Georgia on My Mind and Other Places

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1995.GRGNMYMNDN1996

Introduction” — Short, no nonsense, no-frill introduction for a collection of stories ranging from “silly to personal and serious.”

The Feynman Solution” — This is a fantasy. The mechanism of time travel is never rationalized beyond the point of artist Colin Trantham saying he’s a sort of positron which physicist Richard Feynman described as an electron traveling back in time. The story involves Colin, suffering from a brain tumor (the major scientific interest of the story is the descriptions of cancer therapies, their successes, methods of operation, and failings) and seeing visions of increasingly ancient and mostly extinct life which he draws with his usual precision. The relationship between Colin and his paleontologist sister Julia and his oncologist James Wollaston (eventually Julia’s lover) was well handled. The Tranthams, like Bey Wolf in Sheffield’s Proteus novels, love to quote all kinds of things from Samuel Johnson to movies. I suspect Sheffield does this too.

The Bee’s Kiss” — Like Sheffield’s “C-Change”, this story involves aliens who are concealing things. A very skilled voyeur is forced by a tyrant (after the voyeur is caught spying on him) to spy on some enigmatic aliens, the Sigil. It turns out the aliens have become alarmed after learning humans use sexual reproduction. The Sigil are asexual and use a parasitic means to reproduce like Earth’s sphinx wasp. This story has good psychological insight into a voyeur. Continue reading “Georgia on My Mind and Other Places”

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Proteus Combined

And it’s more Charles Sheffield.

Raw Feed (1994): Proteus Combined, Charles Sheffield, 1994.

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Cover by Barclay Shaw

An omnibus of Sheffield’s Proteus series.

Sheffield is known as a hard sf writer and has written some good hard sf – he’s certainly got the technical background for it.

However, I suspect (like James Gunn’s The Immortals) this story owes more to some fanciful playing with dubious, but popular notions of biomedicine than real science. Here Sheffield takes the 70’s notion of biofeedback to a bizarre level: the human form can actually be changed with the help of computerized biofeedback.

In Sight of Proteus, Sheffield develops the idea while wending a way through a complicated plot involving secret and illegal form manipulation for the benefit of man and space travel and alien contact.

There are catalogs that cater to fashion in forms, form change to prolong life, illegal forms that hero Bey Wolf searches out for the government, and conflict over the use of forms (“spacers” don’t like them), and the redefining of humanity as someone who can use biofeedback equipment at an early age.

I liked the plot element with some humans – under the influence of illegal form change equipment – being contaminated with Logian viral DNA and changing into aliens. Loge – and I have no idea if the purported pre-1975 science listed is real – is the planet that supposedly existed (according to Bode’s Law and evidenced by the asteroid belt and the calculated origin point of some comets) between Mars and Jupiter. Aliens lived on it as evidenced by transuranic elements. Continue reading “Proteus Combined”

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”.

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8

 

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

We’re in the next subcategory of Gunn’s “plots of circumstances” where a protagonist must deal with problems inherent to the world he finds himself.

That subcategory is “a future being in a future world”.

The future is a great place to set a story, and a successful science fiction story only has to worry about the credibility of his imagination, and Gunn notes “credibility can be stretched a long way”.

However, Gunn isn’t too keen on past examples of stories in this subcategory. He thinks its potential has been abused more than any other plot category. Writers wrenched

the future into any shape they liked – utopian writers the foremost among them. They set up unlikely characters doing implausible things in absurd places; the plot form was undisciplined and chaotic.

Modern sf, realistic sf, occurred when readers started to demand plausible future and writers responded. Attendant to that was better characterization and dialogue. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8”

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.

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 1

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with a look at what, in 1951, he thought and predicted about the use of plots of circumstances.

Of the 145 stories Gunn looked at in his five sample anthologies, 123 fell in this category.

The reasons why plots of circumstance are so overwhelmingly favored are not so hard to find. Plots of creation are limited and difficult to write; plots of circumstance provide an immediate dramatic suspense and identification with the characters: few of us are creators but we all know what it is to battle against circumstances. In this category the possibilities are unlimited.

