Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

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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.)

Supermen

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”.

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The High Crusade; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

I’m reading Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World trilogy, a well-done tale of British Tommies from the Western Front of 1916 to an alien world. (And, when finished, it will go to the bottom of the long list of reviews to be written up.)

It put me in mind of this, the first version I know of a story putting human soldiers from human history into war on an alien world.

Raw Feed (1992): The High Crusade, Poul Anderson, 1960.High Crusade

A really fun book in which the plucky, bold Sir Roger de Tourneville not only repels the invading Wergorix from Earth but, through bluff, boldness, and intrigue builds a star empire.

This book reminded me of a couple of stories though with very different outcomes. 

The first is the story of King Arthur. The affair (never sexually consummated) between Sir Owain and Lady Catherine and the betrayal (unsuccessful) of Sir Roger reminded of the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere (Lancelot, like Sir Owain, is charming).

The ability of the low tech Englishmen to thwart the Wergorix (no metal to be radar visible, masters at hand to hand combat and sieges, crossbows in space) reminded me of the struggles of the fighter jet pilot to best WWI aircraft in Dean McLaughlin’s “Hawk Among the Sparrows”. Military tactics and technology evolve to fit a certain environment. The victory is not always won by the high tech forces. Sir Roger has a nice bit when he says

“ … while the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home. Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”

It’s the guile of Sir Roger (though he modestly says he’s “no master of it … no Italian”) that wins the day.  ‘

I was reminded of historian William MacNeill’s thesis that Europe came to dominate the world because of the fierce, prolonged struggle between its different states, a struggle not duplicated elsewhere where one power soon came to be supreme. [This is put forth in his The Pursuit of Power.] This novel is sort of a forerunner to MacNeill’s thesis (which may not be original). (Did the Italians become Machiavellian master of intrigue because they were balkanized so long?)

I liked the humor when aliens interpret Christianity and other aspects of mediaeval culture as being signs of possibly advanced powers, and I liked the English complaining about the barbarous aliens with their lack of wood carving and ornamentation. Brother Parvus was unintentionally witty in his unsureness as to the righteousness of Sir Roger’s cause (and whether congress between man and alien is bestiality).

I also liked the comparison between the breakup of the Roman Empire and the Wersgorix Empire.

Parallax perspective on this is provided by Vintage Novels.

 

More fantastic fiction is indexed by title and author/editor.

Slow Lightning & “The Longest Voyage”

The look at the Future Boston shared world series looks at the expansion of Steven Popkes’ “The Egg” and, since it was the other half of this “dos-a-dos”, a Poul Anderson story — which has nothing to do with Boston.

Raw Feed (1992): Slow Lightning, Steven Popkes, “The Longest Voyage” by Poul Anderson/Slow Lightning by Steven Popkes, 1991.TORDOB30

The first part of this short novel was Popkes novella “The Egg” which I’d read before and liked. The rest of the story wasn’t as good though it did fill in some details of this universe.

Structurally the story is very interesting.

It’s three episodes (the first being “The Egg”) which could stand alone. However, the episodes are set chronologically out of sequence, and characters from the preceding ones often show up as minor characters in the next one.

In “The Egg”, orphaned Ira Bloom and alien nanny Gray are the main characters.

In the second story, Ira’s parents are the main characters and the tale of Gray’s discovery is told. The story ironically ends happily though the reader knows both of Ira’s parents will soon be killed in a labor dispute.

The last story tells how Ira’s aunt and mother became orphans. Continue reading “Slow Lightning & “The Longest Voyage””

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued,

Looking back in my posts after posting a review of volume six in this series, I see I hadn’t posted anything on volume one. I suspect that’s because, for whatever reason, I didn’t make notes on the last story in the book.

That makes this a …

Low Res Scan: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: To Be Continued, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2006.Robert Silverberg 1

Introduction” — An interesting introduction to this, the first volume in what Silverberg says is the third attempt to collect his stories. Silverberg continues to amaze me with his prolificness while not working weekends and while in college. Here he casually mentions all the stories, as a professional writer (not working weekends but while in college), he sold in the years 1953-58. He says that he will let his mediocre sports and mystery stories languish. Silverberg is unapologetic about being a hack to fund sf projects he did care about. It was only years later that he discovered that the writers he admired, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon weren’t supporting themselves by in the same way. Leiber had an editorial job. Bradbury sold to the high paying slicks. Sturgeon simply lived near starvation — which Silverberg decidedly didn’t. However, he is happy to reprint his early pulp stories which he thinks show compentency and that he has affection for.

Gorgon Planet” — Silverberg justly points out that this, his first professional sale, is nothing special. But it is pretty good for an eighteen year old, and he’s right in showing that he had an early command of effectively linking exposition and dialogue. The plot itself is a lackluster retelling of the Perseus-Medusa myth in a sf context. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued,”

Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War

The Jerry Pournelle series continues with a look at one of his anthologies that characteristically mixed fiction (not always science fiction either) and nonfiction.

The fiction selections were reprints and writers selected from the slush pile.

