Saturday, December 11, 2010

Late to the Party

Back in November, Niall Harrison wrote this post responding to this post by Jason Sanford. This kicked off the annual Reviewers Introspection Week, which I unfortunately missed because of Thanksgiving travels. By the time I got caught up it seemed that the moment had passed. (Sanford also posted a response-to-the-response here.)

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was in Barnes & Noble with a $25 gift card burning a hole in my pocket. I found their essays/lit crit section and a copy of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism jumped into my hands. It's on my list of Books I Ought To Read, so I bought it and started browsing. In the introduction, I found this:

The subject matter of literary criticism is an art, and criticism is evidently something of an art too. This sounds as though criticism were a parasitic form of literary expression, an art based on pre-existing art, a second-hand imitation of creative power. On this theory critics are intellectuals who have a taste for art but lack both the power to produce it and the money to patronize it, and thus form a class of cultural middlemen, distributing culture to society at a profit to themselves while exploiting the artist and increasing the strain on his public. The conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manque is still very popular, especially among artists. It is sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and procreative functions, so that we hear about the "impotence" and "dryness" of the critic, his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on. The golden age of anti-critical criticism was the latter part of the nineteenth century, but some of its prejudices are still around.

Nothing new under the sun, eh? And here's Frye's take on Why We Critique:

There is another reason why criticism has to exist. Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it is easy enough to see that the art shows forth, but cannot say anything. And, whatever it sounds like to call the poet inarticulate or speechless, there is a most important sense in which poems are as silent as statues... The artist, as John Stuart Mill saw in a wonderful flash of critical insight, is not heard but overheard. The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Dance Card Fills Up

It's all official now that I'll be stepping up as the editor of the Locus Roundtable Blog. This is a great opportunity, and it's already going pretty well. We're planning to start posting new content in January, to accompany the even more exciting launch of Locus Magazine digital editions. Speaking as someone who is paying more for a digital subscription to Scientific American than I would for a print subscription, I am really looking forward to seeing this!

I'm also very happy to have found a new way to help out the Locus folks. I feel like Charles Brown and everyone at Locus were all instrumental in helping me become part of this amazing community (as I wrote when Charles passed away). Previously the best avenue I've had for helping them out in return is to help staff the Locus dealer's room table at any con where we happen to coincide. This is a way better and more intensive challenge to undertake.

So here's what my dance card looks like for 2011:

I think I'm just about full up. Of course I'm always thrilled to hear about new opportunities in and around the community, but these are some big plates to juggle. I'm thinking that Spiral Galaxy will get even fewer posts, if that's possible, and mostly my occasional thoughts about classic sf/f stories.

Speaking of which you may ask: But Karen, the Spiral Galaxy blog has relatively few posts, and vanishingly small amounts of traffic? How the heck are you going to handle a Big Name Blog? First off, it's much easier for me to get motivated to Get Stuff Done for Locus than it is for my own dinky blog. And more importantly, we'll be making use of the help of lots of Friends of Locus. Locus has always been central to the conversation of our genre community, and we're hoping to bring some of that conversation onto the blog. As editor-in-chief Liza Groen Trombi puts it: Locus is People! So I'm planning on recruiting a broad and diverse swath of people to chime in over the next few months. Please contact me either at my email address or at LocusRoundtable [at] if you have any ideas for what you'd like to see there.

Luckily I managed to avoid getting roped into all this until after I finished my Master's degree, and thank all the fates that I managed to graduate early! It looks like I'm going to be ::ahem:: "Fully Engaged" in 2011, but it's shaping up to be a fun and interesting year.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Unusal Beginning

It’s weird how many different ways there are to read things. If I had picked up Greg Egan’s first novel An Unusual Angle just on a lark, I may not have finished the first chapter. That said, reading it in the context of researching Egan’s fiction for a critical book, I found it fascinating. I mentioned that I was reading it and someone asked me if it was “good.” I didn’t even know how to answer that question. The way I was reading it, “good” wasn’t even something I considered.

Here’s what Egan says about this novel when asked about it in his first interview in Eidolon:

For the benefit of those readers who have no idea what the book is about - most of them, I hope - An Unusual Angle is a kind of eccentric teenage loner story with surreal elements. The narrator literally has a movie camera inside his skull. I wrote it when I was sixteen, although I revised it slightly just before it was published, six years later.

It was very big-hearted of Norstrilia Press to publish it, but it didn't do them, or me, much good. They blew their money. I laboured under the mistaken impression that I could now write publishable fiction; it took me a while to realise that that simply wasn't true. Quarantine is the eighth novel I've written, and the first publishable one. That An Unusual Angle was published at all was really just a glitch.
He’s not wrong about that. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:

I’ll track-in from darkness, that’s a good way to start; isolate the school in a frame of blackness, cutting out all distractions. And then what? It’s too late to make more plans, here comes the vital (fatal (unexceptional)) corner.
He’s got nested parentheses, italics, and single-word paragraphs all on the first page, and the narrator even calls himself out for “melodramatic crap” in the fourth paragraph. So yeah, it’s not “good.” But it is interesting.

This is Greg Egan we’re talking about. The guy who can dramatize general relativity and talks about sex between digital entities. He’s the hardest hard sf writer since the 80’s. But in An Unusual Angle, there’s very little sf. In fact, if you wanted to be a little quirky, you could categorize this story as slipstream.

At first I thought that the ‘camera in the head’ angle of the story was purely metaphorical--that the narrator was using that as a mental technique to distance himself from his unpleasant and boring school days. But the narrative makes it clear that it has physical reality, so that pushes it from kind of mainstream over to slipstream. I think it works rather better as metaphor than it does as a concrete reality. Certainly the info-dump segments that explain (rigorously) how the camera came to be and how it operates were less than 100% convincing.

Most of the touchstones of this story are from film: counter-culture films from Britain in the 60’s and 70’s feature prominently (such as “if...”), as well as TV, movies, and sf. There’s a surreal and sarcastic rabbit that may or may not be an alien, and may or may not be a projection of the narrator’s self.

But mostly there’s a kid in high school (the story covers four out of five years of schooling), way too bright for his classes, bored almost literally out of his skull. There are no characters other than the narrator; some of the teacher’s get names but they’re just archetypes. None of his classmates even get names. There’s no real antagonist here except “the system,” probably another reflection of those counter-culture mainstays. The (unnamed) narrator is disgusted by criticism and depicts in-class lit crit as an act of disgusting vivisection. He often uses scientific imagery, and he’s always way more precise about it than your average writer: he specifies that someone’s enthusiasm is “1000 watts (RMS),” and if you don’t understand what that means you can at least see that for most people it’s enough to say “1000 Watts” without specifying the measurement system.

