Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!



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

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)


It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.


Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 3


The look at James Gunn’s 1951 Modern Science Fiction: An Analysis continues.

Gunn offers a number of observations about variations on the “future being” plot in its numerous variations.

Its advantages? Numerous possibilities for setting when not constricted to the past and present. Also, one can think of more realistic possibilities to put aliens in than humans.

The disadvantage? “Lessened reader identification” and that problem increases the more removed the protagonist is from a modern human. Skillful writing can make up for that inherent problem of reader empathy, but it can never “hope to achieve the completeness of that secured when modern man is the subject”.

A Future Being in the Past

Gunn gives this one short shrift in terms of significance. It’s seldom used for good reason, and its effect can be achieved by substituting a “modern man” protagonist. Time travel stories use the plot but to set up a future where that possibility is plausible, but to Gunn that’s not a good enough reason to use this plot. He dismisses this as a plot for mere time travel paradoxes and “attempts at wringing humor from interference in historical events of the past”.

A Future Being in the Present

This one is a favorite plot for satire, and Gunn doesn’t equate satire with realism and, remember, “modern science fiction”, for him, is about realism. He cites Olaf Stapledon’s Last Men in London as a prime example here, and he hints that its fatalistic ending is typical of this plot.

Yet, he thinks the plot can be used in a lot better way and has much promise.

He cites H. Beam Piper’s “Time and Time Again” as an example in its philosophical rumination on the nature of time (influenced by the theories of J. W. Dunne). And he cites Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”. (The exact extent of each contribution by that husband and wife team is sometimes hard to figure out, but these days Moore is usually listed as its author.)

A Future Being on a Strange Planet

For Gunn, this plot is used by some of the best and some of the worst science fiction. He thinks it has the most promise of any plot with stories that range from pure adventure to “reflections on human nature in contact with a strange environment.

Its use for stories of space travel is particularly significant:

 . . . it is more believable that a future being should reach the planets and the stars beyond the planets. There have been stories in which modern man achieved this, but it strains reader credulity that even the adjacent planets should be available in the near future. But the sky is definitely not the limit for a future being—neither the sky nor the solar system nor the galaxy.

Gunn presciently cites Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, published only a year before Gunn wrote his thesis, as a major use of this plot and a significant work.

Bradbury has shown some of the possibilities implicit in the plot type, and other authors have ventured recently into this hitherto almost untouched field. But the plot type is just opening up; it is wide open, and the results may be the most rewarding of any story type in science fiction.

A Future Being in Space

Gunn notes this is a difficult plot to use. Space is an environment of emptiness.

There have been few successful attempts, according to Gunn, up to 1951.

In particular, Gunn the stylist notes that stock descriptions are often used:

the velvet blackness sprinkled with unwinking myriads of stars, the sun undimmed splendor with all its prominences and spots visible to the naked eye, the dim, dark reaches of infinity.

As successful examples, he cites Jack Williamson’s Seetee Shock and Robert A. Heinlein’s “Universe”.

But those exceptions are too few for Gunn. He thinks this plot has “permanent literary value” and great potential because, of all environments, it’s the most alien.

That concludes the “beings in an alien environment” subdivision of the plot of circumstance category. Next up, I’ll be looking at what Gunn says about the “modern man in the modern world” plot.

Brain Child

The George Turner series continues.

Raw Feed (1992): Brain Child, George Turner, 1991.

Cover by Thomas Canty

This book truly deserves the distinction of being called a masterpiece. That distinction is almost solely because of Turner’s incredible skill with characterization (making him, in the science fiction field, probably the best in this area along with Philip K. Dick).

Turner’s plot in this novel of genetically engineered superintelligence is (according to my reading of the “Superman” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) [that would, of course, be the massive second edition before it went online] typical of the sub-genre of the superman:

  1.  The superman gracefully opts out of human society (the A Group).
  2. The superman has a fatal flaw which is the result of the creation process (the B Group’s death by sudden Alzheimer’s).
  3. The superman can’t stand to live on a planet of ignorant savages (C Group’s suicide).

Continue reading “Brain Child”

Explorers of the Infinite

The Lovecraft series, sort of, with a book I read because it contained some material on Lovecraft.

Raw Feed (2005): Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction, Sam Moskowitz, 1957, 1963.Explorers of the Infinite

I read this book now for its chapter on H. P. Lovecraft. (I had read the chapter on Edgar Allan Poe years ago as research for an English paper.) There wasn’t a whole lot there that I didn’t know except for the letters from other writers about Lovecraft and the stories of others inspired by Lovecraft.

Moskowitz’s great strength is the uncovering of a lot of obscure stories and others. His particular interest is tracing the treatment of certain technological and scientific ideas which is a valid school of sf criticism though I think it’s a mistake to think, and I don’t think Moskowitz does, to think sf exists to prophesize.

Most of the chapters are titled with the name of a science fiction author and were originally published in sf magazines. However, most chapters end by connecting a particular author — as well as more obscure authors — to the subject of the next chapter.

As with most sf criticsm, it makes me want to read a lot of this stuff.

Moskowitz sums up a lot of work including non-English language stuff. However, describing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as combining the travel tale, utopia, and “science story” makes me wonder about the accurateness of those descriptions. I’ve read Frankenstein twice and recall no element of the utopian in it.

I found the chapters on Hugo Gernsback; M. P. Shiel; Lu Senarens aka Frank Reade, Jr; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Philip Wylie, and Olaf Stapledon of particular interest.

Moskowitz details Gernsback’s importance as an inventor as well as publisher.