Being in an Alien Environment

Gunn says this is probably the favorite type of science fiction plot. It has fundamental suspense and drama. That suspense can carry something beside “reader’s escapist interest” is what makes this a significant plot for writers to use and to develop sf in a more literary direction.

Oddly, Gunn says

The alien is placed only in a human environment; presumably one could write a story about an alien in a non-human but still alien environment, but this belongs in the same category as the “alien in an alien world in the present” discussed above. It is possible but without significance. Somewhere along the line there must be some relationship to earth or earth problems to push the story across the line from fantasy to science fiction.

That leaves out stories using aliens in an alien environment. Hal Clement’s novels, using that idea, were just a few years in the future.

The idea that such stories can’t have any relevance to humanity and its life on Earth ignores symbolic uses or even naturalistic narratives that exhibit how the physical environment affects human biology and behavior and human societies.

Gunn is on solid ground when he says a modern man as a protagonist allows the greatest reader identification and bestowing of empathy on the character.

Gunn looks at a variety of time travel stories, modern man in the alien environment of the past. He says something provocative about that sub-genre at the end of the discussion:

All things considered, science fiction’s use of time has made some interesting, at times dramatic, at times amusing, but seldom significant stories.17 There is nothing of any thematic importance involved in concepts of time travel and in visits to the past.

The time travel story is still going strong today, stronger than it was in 1951, so strong that sf critic Gary K. Wolfe has argued that it’s escaped the genre of sf. It’s become its own category like the gothic birthed sf.

I think Gunn may be on to something, though, about its ultimate significant. Many stories of time travel involve logic puzzles and paradoxes. The time travel romps of Robert Silverberg, perhaps sf’s heaviest user of the subgenre, are fun. But do they say any thing of “thematic importance”? On the other hand, time travel can be a proxy way of commenting on history and, like the alternate history story, the contingencies that created our world.

Gunn is even more dismissive of the variation of “modern man on a distant world, in space, or another dimension”. After looking at some works of this type, including Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series and “Goldfish Bowl”, a Robert A. Heinlein story inspired by Charles Fort, he says:

Alone, this plot type has resulted in nothing particularly important to science fiction or the world at large.

I’m not so sure that claim is bore out either. Granted, a lot of these stories are of exotic wonders, but it would seem an author could work in some insights on humanity and human nature. Then again, Gunn only is passing a value judgement on past uses of that plot.

Of the “modern man in the future” variation of the “being in an alien environment”, Gunn is somewhat more sanguine.

He notes stories of this type “tend to more thoughtful or provocative analyses, to utopias and satires”. He says modern sf is “essentially anti-satirical, anti-utopian” in its realism. That means this plot type can’t be used in a realistic way, predictably, though “occasional amusing or satirical story of note” may be hoped to come from this type.

Gunn implicitly warns sf writers that the “ancient being or primitive man in a modern human environment” doesn’t get used much for good reason because readers have trouble switching from their natural identification with a version of “modern man”. It has technical difficulties and “the results are seldom sufficiently rewarding to overshadow them”. Its realism is also hampered because this plot type tends to the satirical. “It is doubtful .. that anything significant will ever be done with it.”

Anarchaos; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Well, I don’t have any bright ideas for a new series of Raw Feeds while I work on writing new reviews.

I saw Gaping Blackbird‘s recent review, so I thought I’d put this one up.

Additional observations are provided by The Westlake Review (I’ve linked to the second half of a two-part review, but the first part is worth reading too), Existential Ennui, and Olman’s Fifty

Raw Feed (1993): Anarchaos, Curt Clark, 1967.Anarchaos

A short novel of bitter irony.

Narrator and protagonist Rolf Malone, a man so short tempered he kills five people for making too much noise at a party, gets our of jail after seven years to avenge the murder of his brother on Anarchaos, an anarchist world based (I assume given the names given) on the writings of anarchist philosophers.