In interviews Egan mentions that his first love was film. He even made a student film and was admitted to film school before abandoning it. Presumably this manuscript derived from that period of his life. Reading it from the perspective I did, I have to say that I thought that this “wasn’t bad”--certainly I expected rather worse after reading that interview snippet above. Once the narrative settles down into the middle bit you can see some of the smooth and introspective style that characterizes his later work. Thank goodness by the time he published Quarantine (with Century/Legend press in 1992) he’d done away with nested parentheses. Given that I’m going to have to err on the side of brevity in my analysis, I suspect that I won’t be able to give much time to this particular work from the author’s cannon. He probably won’t mind. But I’m very glad that I read it. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of a developing proto-author.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Golden Age Odyssey

Starting in on the Golden Age, it feels like I’ve gone back to the beginning. When, at the suggestion of Charles N. Brown and Gary K. Wolfe, I started to beef up on the classics, I first picked up Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Healy and McComas. It collected fiction from 1938 to 1946 and was extremely influential--especially because it was part of a Random House anthology series, and thus stocked widely in libraries all through America.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I is a different beast, even though it contains a few of the same stories. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) was founded in 1965 and promptly started handing out Nebula awards. However, they needed a way to recognize the excellent sf written before the Nebulas came into existence. Instead of doing some sort of retro-Nebula award, they created these anthologies. This one covers short stories from 1934-1964, as voted on by the 1966 membership of SFWA and then tweaked by editor Robert Silverberg and others.

I haven’t finished reading the anthology yet, but I wanted to put down some initial thoughts on Stanley G. Weinbaum and John W. Campbell:

The more I read “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum, the more I’m impressed by it. For one, it depicts a human expedition to Mars crewed by an American, Brit, Frenchman, and German. Considering the fact that it was written between the two World Wars, that must have been about as progressive as writing about joint US-Soviet expeditions in the 70’s. Next, here’s what happens when our hero Jarvis, after crash landing on the Martian surface, first sees some alien life:

“All I could see then was a bunch of black ropy arms tangled around what looked like [...] an ostrich. I wasn’t going to interfere, naturally; if both creatures were dangerous, I’d have one less to worry about.

“But the bird-like thing was putting up a good battle, dealing vicious blows with an eighteen-inch beak, between screeches. And besides, I caught a glimpse or two of what was on the end of those arms!” Jarvis shuddered. “But the clincher was when I noticed a little black bag or case hung about the neck of the bird-thing! It was intelligent! That or tame, I assumed. Anyway, it clinched my decision. I pulled out my automatic and fired into what I could see of its antagonist.”

So instead of being instantly driven mad by something with tentacles, as so many protagonists in the 1930’s did, he takes stock of the situation, identifies a creature that might be intelligent, and acts to protect it. Very cool! So he and the Martian, Tweel, become friends, and the Martian helps him get back to his base. Here’s another amazing passage:
“...don’t get the idea that there was anything screwy about Tweel. In fact, I’m not so sure but that he couldn’t teach our highly praised human intelligence a trick or two. Oh, he wasn’t an intellectual superman, I guess; but don’t overlook the point that he managed to understand a little of my mental workings, and I never even got a glimpse of his!”
Basically Tweel and Jarvis manage to communicate, but mostly on Jarvis’ level. They established some math, and the fact that Mars is the 4th planet from the sun, but Jarvis could never make heads or tails out of Tweel’s language. The Martian never used the same word for the same thing twice in a row, and seemed amused by the human’s fixed name. So Tweel wasn’t just a friendly alien (rare enough in the 30’s), he was also Other in some important way.

I also regret even more Weinbaum’s early death at age 33 (from lung cancer). He died 18 months after “Odyssey” was published (his first publication!) and only published 13 stories in his lifetime. When I read this story I notice that the dialog flows better than most stuff written at the time, that it’s funnier than most others, and that the characters are at least slightly more natural than most--and I wonder: Could Weinbaum have been the Robert Heinlein of his day? Heinlein came on the scene five years later in 1939, with “Life Line.” Then I think about Heinlein’s leaning towards social engineering and politics, and Weinbaum’s obvious love of aliens, and wonder how the field might have been different if he’d lived to age 70.

“A Martian Odyssey” is followed by “Twilight” by John W. Campbell writing as Don A. Stuart (the stories are printed in chronological order of first appearance). Never has a story suffered more by placement. Technically, both "Odyssey" and "Twilight" are club stories (as was H. G. Wells’ The Time Traveller): a person has an encounter, and we hear about it when he tells it to someone else in a safe setting. However, "Odyssey’s" club tale is a lively adventure, packed with good-natured interruptions and jokes as things build to the climax--at which point, just like a real audience, the listeners get quiet as Jarvis finishes the tale. "Twilight" is being recounted by a real estate agent who picks up a time traveller in his car. The time traveller has gone too far into the past after having gone too far into the future. He tells the agent about a future where man has forgotten how to operate the machines that run the world, and mankind is slowly dying out. It is very elegaic, with mentions of sorrowful songs and the like. However, in no way does it read as if a real person were saying it out loud. In fact, it even mentions the agent trying to sing snatches of the mentioned music, heard third hand, and somehow getting some of the impact across to the narrator. Let’s just say that it doesn’t sell the premise very well, shall we?

The other interesting thing about the Campbell story is what it shows about the mindset of the sf community in 1966. Remember, these stories were chosen by nominations and votes of the SFWA members. For the anthology they limited it to only one story per author so as to get the maximum number of authors represented. (By the by, even in 1966 they managed to avoid the all-male TOC problem--they have Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” and Lewis Padgett, a pseudonym of husband-wife team Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, writing “Mimsy Were the Borogroves.”) I’m betting that if people had to choose a single Campbell/Don A. Stuart story today, they would pick “Who Goes There.” After all, it was turned into a movie a couple of times, and still influences the field (cf Peter Watts’ “The Things”). But apparently in 1966, people could point to “Twilight” as being more worthy in some way. (I’ll have more to say about alternate choices when I review more of the stories.) It’s interesting to see it laid out so clearly: that not only does the field evolve, but the field’s understanding of itself evolves as well.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Con Panel Bingo, Complete!

