Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 3

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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.

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Brain Child

The George Turner series continues.

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

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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”

Last Men in London

Surely you knew that mention of Olaf Stapledon was going to start another series.

We start with one of Stapledon’s most obscure science fiction works.

I read this one out of the 1976 Gregg Press. They never seem to have come with dust jackets, so you get no cover picture for this one.

This one definitely needs a re-read for the World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Raw Feed (1996): Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon, 1932.

My reactions to reading this novel in 1996. Spoilers follow.

“Introduction”, Curtis C. Smith and Harvey J. Satty — Introduction to the 1976 edition of the novel. It talks of Stapledon’s vision that inspired his Last and First Men and Last Men in London. It also speaks of the generally harsh criticism of this sequel to Last and First Men and this novel’s obscurity. The authors also note many similarities between character Paul and Stapledon.

Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon — In many ways, this sequel to Stapledon’s Last and First Men is very different. It is much lacking in the speculative wonders of natural and social evolution of the latter novel. The only new things in that regard are the society of philosophical lemurs which predate man. Their territory is invaded by primitive man who wipes the lemurs out because, though they are philosophically and morally advanced, they’re lacking in practical knowledge, skill, and curiosity. This notion that man must have intellectual curiosity, scientific learning, dispassion and detachment, a comfortable sensuality, a morality that emphasizes community, and a sense of cosmic purpose is emphasized again and again. Every species before the near-perfect 18th Man is lacking at least one of these virtues, and, therefore, doomed. Of course, even the 18th men are doomed and revert to primitive, near-animals. Continue reading “Last Men in London”