Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 4

 

51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

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

Modern Man in the Modern World

This time we’re looking at another subcategory of the plots of circumstance category.

In Gunn’s sample, it’s the most popular subcategory in the most popular category.

The reasons for this are obvious: the situation is immediate, the characters are easy to identify with, the world is familiar, “the problems presented are often as real to the reader as they are to the characters”. Even if the problems are novel to the reader, they can be made to seem real. If you want to do significant “political, social, and psychological observations and analyses”, this is the plot for you.

However, as of 1951, Gunn saw this plot in decline. Post-Hiroshima it was the vehicle for so many post-nuclear war stories that editors grew sick of them.

Gunn warns there is a “minor writing problem” in using this plot: “the lack of common knowledge of the event described” needs an explanation. Stories can be set in secluded areas or news of them suppressed.

Or, since Gunn says his use of “modern” is elastic, you can just take the obvious tact of putting the story in the near future. To him, if your world has “no inventions or industries impossible to our science or engineering ability today”, your story is modern.

Given that the temporal setting of these stories is all the same, Gunn doesn’t use a time-based classification system for this categories varieties. He does it on the basis of the problem introduced into the “modern” world.

Facing a Continuing Problem

This, Gunn says, is a plot that amalgamates study of a human trait and the problem to various degrees.

Gunn uses, as case studies, a couple of stories. One is Clifford D. Simak’s “Lobby”. The other is Philip Wylie’s “Blunder”. Both deal with problems about nuclear technology. But, Gunn says, these are not pure examples of this plot. He postulates that such a story would have

no wars or threats of war or any other unusual circumstantial occurrence. The story would deal completely with human impulses and the human mind.

But he doesn’t think such a story, at least such a science fiction story, can be written.

Or he did until he read Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”. Gunn spends a great deal of time on that story showing a remarkable eye for its significance since Gunn finished his thesis in May 1951 and Leiber’s story only came out in November 1950. He praises its “techniques of characterization and symbolism”. At the end of several pages discussing it, he says Leiber’s story and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are “two of the most hopeful and pregnant possibilities of the future of science fiction”. If science fiction continues in their vein, it will become a “literary medium for literary critics to reckon with”.

Facing a Problem Raised by New Technology

This is the plot that got (at least in a few instances) science fiction the reputation of being a prophetic genre. It’s the stereotypical Analog story (probably more in the breach than practice).

Gunn draws on an analogy from his naval days:

Science fiction is engaged, in one segment of its personality, in the business of prediction, just as it indulges in flights of fancy and considerations of the fictional possibilities of relatively improbable events. It is the same sort of prediction as that produced by the Navy’s gun directors, with an input of the known factors of the target’s position, course, and speed, these directors compute mathematically the target’s future position at any given time.

Not surprisingly, John W. Campbell gets quoted here in regard to prophetic sf stories.

Gunn sees this as a firmly established plot in science fiction, well-exploited and that probably won’t develop further sophistication. It could be argued that cyberpunk developed this plot further by presenting stories that didn’t content themselves to extrapolating one technology but multiple technologies.

Facing Problems in the Mental and Social Fields

This is a rather hypothetical plot since Gunn says none of the anthologies he used as resources have pure examples of it. Essentially, these would be stories where psychology and sociology have developed to become more scientific and the resulting implications explored. Gunn sees a lot of potential here with many more stories to come.

And he was right. The 1950s saw, in the pages of Galaxy and Astounding Stories, many stories where the soft sciences were rigorous and produced spectacular results for good and bad.

Facing Problems of a New War

Not a lot of comment needed here. It’s the near future war story – as opposed to the E. E. “Doc” Smith far future war story of improbable weapons. It doesn’t have to center around weapons technology. Gunn mentions Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses” which centers around the question whether the U.S. should launch a retaliatory nuclear strike on Russia.

Gunn was quite right that the temporary fatigue with future war stories would pass and that this would be an enduring plot that would even show up outside of science fiction magazines.

Advertisements

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 3

51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

Half Past Human, or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

There hasn’t been a lot of posting on this blog lately.