As promised, an updated and completely-filled out version of the Con-Panel Bingo card. If I were a younger geek, I would have written a little java program that would randomly generate a 5 x 5 grid with the different entries shuffled for anyone who wanted to click on it--that way people could have their own custom version. If anyone wants to write an app like that, please do--I'd like to see it! For now feel free to grab this version & print it, or as Michael Lee suggested on Twitter, just use it as a drinking game! At least it will help pass the time during those panels... you know the ones I mean. ;-)

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Golden Age Reading List Draft

So I only wrapped up my pre-WWII genre reading list a couple months ago, but I'm starting to have thoughts about the Golden Age. As it turns out, reading classics occupies a different part of my brain than my contemporary reviews (as for Salon Futura and Strange Horizons) or my Egan research. It's a bit more relaxing, and I've found that I'm missing it. So, here are some initial thoughts towards a Golden Age list. What I'm looking for are things that are important and influential to the development of the field--things where reading the classics gives me extra insight into the field today. I'm leaving out Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, John Wyndham, and Ray Bradbury because I'm comfortable that I've read all their most important pieces. I'm hoping for suggestions about things I need to add--or even better, things I can chuck off the list. I've added the ones I think are most important/non-negotiable in bold.

Here are books that I already own:
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumes I, IIa, IIb edited by Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova
  • Slan, A. E. van Vogt
  • Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson
  • Earth Abides, George Stewart
  • Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance
  • City, Clifford Simak
  • The Space Merchants, Fred Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
  • The Big Time, Fritz Leiber
  • A Case of Conscience, James Blish
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller
  • The Complete Compleat Enchanter, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
  • Agent of the Terran Empire, Poul Anderson
  • The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber [Optional]
  • Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper [Optional]
  • They'd Rather Be Right, Mark Clifton
  • The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett
  • Conjure Wife, Fritz Leiber
  • The Once and Future King, T. H. White

Here's the list of potential acquisitions:

  • Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp
  • Portable Novels of Science, ed. Donald A. Wollheim
  • Mathematics of Magic, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
  • Best of Science Fiction, ed. Groff Conklin
  • Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
  • Pilgrims Through Space and Time, J. O. Bailey [Non-fiction, the Pilgrim award is named after this book]
  • Fury, Henry Kuttner
  • World of Null-A, A. E. van Vogt
  • The Humanoids, Jack Williamson
  • What Mad Universe, F. Brown
  • Star Man's Son, or Star Soldiers, or Uncharted Stars, by Andre Norton [Whichever I can find first.]
  • More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
  • Long Loud Silence, Wilson Tucker
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, J. Finney
  • Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Untouched by Human Hands, Robert Sheckley
  • Three to Dorsai, Gordon R. Dickson
  • Tau Zero, Poul Anderson
  • Best of C. M. Kornbluth
  • Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber
  • A Star Above and Other Stories, Chad Oliver
  • Way Station, Clifford Simak

Part of me really wants to narrow this down because I feel like I'm procrastinating in getting to the New Wave, where I'm definitely weakest. And this list could easily take me 5 years to get through at the current pace. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Con Panel Bingo

So there we were in the audience of a panel that started at 10pm. We were already a little less than perfectly sober, and my husband and I started playing 'Panel Bingo.' I tweeted some snippet, and a couple folks said they'd like to see that for realz. I couldn't believe that it didn't already exist, but a cursory Google search didn't bring up anything quite like what I had in mind. So here is what I've got so far. As you can see, there are still empty spaces--please help fill them! We've all been there, we've all got various panel pet peeves--here's the place to share. Thanks!

If the image isn't coming through well on your browser, here's what I've got so far:
  • [Center] "This is less of a question, more of a comment"
  • "Well, actually..."
  • "...Therefore..."
  • Audience member with more expertise than panelists
  • Knitting
  • Ranting Audience member
  • Author with fort made from own books
  • Ranting Panelist
  • Shameless name-dropping
  • Question that takes more than 1 minute to ask
  • Panelist interrupting other panelist
  • "I don't know why I'm on this panel..."
  • Author answering question with reference to own books
  • Totally unqualified panelist
  • "I'd like to ask the panelists to introduce themselves..."
  • Audience member who thinks they have more expertise than the panelists
  • ???

I Show Up in Random Places

For instance, I was in the Dealers Room at WFC, and Gary, Jonathan and Alisa waved me over to join their podcast. At the beginning I was totally nerd sniped by Jonathan's shiny new omnidirectional microphone. I've included a picture so that you can see why. It's very shiny! And the part of my brain that specialized in signal processing during my MSEE was very curious about why it was so big. After we wrapped up I picked it up and it's also pretty heavy. I'm betting it's got some up-front firmware filtering so that the software package doesn't have to wade through so much noise. Anyway, it was pretty cool and I managed to sound mostly intelligent even though I had no clue what they'd been talking about when I showed up.

I can also be found nattering on at brief length about fantasy series on the latest SFSignal Mind Meld.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My World Fantasy Con was Made of Awesome, How 'Bout Yours?

Fresh off the plane from WFC (I spent so much time Tweeting the con that I wanted to put #wfc right there). I wanted to get some thoughts down before they all fly out of my head.

For one, I'm once again reinvigorated about being part of this community and doing cool things in it. I'm pretty sure that this will be the week that I *finally* get that review written for SFSignal, get a blog post about Egan's first novel up here, and get caught up on some short fiction. Heck, look at me actually blogging about it in a reasonable time frame! It makes so much difference to get together in the same room with half a dozen people who *care* about this field intensely, and who range across a huge spectrum of background and experience. This WFC was only my second, but I can see it becoming one of my non-negotiable cons, like ICFA is. It also comes at a good time of the year for my work schedule, and that's not trivial.

So, how awesome was it? Well, I had several long talks that would have made it worth my while even without all the drinking and laughter. I had long talks with Liza Groen Trombi of Locus Magazine and Mark Kelly of Locus Online. Plots were hatched that will, with any luck, come to fruition in the next few months. I also talked to Ted Chiang about something interesting we might try to cobble together for the next ICFA meeting. I was able to hang out with John DeNardo, Patrick Hester and John Anelio who've become podcast buddies--meeting folks face-to-face after so long of only knowing them online is always a thrill. I spent some time working the Locus table and got to know Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press, in from Australia, and even sold one of her books!