M. P. Shiel’s work, especially The Purple Cloud, seems interesting.  The plot descriptions seem to bear out Brian Aldiss’ remark, in his Billion Year Spree, that, “if ever there was a racist, it was M. P. Shiel.” Jewish Moskowitz simply lets Shiel’s work speak for itself in its anti-Semitism.

Frank Reade, Jr had an amazing career in its early start, prolificness, and financial success. Verne was an admirer. I never paid attention to the dates before, but Reade’s adventures started in 1876 with The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward F. Ellis, a dime novelist (Senarens continued the series to great success); therefore, its steam man and horse (imitated by Jules Verne in his The Steam House, which I have read) is sort of contemporary steampunk.

I was surprised to see how many of Burroughs novels were written to compete with his many imitators in setting and story.

Moskowitz’s covers the popularity of Wylie as both a fiction writer and, in his attack on “Momism”, a social critic.

Olaf Stapledon’s career as fiction writer and philosopher is nicely covered.


Reviews of more works touching on Lovecraft and his legacy are on the Lovecraft page.

The Massacre of Mankind

Before reading Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, the sequel to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, I decided to read Wells’ novel again after 21 years.

I’m glad I did.

My initial claim, that English civilization is destroyed in the course of a long weekend, is glib and deceptive. The novel does not take place over a bank holiday weekend, and English civilization is, of course, not destroyed. The narrator of the book presents a history for a nation that still survives. However, the main action of the novel does occur starting Friday, when the Martians first use the Heat Ray, and goes through Monday when the Martians attack London. British society dissolves into a mob temporarily.

I’d also forgotten that part of the book is taken from the unnamed narrator’s brother, Frank. It is Frank that flees London when the Martians approach and whose experiences provide the memorable line: “It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.”

And this time I picked up on the apprehension, what we might term “post-traumatic stress disorder” the narrator is left with at the end of the story. Of man, the unnamed narrator says about the invasion:

 . . . it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence …

But the scars of memory are not just on general humanity. The narrator says he no longer loves to look at the night sky.

Looking at London, he no longer sees it the same:

I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body.

I also wonder if the flooding from streams and rivers caused by the Martian red weed were partially inspired by Richard Jefferies’ After London and its giant lake in central England after the fall of industrial civilization.

This one came from NetGalley, and, of course, I jumped at the chance to review it.

Review: The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter, 2017.Massacre of Mankind

You still ain’t seeing it clearly. The Martians, you know, would say they are doing us a favor. Lifting us up, as if we made a chimp smart as a college professor. And who’s to say, by their lights, they are wrong? And – pain? What of it? You clever-clogs keep telling me the Martians are above us mere mortals. Perhaps, with their heads detached from their bodies, they are above pain as above pleasure. And what need they care about the pain they inflict on us? And more’n we care about the pain of the animal in the slaughterhouse – or the tree we cut down. To recoil from this is hypocritical – d’ye see?

That’s Bert Cook, merely called “the artilleryman” in Walter Jenkins’ Narratives of the Martian Wars. Jenkins is the man we know as the unnamed narrator of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Cook isn’t the only one to complain Jenkins misrepresented him in his account of the 1907 Martian invasion. That’s the year Baxter, after consulting the astronomical clues in Wells’ story and Wells scholars, places the time of Wells’ novel.

Julie Elphinstone, the narrator of this novel and a reporter presenting us a history of the Second Martian War, isn’t too pleased with Jenkins’ depiction of her either, but at least she got a name and ended up married, briefly, to Jenkins’ brother, the Frank who supplies the London detail in Wells’ novel. Continue reading “The Massacre of Mankind”

“The Shadow Out of Time”

The Lovecraft series continues.

Raw Feed (2005, 2013): “The Shadow Out of Time“, H. P. Lovecraft, 1935.Dunwich Horror and Others

This story has an even purer science fiction feeling than Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness“. Indeed, Weird Tales, the place Lovecraft usually sent his fiction, wouldn’t take this story, but it was the cover story for the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories.

Like “The Thing on the Doorstep” from 1933, this 1934-1935 story features bodyswitching. That bodyswitching is effected by the Great Race which predates man on Earth by a billion years.

Lovecraft not only does his usual connecting his aliens to occult tomes, but he describes the Great Ones in detail — not only their anatomy, but their history and their society and art as well.

The Great Ones have figured out how to transport consciousness through time. They project their consciousness to other eras and other races, switching consciousnesses with other sentient races, including man, while they go about their scholarly duties. Continue reading ““The Shadow Out of Time””

Odd John and Sirius; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

My Olaf Stapledon series concludes with two of his most well known novels.

One’s about a super child. The other’s about a super dog.

Alternate perspectives on Odd John: From Couch to Moon and Speculiction.

Alternate perspective on Sirius: Speculiction

Raw Feed (2004): Odd John and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon, 1972.Odd John

Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest — This 1935 novel may very well be the archetypal superman/mutant/superchild novel. It’s hardly the first. H. G. Wells certainly had an earlier version with his The Food of the Gods.

Stapledon, a professional philosopher, was clearly interesting in using the viewpoint of his super mutant John in criticizing human affairs. That, of course, is one of the time honored purpose of sf, but it was also interesting to read the author of the ultimate in cosmic tales (so much so that Stapledonian is an adjective in discussing sf) — Star Maker and Last and First Men — write a personal story though you could argue his Last Men in London was a bridge between the two scopes of story.

I suspect that every author of superchildren since has had to contend with this novel. In particular, the narrator is sympathetic to John like a dog to a human. He regards John as above human morality thus doesn’t judge him when he murders a policeman or when he commits incest with his mother Pax — an incident of incest in which the narrator coyly says he can’t describe but talks about it explicitly enough where we know what happened if not the details of the act itself. Continue reading “Odd John and Sirius; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”