It’s not that I’ve been idle. I’m working on a new series of which over half is written, but I won’t post it until all the individual posts are written.

In the meantime, since bloggers MPorcius and Joachim Boaz were talking on Twitter about T. J. Bass’ science fiction novels , I thought I’d put up reviews of them.

Here’s the first. Joachim Boaz’s take is here.

Fletcher Vrendenburgh reviewed it over at Black Gate.

Raw Feed (1998): Half Past Human, T. J. Bass, 1971.

Half Past Human
Cover by Michael McInnerney

 This book belongs to a subgenre that includes Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, William F. Nolan’s and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run: the dystopic city dweller trying to flee – usually with a lover – into the country and into a better society. (George Orwell’s 1984 featured lovers finding no refuge from their urban hell. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World featured a rustic commenting on its world).

This novel’s strength is that it uses the devices and character types of all these novels. Moon is the rustic never part of the Hive, its sworn enemy. Tinker, like Logan, is an enforcer (or, at least, an enabler) of the dystopian order who finds itself on its bad side and throws his lot in with the five toed aborigines. Kaia the hunter, through a pharmacological accident, goes abo and likes it. Moses the Pipe Man also is attracted to the abo life.

Of course most novels with this plot have the loyal supporters of the status quo. Here those figures are the clever Val (who ends up an involuntary stud for five-toed genes to the “buckeyes”) and Walter, who is sympathetic to the buckeyes but feels he must do all he can as he waits for his soul to be taken by O.L.G.A. (The book is full of acronyms. This one is a spaceship.). Only Val is pretty consistently unlikeable. Continue reading “Half Past Human, or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Stealing Other People’s Homework: “Russell Kirk and the Haunting of Piety Hill”

Russell Kirk

I’ve been reading SD Tucker’s two part series on Russell Kirk in Fortean Times“. It’s part of his “Strange Statesman” series.

The installments mostly look into the strange occult beliefs of various politicians and political philosophers. Kirk, however, was more than a political philosopher. (Jerry Pournelle considered Kirk his political mentor though Pournelle definitely did not share Kirk’s anti-technology views.)

He was a noted a writer of weird fiction, fiction that demonstrated the synthesis of his political and occult beliefs. He was a friend of Ray Bradbury.

Kirk biographer Bradley J. Birzer looks at the professional and thematic relationships between Kirk and Stephen King and how Kirk’s paranormal experiences showed up in his fiction.

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,”

A Rendezvous in Averoigne

Clark Ashton Smith was a very good poet, much better than his friend H. P. Lovecraft.

As a fiction writer, Lovecraft gets the better of him.

Lovecraft didn’t really try to support himself through his own fiction and was very reluctant to revise his work at editors’ request.

Clark Ashton Smith was the opposite. He wrote more fiction than Lovecraft, and he wrote it to sell, and it was more varied fiction in tone and style.

His most productive period for fiction was the autumn of 1929 through 1934. Not so coincidentally, argued Brian Stableford in “Outside the Human Aquarium: The Fantastic Imagination of Clark Ashton Smith”, this was a period of great stress for CAS (as his fans dub him). He was poor and tending to two aged and infirm parents in the isolation of a primitive cabin (no running water, no electricity) in the mountains around Auburn, California. Stableford thinks that the exotic worlds of Smith’s imagination were an act of escape for their creator during this time.

His prose is pretty exotic, especially his lexicon. Keep a dictionary handy when reading him. I’ve found the most useful to be Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary in two volumes. Published in 1937, it’s roughly contemporaneous to CAS.

This was the first CAS collection of fiction I read.

[Update: This is not a complete review of the collection.]

Raw Feed Low-Res Scan (2005): A Rendezvous in Averoigne: The Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith, 1988.rendezvous-in-averoigne

“Introduction”, Ray Bradbury — Very brief introduction in which Bradbury talks about his first exposure to Smith’s work.