I did get out to two panels, a reading, and was on a panel myself. My panel was titled "Critical Theory and its Discontents," with Gary K. Wolfe moderating. I was spectacularly unqualified to be on that panel, and none of us had much clue on how to focus it. Gary goaded me into mentioning the difference between scientific theories and literary theories in the arena of rigor, but no one wanted to get into much of a flamewar. Luckily we got a lot of help from the audience, especially Farah Mendlesohn and Kari Sperring. So it ended up being interesting enough and I got some good feedback from audience members afterwards. Still, the best description that I heard afterwards was: "The wheels were spinning, but they never really touched the ground, did they?"

The other panels that I went to included one on John W. Campbell's Unknown magazine, and one on Religion in Tolkein. In the Unknown panel, it was interesting to hear from people like David Drake, David Hartwell and Mike Resnick about publishing back in the 40's and 50's. They listed a bunch of good stories and authors, and emphasized the importance of payment structures to authors and what they chose to write and submit. The Religion and Tolkein panel was unfortunately on at 10pm on Saturday night, and I went to support Daryl Gregory who was on it. Eric Van and Ellen Denham came well prepared with scholarly information about Tolkein's views on religion and Middle Earth, and the audience was remarkably erudite for it being so late. The reading I got to was by Siobhan Carroll, writing as Von Carr, who read from "Sister Jasmine Brings the Pain." It's a perfect story for a reading--ninjas, vampires, androids, telepaths, robot dogs and more, fast paced and funny. I also got to have dinner with her and her fellow Clarion alum Beth Wasden.

After that it would all be name dropping. I was telling Caroline Ratajski (who writes as Morgan Dempsey) and Emily Jiang that if I had intentionally structured my life with the goal of being able to have lots of interesting conversations with interesting people, I couldn't have done much better than this. (Even though apparently that sometimes includes listening to rather famous people trading colonoscopy stories--they shall remain unnamed.) I had many fascinating conversations, learned a lot, and I'm still processing and integrating all of it. But it will show up in my reviews, slowly, over time, because it's all part of learning more about this wild and woolly field we're all in.

Pardon the cliches, I think that means it must be time to try to catch up on some sleep. Forgive inaccuracies or indiscretion, and hope to see you all in San Diego next October!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Rule-of-Thumb on Fantasy vs. SF

If I had to point to one idea that divides most fantasy from most sf, it would be “Born to the Power.” In fantasy, there are at least two sets of physical laws. One for the special people (magicians, heroes) and one for everyone else. In sf the laws of the universe hold for everyone: anyone can pick up a gun and fire it, as opposed to a magic sword which may only activate for one person. [Let me point out right now that I don’t believe that this is the end-all, be-all, one-size-fits-all, Final Answer to the sf vs. fantasy genre split. It’s simply been a handy rule of thumb that I’ve found useful over the years. Certainly there’s a lot of slipstream and magic realist fiction for which this idea wouldn’t be particularly useful.]

Let me use a specific case. There was a side conversation in this thread at Torque Control about Perdido Street Station winning the Clarke award as sf. (Paging Richard Morgan!) I tended to read it as sf because the magic in its universe is technological. There are many species with many differing abilities (like aliens) and the ReMade are much like cyborgs, and the scientist Isaac is trying to learn about his universe and its laws, which seem to consistently apply to everyone there. Even the appearance of the Slakemoth, which is by far the most fantastic element of the story, is much like an alien intrusion from another dimension (a hoary sf trope). Just because it’s not our universe doesn’t mean that Bas Lag isn’t a scientific universe. There’s no one in the story wielding unique power by virtue of birth or something similar.

I should mention that in ‘wielding unique power’ I mean some sort of magical or physical power. Even in our mundane universe, lots of people wield political power by heredity, and there’s nothing inherently fantastic about that. In fact, I believe that the “Born to the Power” idea stems from the historical notion of the divine right of kings: some people are simply more special that others, by birth, and nothing can ever change that. Thus we get heroes such as Aragorn--Gondor doesn’t get to vote about who to lead them, the story simply assumes (and confirms) that Aragorn is the right person, by virtue of birth. Whereas sf is literature born during and after the enlightenment, and (mostly) rejects many of those notions of inherent ‘specialness’ and looks at science and technology as a somewhat more level playing field.

This does lead me to a few odd categorizations: Star Wars becomes a fantasy because of the Jedi (and no silly ‘midichlorian’ ret-conning will change that). Gail Carriger’s recent Parasol Protectorate series becomes sf (as well as being steampunk and romance) because in its universe: a) there is a soul and it is measurable; b) anyone with enough of it can become a werewolf/vampire/ghost with some reliability; c) its existence or lack thereof appears to be heritable.

So I’m not drawing the line based on whether things are possible or not. After all, huge amounts of stuff in sf is not actually possible (warp drives, time travel, etc.) And I’m not assuming that sf has to be set in ‘our’ universe, or anything recognizable as such. I’m focusing instead on the physical laws of the universe of the story. Are they consistent? Do they apply equally to everyone? To go back to LotR for a moment, the dagger Sting is fundamentally technological--it glows in the presence of goblins no matter who is wielding it. But spell-casting magic is the preserve of the select few. By the way, having admitted that some of the magic in Tolkein acts as technology, I must admit that in my rule-of-thumb take on things, one drop of fantasy makes it fantasy. A story with a universe exactly like our own (or even with spaceships) except for one magic sword that can only be activated by one special guy winds up in the fantasy category.

One counter argument is all the super-spiffy heroes in sf: don’t they count as being ‘Born to the Power?’ Lazarus Long is an amazingly Competent Man, as well as being effectively immortal. That’s true, and it certainly indulges the same emotional satisfaction of having a super-special fantasy hero. But Lazarus was the product of a very specific breeding program, and while he is the longest lived of his brethren, he is not fundamentally unique in his universe. So I’ll still call that one sf. I don't need much of an explanation--I just need something I can pretend is an explanation.

I now look forward to teh Internets letting me know just how wrong I am. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pulp Fiction Dinosaurs

For my last official pre-Golden Age sf books, I went back to the pulps. The last two books I read were given as: “ACE Science Fiction Classic D-473” and “Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #13” and both were priced at 35 cents. Although my editions date from the 1950’s, the actual works are The Greatest Adventure (1929) and Seeds of Life (1931), both by John Taine. Before I get into his fiction, let me mention that John Taine is a pseudonym for Eric Temple Bell, a mathematician at Caltech in its early days. He developed, among other things, the Bell series of numbers, and wrote a number of non-fiction popular math and science books. From what I understand, he kept his fiction writing entirely separate from the rest of his life--to the point where his friends and family were surprised to find out about it after his death. The Mathematical Association of America published a biography of him: The Search for E.T. Bell, Also Known as John Taine which I plan on reading someday.