Unfortunately, this is the only one of his anthologies I have complete notes on.

Raw Feed (1987): Imperial Stars, Vol 1.: The Stars at War, eds. Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, 1986.Imperial Stars

Introduction: Empire”, Jerry Pournelle — Pournelle logically expounds on the thesis that empire is the government most natural to man and that its time, no matter what democracies naively think, is not done. He also well shows the advantages of empire and that empires can take many forms including the possibility the U.S. is heading toward empire.

In Clouds of Glory”, Algis Budrys — Good story but would liked more exploration of how Agency would open way for an Earth empire. Extensive surgery and conditioning of main character was reminiscent (or, rather, predates) Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered. Would have liked more on future Earth history and how global government founded. Technically, story is interesting in that all military action occurs off-stage and story is a “thought-piece” on historical and political matters. Not as good as other Budrys I’ve read.

The Star Plunderer”, Poul Anderson — First read this story in Brian Aldiss’ excellent anthology Galactic Empires. I only remembered the bit with a slave revolt, but I liked this  story the second time as well. Pournelle, in introduction, goes further with rationalizing space barbarians (How, in story, did they get the tech to begin with?) than Anderson does. Anderson has a talent for invoking flavor of epic in language. Manuel Argos, who brings order out of an environment obviously reminiscent of late Republican Rome though he is personality-wise, no Augustus. He is a cold, manipulative, ruthless character who unsentimentally realizes what desperate measures need to be taken. Not a pleasant character but realistic one. Excitement and desperation and the degradation of servitude were all well-depicted. Nice touch in Earth being liberate, and an empire being established, but this is subordinated to the poignancy of narrator losing his love. The only flaw of story was the rather cliched early description of their romance, and Kathryn “instinctively” choosing a figure like Argos. Love is never so simple or instinctive a matter. Continue reading “Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War”

The Craft of Science Fiction

This is something of an oddity and not the type of book I’ve reviewed before.

It’s mostly a how-to book for would-be science fiction writers but also includes some interesting perspectives on the art by its contributors. Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.

With Jerry Pournelle’s passing, I’m posting it now since he was a contributor, and I’ll be interrupting the Lovecraft series to post some more Pournelle material from the archives.

As usual, I’m still working on getting new reviews out.

Raw Feed (1987): The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1976.Craft of Science Fiction

“Foreword”, Reginald Bretnor — It is billed as advice from experienced writing veterans.

SF:  The Challenge to the Writer”, Reginald Bretnor — Nuts and bolts on some basics needed to practice sf craft including some knowledge of science, more intimate knowledge of sf and mainstream literature. Bretnor urges mastering basic story elements like characterization and dialogue. He recommends books to read and compiling own reference library as well as knowing how to use well a public reference library (and to know its staff).  He advises how to avoid errors by avoiding explicit details when possible and thoroughly check facts.

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come”, Poul Anderson — Like most essays in this book seem to be (at cursory glance), this is interesting as criticism as well as how-to advice. Anderson’s definition of a saga is larger than life story of a non-introspective character who wants to do something. In addition, a saga must have the right feel as far as language goes. Anderson names some of his candidates for sf epics (L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Makers and World of A; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Fury) and why he classifies things as he does is revealing. Anderson also (and I agree) says the saga is only one of many legitimate fictional modes. He also makes the valid point that sf (and maybe fantasy) is the last refuge of the outward turning hero. Other hallmarks of epic sf are (according to Anderson) bold language, a hero bending fate (or refusing to be bent). Anderson also gives interesting details on how study of Olaf Stapledon helped him in writing Tau Zero. Continue reading “The Craft of Science Fiction”

Last and First Men; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

My concluding entry in a series of books touched on by the Wells works I’ve covered. This book is mentioned in Wells’ Star-Begotten.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do the novel justice.

Another perspectives are provided by From Couch to Moon.

Raw Feed (1996): Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, Olaf Stapledon, 1930.Last and First Men

Everything I’ve ever heard about Stapledon is correct judging on the basis of this novel. He was a totally unique voice in sf when this novel was published, and he is still totally unique. His epic style in which millions of years can routinely pass in the space of a paragraph often has a religious flavor to it harkening back to psalms (his first book of poetry was called Latter-Day Psalms).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (in a blurb at the front of this book) claims Stapledon is the second most influential writer in sf next to Wells. I think that claim is arguable. Certainly Wells introduced, or gave a big boost, to such perennial sf motifs as time travel, alien invasion, surgery on/genetic manipulation of animals, the far future story, the physical evolution of man. Stapledon creates few new ideas, but his epic style and his spiritual concerns are different than Wells’. [Certainly, I would put Stapedon in the top five most influential science fiction writers.]

Wells, in The Time Machine and, to a lesser extent, “A Story of the Days to Come“, shows us humans evolved physically and socially. However, Wells does not dwell at length on the various stages of evolution. He contents himself with showing some final end stage like the Morlocks and Eloi and giving a brief explanation as to how they evolve. Continue reading “Last and First Men; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.”