The Holiness of Azédarac” — This is one of Smith’s medieval stories set in the fictional French area of Averoigne. It exhibits a certain cynicism about religion (at least medieval Christianity) and, to a lesser extant, women. A young Brother Ambrose discovers that the Bishop of Ximes, Azédarac, is corrupt and a worshiper of dark gods. Specifically, he worships — or at least evokes — Dagon and Iog-Sotôt aka H. P. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth. His library doesn’t contain the Necronomicon , but it does have Smith’s own addition to the collection of sorcerous tomes — The Book of Eibon. The Bishop is also said — and his exact age, as well as his ultimate fate, is unclear — to have Hypoborean lore — a reference to another invented world of Smith’s which was also utilized by Lovecraft. This exhibits the casual, joking and not at all systematic way Lovecraft and his friends accreted props around Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.) Fearing that he will reveal this to the Archbishop, Azédarac’s henchman slips the Brother a potion which transports him back in time to the Druids. A sorceress and former lover of Azédarac saves the Brother, introduces him to the delights of her beautiful body, and then gives him a potion to return to his native time. He returns later than he left to cynically find Azédarac has been promoted to sainthood with legends surrounding him that his body was transported to heaven at death and not buried. His mission now irrelevant and somewhat disillusioned, Brother Ambrose opts to return to the arms of Moriamis — who does not tell him that she deliberately mixed the potion to bring him to far into the future.

The Colossus of Ylourgne” — This story has one powerful central image (as befits the poetically talented Smith): a huge corpse composed of the revived bodies of various dead people. The dwarfish sorcerer Nathaire, angry at the people of Averoigne, renders bone and flesh down from corpses and uses them to build a huge creature. Continue reading “A Rendezvous in Averoigne”

If It Had Happened Otherwise

I’m on vacation, but I’ll still post this.

It even has some World War One material relevant for today.

This was, I believe, the first collection of academic alternate histories ever done and featured various famous historians and literary writers of the early 20th century.

This is a Raw Feed, so my historical ignorance is not as great as 29 years ago.

Raw Feed (1987): If It Had Happened Otherwise, ed. J. C. Squire, 1931, 1972.if-it-had-happened-otherwise

“Introduction”, J.C. Squire — Brief comments on academic alternate history treatises.  Emphasizes importance of causality chain beginning with trivial event (brilliantly explored in Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder”) and how we almost always think of alternate histories as undesirable worlds to our own though this obviously depends on cultural/moral/political point of view.

“Introduction”, John Wheeler-Bennett — Brief comments on history of alternate history as literature and valid historical speculation. (His definition of alternate histories are peculiar. He includes political sf like Fail-Safe.)  He also writes on why he likes sub-genre.

If the Moors in Spain Had Won“, Philip Guedalla — Like most essays in this book promise to be, this story (told in excerpts from travel books, history texts, diplomatic papers, and newspapers) this is a rich source for alternate world ideas. The work not only develops its premise but wryly comments on historical study:  chance events of little seeming significance to change things drastically, the events of our history were not inevitable, over reliance on economic factors in studying history, and belief that events in our history were for the best.

If Don John of Austria Had Married Mary Queen of Scots“,  G.K. Chesterton — A rather muddled piece of writing (part of problem could be I’m not familiar with the fine points of English history) whose purpose seems to be less constructing an alternate history than an edifying Christian legend of true love (which, evidently, the rest of us mortals can not achieve due to the Original Sin) in Don John and Mary’s marriage. Chesterton’s portrayal of Mary (perhaps because he is a Catholic) seems very idealized though he does seem to validly suggest Mary was a charming, beautiful, vigorous monarch. Chesterton seems to think their marriage would have included England in a greater community (that would have been created with the marriage) of a Europe with Christian traditions and morality and Renaissance vigor and questioning. He seems to attack Puritan influence on England as culturally mordant and brutal. He does have a satirical wit in regard to the question of history and study. He also has a valid point when he says we should consider personal motives such as attraction (and, unspoken, sex) as well as great abstract motives of diplomacy and economics. (A similar point as to Ward Moore’s saying history is made by people obsessed with the trivial.) Continue reading “If It Had Happened Otherwise”