For the fiction, I started with The Greatest Adventure. This story feels like Taine had run out of Verne books to read and decided to write his own. It is structured much like The Journey to the Center of the Earth, but with a few extra characters. Two seamen come to the house of a wealthy scientist to tell him about some fishy oddities they’ve found--as well as a gushing ocean of oil. (I read this only a few weeks after the Deepwater Horizon well was finally killed, so this didn’t seem like quite so attractive a prospect to me.) The scientist agrees to finance an expedition down to Antarctica--the seamen can profit from the oil, and he’ll profit from the biological research. He also brings along his smart and pretty daughter and the smart young man obviously destined to be a son-in-law. They get to the Southern seas and start having Adventures. There are dinosaurs, and killer weed spores, and gushers of hot gas, and lots of other challenges. In the end they escape with little but their lives.

It’s a fast read, and actually has some things to recommend it to the modern reader. For one, the female lead is not insufferable. She’s actually the best pilot in the bunch and gets to do some flying--she’s not one for having to be rescued all the time (not, I'll grant, the impression you'd get from the cover). Also, the story has a sense of humor, especially in the first mate character. And the whole thing is rich trove of tropes that are more and less common now: it shares an obsession with Antarctica with many other classics (think of At the Mountains of Madness and The Purple Cloud and Who Goes There? among so many others). It must have been useful to have a huge, barely explored, and almost unreachable continent on which to project your fancies. And then there are the dinosaurs! Jurassic Park anyone? Well, these aren’t the product of Man, but nothing says Adventures quite like heroes running away from dinosaurs.

Next I picked up Seeds of Life and it couldn’t be more different. It’s fundamentally a lab story, and has far fewer redeeming qualities. An irresponsible lab tech mutates himself into a genius while mis-using equipment. He takes on a new identity and comes back to run the lab and make its corporate owners rich. Unfortunately, the same radiation that mutates him creates many other horrific beings. He marries the director’s daughter, but horrible things are happening in her womb. Also, his mutations start to wear off (!) and he comes to realize that what he’s set in motion is wrong, but he also can’t stop it. He’s neither the hero nor the viewpoint character of the book--that is another scientist instead. Our hero is simply darn smart. He’s not smart enough to thwart the bad guy, but he knows that something is wrong and does his best to warn people. In any normal novel he would get the girl (the director’s daughter) at last, but this is a very dark book that spends a lot of time teetering on (or crossing the line into) horror, and there’s no happy ending here.

While this book has some effective (horrific) imagery, that’s about the best I can say for it. The plot in a way pre-figures Flowers for Algernon, but it’s the Evil Universe version. The daughter is a horribly stereotyped cliche with no reality of her own--she lacks any semblance of agency and is horrifically punished for the crime of being attracted to the charismatic bad guy instead of the stalwart good guy. (By the way, there are some dinosaurs here as well--including one presented in a theatre to a crowd of disbelieving scientists. Shades of King Kong, two years before that story hit the screens.) The plot is awfully convoluted, and I couldn’t help but feel that it contained just as many twists as needed to fill out an installment count.

For those of you who enjoy the pulp sf adventures of the past, you could do a lot worse than pick up some Taine novels. But you might want to read some reviews first: if I pick up more of his work, I’ll be pretty choosy. I could easily enjoy another romp in the vein of The Greatest Adventure, but I’d like to avoid any more four foot wide black widow spiders dropping onto people’s heads a la Seeds of Life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Stimulating the SF Core of the Brain

After a long stint reading 1920’s fantasy, returning to Olaf Stapledon was a breath of fresh air. I had previously read Last and First Men and Star Maker, and found them fascinating. Stapledon tosses off scenarios in a paragraph that other sf writers would build a novel out of. His vision of the very far future, both for humanity and the universe, was neither utopian nor dystopian but utterly captivating. In Star Maker he explored many different kinds of aliens, including sentient stars, which diversity was pretty rare for the 30’s. Most other stories of the time either didn’t have aliens or regarded them as objects of horror and killed them on sight.

Odd John and Sirius are more intimate stories on smaller canvas. They both involve super-beings in contemporary times. Much like Gladiator by Philip Wylie, also written in the mid-1930’s, these supermen do not end well. Odd John is a human, but of a more advanced strain. He has a prolonged physical youth, but is mentally far advanced compared to those around him. He stays out of the limelight, using adult proxies for many of his activities. Eventually he is able to make telepathic contact with others like himself, and they form a colony on a remote island. Unfortunately they are eventually discovered by the British Navy. When the real world finally intrudes on their home, the super-beings decide to end themselves. There is consolation in the fact that none of them die alone, but it is a cold comfort.

Sirius frankly has an even harder time of it. He is a super-dog with human intelligence, the only one of his kind. The scientist who made him, while breeding other sheep dogs that were very smart, was never able able to replicate Sirius’ success. He is raised with the scientist’s family in Wales, again staying out of the limelight. He forms a close bond with the youngest daughter of the family, named Plaxy. He goes through many life stages: growing up and learning about the world, working as a sheep dog, going into a laboratory and learning about the larger world, and eventually running a farm more-or-less on his own. However, he loses many close friends and family in the WWII bombings of England. Finally the war-time tensions in his small town in Wales rise up against him, and he is hunted down. While he doesn’t die alone, his one small death feels more tragic and heart-breaking than that of Odd John’s colonists. They had foreknowledge and embraced their fate; Sirius still wanted to live. [By the way, I am a big ol’ softy dog person, so you can guess which narrative left me in tears.]

Stapledon thinks through these scenarios just as much as he did his far-flung futures. Odd John also goes through many stages as he progresses, systematically tackling and conquering one aspect of humanity after another. Sirius suffers constantly from his dog-like nature: his lack of hands, his lack of clear speech (only the scientist’s family can understand him easily), and his occasional return to a wolf-like nature in the Welsh hills. Stapledon also doesn’t blink when it comes to the sexuality of these isolated individuals. While leaving everything off-stage he makes it clear that incest and bestiality taboos are broken by these characters, and the out-of-wedlock sex hardly worth mentioning.

