loaned or purchased books know so little about this subject? Is the internet age or modern education destroying their curiosity?

The ignorance Rusch cites is among self-professed fans, neigh would-be writers.

I wish Rusch well on her project. If she has enough new material I don’t already have, I’ll probably buy the book.

I’m genuinely puzzled why it’s needed though. The digital age reducing the mental habitat of Arthur Koestler’s “library angels“? Overbooked schedules allowing less time for casual curiosity? Shortened attention spans? Still, we are talking about the age of the hyperlink.

I guess, as Merlin remarked in John Boorman’s Excalibur, “For it is the doom of man that they forget.”

The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front

I had never heard of this book until I read David R. Langford’s “World War One” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia:

Frøis Frøisland’s Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) includes sf and horror among its wartime tales.

There is surprisingly little information about this book on the Web of a Million Lies.

John Clute, in his “Froisland, Frois” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, says:

More correctly given as Frøis Frøisland (1885-1930). Norwegian journalist and writer whose Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) is a volume of tales about World War One, several being sf or Horror, including the title tale, about an American soldier whose war wound activates his x-ray vision.

A Google search for the collection’s English title turns up a couple of bookseller descriptions and two brief contemporary reviews.

I’m somewhat skeptical that either Langford or Clute has read this collection or any of the booksellers listing it. (Though I wouldn’t actually bet on it with Clute. He’s not generally in the habit of speaking about books he hasn’t read.) The reason? There really isn’t much of what we call horror (in the literary genre sense) or science fiction in this book. There are eight fiction pieces with only the titular one being obviously fantastical and one borderline case.

Which, I guess, means pretty much anything I say will be quoted in term papers for decades.

Actually, I hope people go out of their way to contradict me. That might mean this book would be reprinted, and I could actually own it because the lowest price I’ve found for it now is $168. I don’t even spend that much on big reference books. As it is, I had it from the library for a brief time.

Review: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front, Frois Froisland, translated Nils Flaten, 1930.Man with Xray

The dust jacket for the English language edition of this book has a quote from O. E. Rolvaag: “The first work of art to shed a ray of romance on the War.” (Rolvaag was a Norwegian immigrant at one time famous for his novel Giants in the Earth. These days I suspect he’s probably forgotten outside of the Dakotas and Minnesota — areas he lived and set his novels.)

“A ray of romance on the War”? I think I know what Rolvaag met. There is an element of that in the sense of exotic settings and events. There is an air of the travelogue about Froisland’s book.

The book’s core is eight stories, but they are introduced by a four part and fully realistic (and, from what I could determine, almost completely verifiable) history of “The Front”.

Froisland voices the book as if he is speaking to us and begins “They talk about the front, oh yes, the front — “. Continue reading “The Man With the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front”