Contrary to the cover blurb – “The only crime was to be killed”, there are absolutely no crimes – or laws – on Anarchaos. The author uses it take some swipes at the philosophy of anarchism, syndicalism, and the social degeneracy that the extreme practice of rugged individualism would allegedly cause.

Realistically people would not live without some form of law – even if just manners, customs, and traditions and not written law. Clark aka Donald Westlake realizes this in one scene where various taxi drivers competing for the narrator’s fare are very polite to each other. “An armed society”, as Robert Heinlein is alleged to have said, “is a polite society.”

His brother, Gar, is the opposite of Malone – cool-headed (Gar thinks he’s too passionless), educated, responsible, well liked by this family. But the brothers are close, and Rolf feels his brother’s death heavily.

As soon as he ventures out of the spaceport on Anarchaos, he murders a taxi driver for his weapons, and I thought I was in for a tale of a man methodically, ruthlessly finding out the murderers of his brother and killing them. But the novel takes an unexpected turn as things rapidly go wrong.

Rolf Malone is shot, sold into slavery for four years (a chilling experience which reduces Malone to a mindless, animalistic level), maimed, escapes only to be rescued by a man he reluctantly kills because he also wants to enslave Malone), and Malone is kidnapped again.

During most of the book, he makes absolutely no progress towards his goal of vengeance. It is only when kidnapped the second time that he, almost at the end of the book, discovers his brother died because of his discovery of a mineral deposit, caught in the crossfire between two off-planet mining companies. The United Commission only assists colonial governments based on real or theoretical governments of the past (a legal invention I liked and which seems realistically bureaucratic and flawed). Therefore, the UC wants to get rid of Anarchaos but is politically foiled by corporations who find the political conditions ideal for exploiting the planet’s fur and mineral wealth.

The man with the violent temper can not work up enough passion to kill his brother’s murderers when he learns their identity. Indeed, he pleads with them to erase his mind and return him to the animalistic mindlessness of their slave camp he escaped from.  As he urgently explains to his captors

“ … I came to this planet, I thought I was hard, I thought I was the strongest there was and it would all go my way, and nothing went my way. I lost every fight. I lost a hand. I learned nothing, and I’m sitting here a prisoner of a man I don’t know, caught up in some sort of problem I don’t understand.”

The problem is, as Rolf discovers, that Gar’s mineral discovery is unknown, its location encrypted in Gar’s personal diary, and both Rolf’s kidnappers and Gar’s old employers (which seem more sinister as time goes on) want that secret. Upon reading a personal passage in which Gar talks of his hopes for what his reunion with Rolf will do for both brothers, Rolf musters the will to kills his captors. Though he strangles them, his attitude is not passionate but dutiful. He comes to think of his brother’s death as “accidental murder” and not a personal act done because of whom Gar was; he agrees with what so many people tell him at novel’s beginning, that it is Anarchaos and its political, social, and economic conditions which really led to his brother’s death.

At novel’s end, a couple of clichés emerge.

There is the ambitious, scheming Jenna Guild, ex-lover of Gar and concubine of Gar’s employer, head of Ice syndicate, who plans on using Rolf to kill said head, Colonel Whistler. Whistler himself says that corporations tend to send their worst employees to Anarchaos as punishment and that he’s no exception. Worst here seems meant in a moral sense and not competence.)

Rolf obliges but only, with Guild’s help (he eventually abandons her), to invoke another cliché: the sf action story that abruptly ends with the hero inciting a sudden political/social revolution/transformation. (The idea isn’t inherently bad. Look at Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.) Here Rolf gets a hold of some corporate bombs and uses them on United Commission embassies on Anarchaos. This act of terrorism will incite the UC towards one of two things: imposing their government on Anarchaos or pulling out of the planet and taking their economic assistance with them (the bombs destroy a good chunk of banking records) – assistance which keeps Anarchaos alive given its shrinking population. It was not a bad ending, and despite being a common plot device, it’s an act that makes sense given the context and themes of the story. Still, my favorite feature of this story is the transformation of its protagonist, a process unexpected in this kind of story.

 

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