How do these stories hold up? Rather better than most sf of the time. While each covers two decades, and are firmly grounded in the world of the 1920’s-1940’s, their themes are universal. The characters remain interesting and sympathetic; their outsider perspective on the world gives us a chance to take a different look at things. I reserve the right to change my mind over time, but for now I’m willing to say that Stapledon is right up at the top of my list of favorite sf authors of all time. His stories have a density of ideas that reward re-reading and have in no way aged out. By focusing more on human universal questions he is timeless in a way that Hal Clements (to pick an author focused on science that may become dated) can’t be. While these stories are not known for their novelistic virtues (plotting and character aren’t the point here), there are moments of poetry in Stapledon’s work that accompany the sense of wonder of it all. And they are genuinely moving on an emotional level.

He writes straight to the core of what makes sf my favorite branch of literature, with its way of changing the way I perceive the world. While I am glad that the genre has progressed in the matter of those aforementioned novelistic values, Stapledon’s work still wends its electrodes into the sf-pleasure center of the brain--skipping elaborate preparations and getting straight to the Wonder.

[Old] Star Maker

[This is a review that I wrote in 2007 on my old website, reprinted here so I can link to it.]

In Last and First Men Olaf Stapledon covered all of human history up to the extinction of mankind roughly two billion years from now. In Star Maker he covers the history of our entire universe, plus other universes as well. Amazingly, he provides a vision of what could be described as a secular religion.

Our narrator is a human who ends up projecting his consciousness into the cosmos and discovers the ability to see things distant in both time and space. As he encounters new species, he gathers alien compatriots with similar abilities, and together they probe the far reaches of the universe and beyond. The structure of the tale is that first he is only able to encounter species very close to humanity in consciousness and level of civilization. As he binds with more alien minds they become able to perceive aliens of much different biology and advancement, eventually leading up to the climactic encounter with the Star Maker himself.

Thus Stapledon is able to let his mind and imagination wander all over an incredibly broad canvas. First we meet aliens much like ourselves, then slightly weirder, then weirder, until we have fish/amphibian symbiotes, vegetable intelligences, the intelligences within stars (very alien), the combined minds of galaxies, and the combined mind of the universe itself. Only at that stage do we get a glimpse of the Star Maker, more accurately a shaper of Universes, and get a brief idea of where we fit in the incredibly grand scheme of things.

The end vision of this book verges on the religious, although it is a religion that even an atheist could love. The Star Maker is making a series of Universes (at least that is how our pathetically linear-time-limited intelligences perceive it), each of which reaches some new aspect of sophistication. Our universe is somewhere in the middle of this “sequence.” The Star Maker does not care about our individual lives and struggles except as they add to the tapestry that becomes the complete aesthetic vision of that particular universe. The Star Maker certainly is not meddling in day-to-day occurrences within any given universe. One of the aliens captures the sentiment thus:

He looked down once more upon the ruined city, then continued, “And if after all there is no Star Maker, if the great company of galaxies leapt into being of their own accord, and even if this little nasty world of ours is the only habitation of the spirit anywhere among the stars, and this world doomed, even so, even so, I must praise. But if there is no Star Maker, what can it be that I praise? I do not know. I will call it only the sharp tang and savour of existence. But to call it this is to say little.

The same liberal, secular humanist world view that Stapledon provided in Last and First Men informs his vision here. He posits that the only way to achieve our fullest potential is to learn to relate to even the most alien beings as “human” in some fundamental way, and to be able to blend our consciousnesses with the Other in order to achieve a higher level of mental sophistication. It is a compelling vision, one that presages much of the New Wave philosophy of alien contact that would be written in the 60s, 70s and beyond. As in the previous volume, Stapledon becomes easier to read the farther he gets from humanity; when he talks about people much like ourselves he can come off as preachy or didactic, but when he describes the truly alien he is at his strongest.

The writing of this book is not the easiest to read; it is in no way a novel, lacking any real plot, character or dialogue. It is a work of pure imagination and philosophy, and it is structured as much as myth as anything else. It is also informed with a certain urgency, written as it was during the Great Depression, close to the start of WWII. It recognizes many political issues of the day: the pacifism of Ghandi and its inability to cope with the fascist threat, the failures of capitalism and how they’re blamed on the proletariat, the numbing of the masses with popular entertainments. It is a window on politically liberal British thought of the time. More than that, however, it could almost have supplied a mythos for the Secular Humanist world view. In reality, Secular Humanism rejected any notion of the deity (see the First Humanist Manifesto: “FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.”) and thus couldn’t countenance even such a distant power as Stapledon’s. This is a bit of a shame, since the overall message of the book is a brilliant balancing act between the overall futility of our individual lives and fates, and their place in the overall beauty and aesthetic of the universe. As an atheist I found it a strangely compelling and reassuring vision, one that took into account the realities and scope of the universe as a time and space infinitely vaster than one human life, while still imbuing each individual life, species, solar system and galaxy with some meaning, albeit a humble one. This is not a trivial achievement, to be so realistic without resorting to nihilism, and philosophically it may be one of science fiction’s finest accomplishments. It should be more widely read, and I recommend it to all those looking for deep intellectual engagement with their science fiction.

[Old] Last and First Men

[This is a review I wrote back in 2007 on my old website, reposted here so I can link to it.]

Last and First Men is completely different from any of the classic adventure tales I’ve been reading recently, and also completely different from almost anything published today. It lacks most of the “essentials” of fiction writing: plot, characters and dialogue. However, that does not keep it from being a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

Last and First Men is written almost as a documentary about the fate of humanity projected into the very far future. Throughout descriptions of the eighteen “races” or phases of Man, humanity repeatedly almost destroys itself, only to pick itself up after millennia or eons and rise up to higher heights, until eventually falling into permanent decline and extinction. It is the work of a fertile imagination, and also a very cosmopolitan definition of “human,” as most of the ages of Man involve creatures much different than ourselves.

Stapledon obviously has a political agenda with this narrative. He pushes a secular, liberal humanist agenda throughout, always with an eye for the futility of it all in the (very) long run. In his mind diversity and cosmopolitan attitudes are key to human progress and survival; only when humans can look at almost all other humans and recognize them as equals can we work together to achieve great works. He doesn’t have much use for technology; in his universe the first race (us) gets hung up on the wonders of aviation and doesn’t progress further, and it takes until the Fifth Men for us to develop any kind of space travel (even though the Second Men were invaded by Martians), and even then it is only interplanetary. For him biology will be more important: instead of developing computers the Fourth Men are essentially gigantic brains, and they end up designing their own successors using tailored breeding programs (a common theme in this story).

The hardest part of the book to read is the first part, where he sketches out a possible future for us, the First Men. Since he was writing in 1931, it is impossible not to compare his predictions with some of what actually occurred: we certainly got to space flight a few eons before he predicted, and we haven’t formed a real world government yet. Some passages are quite prescient, though:

The economic life of the human race had for some time been based on coal, but latterly oil had been found a far more convenient source of power; and as the oil store of the planet was much smaller than its coal store, and the expenditure of oil had of course been wholly uncontrolled and wasteful, a shortage was already being felt. Thus the national ownership of the remaining oil fields had become a main factor in politics and a fertile source of wars.

It’s not a huge leap, and today it is patently obvious, but it shows the detail of his extrapolative process even back then.

Once we leave the First Men behind, surviving only through the most miraculous accident, things are easier to read since you don’t have to compare the text to reality all the time. His imagination runs rampant, through different biological forms, politics, aesthetics, philosophies and social organizations. With a two billion year canvas on which to paint, he doesn’t fill in many details but fills his narrative with variety. He throws away in a sentence or paragraph things that other authors might use to fill an entire trilogy.

The pioneer ship was manned with a navigating crew and a company of scientists, and was successfully dispatched upon a trial trip. The intention was to approach close to the surface of the moon, possibly to circumnavigate it at an altitude of ten thousand feet, and to return without landing. For many days those on earth received radio messages from the vessel’s powerful installation, reporting that all was going well. But suddenly the messages ceased, and no more was ever heard of the vessel. Almost at the moment of the last message, telescopes had revealed a sudden flash of light at a point on the vessel’s course. It was therefore surmised that she had collided with a meteor and fused with the heat of the impact.

Man’s first ever space flight, and neither the ship nor the crew even get names.

For all its distance and lack of emotion, this approach allows the author to investigate a huge scope of human intellectual territory. It is an approach that some other authors perhaps should consider even today. Stephen Baxter often deals with the entire universe in one book or series of books, but usually tries to bow to received wisdom regarding the necessity of having consistent characters that the audience can relate to. The enduring survival (if not huge commercial success) of Stapledon’s work shows that an author can abandon that approach if necessary. Likewise, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history spanning centuries. His approach to getting consistent characters was to use reincarnation. Perhaps simply writing a mock history book would have been just as successful (more so from my perspective; I wasn’t able to finish that book, although I usually enjoy Robinson’s stories).

Stapledon isn’t the sort of author that asks the reader to emotionally engage with his writing, but instead he asks for your brain power. In spanning two billion years he engenders a significant sense of awe and amazement at the huge variety of possibility that the future may hold. Even if it does turn out to be futile (spoiler alert: humanity ends up going extinct), the vast array of experience really seems to be worth it on some fundamental level. Even for the most secular of us, that is an inspiring vision.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Geeking Out: 100 Short Stories

So I've been reading a lot of short fiction lately, for my new column in Salon Futura. (I've already turned in my second column, and I'm quite proud of it.) Now, it's hard to keep track of everything you need, unless you're one of those people with picture-perfect memories. I'm not. So I have a multi-tiered, way over-complicated system for keeping track that involves a Moleskein notebook and some Google doc spreadsheets.

Why spreadsheets? Because I'm a stone-cold geek at heart, and it helps me keep myself amused by the whole project. I have just finished my 100th short story since I started keeping track (which milestone would've passed me by without the Master Spreadsheet), and I've got some nice crunchy numbers to share.

[Caveat Emptor: this is the most biased possible set of numbers. It only tracks stories that I've read, and specifically stories that I've finished. I skip a story if it doesn't grab me. So these numbers inevitably reflect my own taste. But there is an underlying field out there, and my own proclivities can only distort it so much. Elements here consist of a huge number of subjective classifications, based on nothing more substantive than my own whim. Also, I've been limiting my reading to venues that I can read in a convenient electronic form.]

Here are the genres that I've seen:
SF 48
Fantasy 42
SF w/ some F 3
Horror 2
Alt hist 3
Mainstream 2
Unsurprisingly I prefer SF, but only by a slight margin. I'm trying to cast my net as widely as possible, but I'm afraid I'll never be a horror fan. By the way, I assign every story to one-and-only-one genre, because that's how I keep the master count of stories read.

I am not keeping track of author gender. There are plenty of people keeping track of stats like that, and it's not a discussion that I'm really interested in getting into. Plus, I often don't know the gender of the author I'm reading, especially if they use initials. However, I am keeping track of protagonists:

Male 41
Female 40
These two have been running close to even through the entire project, way more even than you'd expect by random coin-tossing. Those numbers don't add to 100, because we've also got:

Cyborg 3
Animated Object 3
Transgender 2
Gender Undefined 4
...&c. In another gender-related note, I've been keeping track of stories that pass the Bechdel test: 20.

I've also found 16 protagonists that are human and identified by non-white ethnic markers, ranging from Indian to Mexican, Chinese, Philippino, etc. Other protagonists include Aliens (3), Djinn (1), Fairies (1), and Demons (2).

I'm also keeping track of POVs, but there's nothing terribly shocking here:
1st 46
2nd 2
3rd lim 27
3rd omni 21
3rd mult 2
More interesting are settings. Of those stories set on Earth:
Earth's past 12
Earth Present 20
Near future 24
Mid future 8
future 3
Obviously the Mid future/Far future line is quite fuzzy, but either way it's hugely outnumbered by stories set in the Earth's present and near future. And long-range futures are almost balanced by stories set in Earth's past--a slightly disturbing trend for the genre if it holds up.

How about physical settings? Again, we're sticking pretty close to home:
Earth 30
America 39
Generic Fantasy Earth 15
Other places on Earth include: India (2), Africa (3), England (2). And with one appearance each: Philippines, Burma, Antarctica, Japan, Thailand, Russia, Mexico, China, and Morocco. For more exotic settings all we've got are: Space (4), Extrasolar planets (5), Spaceships (1), Elsewhere in our solar system (3), VR (1) and the Ocean (1). And the Afterlife (1).

Finally, I've been keeping track of some tropes. Here are some of the most common:
Violence 27
Happy Ending? 20
Aliens 15
Gods/Goddesses 13
Shape-shifting 13
Sad Ending? 11
Mythical beings 9
damage 8
Magic artefact 8
Apocalypse 7
Biotech 7
Academics 6
Brain uploading 6
None of the others have more than 5 showings, and I don't want to bore you with the whole list (93 items and counting).

What does all this add up to? Not much, I just think it's interesting. You might as well. And of course it's all skewed; I've read 4 steampunk stories so far, but if I picked up a steampunk specialty issue of a magazine or a theme anthology that would jump way up. By the way, here are the venues that I've peeked into so far (although I haven't read every recent story in every venue, not by a long shot). If you see something missing, let me know! I'm definitely trying to widen my horizons when it comes to short fiction venues.

Strange Horizons [They're doing their fund drive now, please donate!]
Fantasy Magazine
Abyss & Apex
Expanded Horizons
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Port Iris
Crossed Genres
Basement Stories
Subterranean Online
Daily SF
Weird Tales
Brain Harvest
Midnight East

Monday, September 13, 2010

Declaring Victory!

I now declare victory in my project to read pre-1939 genre classics! Have I read everything even vaguely genre related published before 1939? No, but I've read all the stuff that I want to, and everything that has been pointed out to me as important and/or influential. Altogether this project consisted of 45 books over roughly four years. In retrospect that doesn't sound like much, but that was squeezed in between all the other reading and work and &c.

This list doesn't include a lot of the really big, well-known classics--mostly because I'd read them in college or high school. I didn't feel the need to re-read all the Verne and Wells, or to revisit Brave New World et. al. This project was all about filling in the gaps, getting acquainted with the lesser known but still important pieces of the history. For archival purposes I wanted to put together this list, and that way I'll be able to reference it as needed. The list is ordered in the reverse order that I read them, most recent first.

So what's next? The next big thing is the reading needed for the Egan book, and I'll be starting on that shortly. And of course I'm trying to stay on top of new short fiction for Salon Futura. But I'll also look to fill in a few gaps in my Golden Age reading (for instance I've never read Lest Darkness Fall or The Space Merchants). That's a much shorter list, and eventually I'll make my way to the New Wave, which will be another Major Undertaking.

1. The Greatest Adventure, John Taine, 1929
2. The Seeds of Life, John Taine, 1931
3. Sirius, Olaf Stapledon, 1944
4. Odd John, Olaf Stapledon, 1935
5. Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees, 1926
6. The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Edgar Allen Poe, 1838
7. The Hour of the Dragon, Robert E. Howard, 1936
8. At the Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft, 1936
9. The Shadow over Innsmouth, H. P. Lovecraft, 1936
10. The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany, 1924
11. Lilith, George MacDonald, 1895
12. We, Yevgeny Zamiatin, 1921
13. The Book of Wonder, Lord Dunsany, 1912
14. The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald, 1883
15. The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison, 1922
16. R. U. R., Karel Capek, 1920
17. Jurgen, James Branch Cabell, 1919
18. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, 1882
19. Phantastes, George MacDonald, 1858
20. Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay, 1920
21. The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton, 1908
22. The Nightland, William Hope Hodgson, 1912
23. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, ~1400 [Norton Critical Edition]
24. A Dreamer’s Tales, Lord Dunsany, 1910
25. The Ghost Pirates, William Hope Hodgson, 1909
26. The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, Lord Dunsany, 1908
27. Dracula, Bram Stoker, 1897
28. The House on the Borderland, William Hope Hodgson, 1908
29. Kim, Rudyard Kipling, 1901
30. The Purple Cloud, M. P. Shiel, 1901
31. Utopia, Thomas More, 1561
32. Before Adam, Jack London, 1907
33. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1899
34. Looking Backward: 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy, 1887
35. A Martian Odyssey, Stanley G. Weinbaum, 1934
36. Science Fiction of the 1930’s, ed. Damon Knight
37. The Moon Pool, A. Merritt, 1919
38. Gladiator, Philip Wylie, 1930
39. Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon, 1930
40. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon, 1937
41. Galactic Patrol, Doc Smith, 1937
42. She, H. Rider Haggard, 1887
43. King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard, 1885
44. Princess of Mars, John Carter, 1909
45. A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887

Of all of these the ones that I flat-out enjoyed the most were: King Solomon's Mines, everything by Stapledon, A Martian Odyssey, The Sword of Welleran and Others, and At the Mountains of Madness. The ones that I was simply glad to see the end of include: She, Galactic Patrol, The Moon Pool, everything by William Hope Hodgson, Lilith, and The Hour of the Dragon.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Burned Out on Old-School Fantasy

As I noted in this post, Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter didn't do much for me. Now that I've finished Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist with similar feelings, I wonder if I wasn't simply burned out on pre-Tolkein fantasy. I'd read rather a lot of it over the last year, and it was with a feeling of homecoming that I turned back to Olaf Stapledon's science fiction (to be covered in a later post).

Lud-in-the-Mist is the story of the upper class of a prosperous town dealing with drug smuggling from Fairyland. Early in the story, the entire class of the young ladies' finishing school is corrupted by the 'fairy fruit' and runs off to Fairyland. The town and the town government greets this with an upset but resigned shrug. But when the Mayor, Nat Chanticleer, feels that his only son may be in jeopardy from this source, he moves Heaven and Earth and changes his entire personality, sacrificing his role and his reputation to protect his boy. I'm really feelin' the love there. (I know, applying different standards to an older work. But *no one* goes running off after their vulnerable daughters? Really? OK.)

The transformation of Nat is a pretty dramatic one, and it's really the heart of the story. Most of the rest of the book is atmosphere and world-building as we learn about Lud, Fairyland and their historical relationship. There are also lots of satirical digs at English class relations. It's all pretty impressive, and I'm sure it was even more so for people reading it back in the 1920's. However, I found it to be easy to put down. Actually, I ended up putting it down for almost three weeks in the middle, which almost certainly didn't help me get a unified view of the book. Certainly being an American in the 21st century, the social commentary didn't really resonate with me.

One thing that stuck with me is that the people of Lud felt very much like Hobbits. I assume that Mirrlees and Tolkein were drawing off the same source material for their characters. In that, Nat's journey from inaction to action is a bit like Bilbo's at the beginning of The Hobbit. Another interesting bit is that Mirrlees' Fairy is rather more threatening than Elfland in Dunsany. Elfland was a place of dreamlike stasis, but Mirrlees' fairy is a bit more active and almost meanacing, with various denizens running around spreading mischief. It felt more alien, and in that way one can see echoes with Neil Gaiman's work (who of course provides an introduction for the volume I read).

Anyway, that wraps up my pre-Tolkein fantasy reading. What have I learned? Overall, there is a rich vein of Western fantasy that existed before Tolkein--he in no way sprang fully formed from the veins of the Norse eddas. (Not news to many of you, of course, but I had only known that in an academic way before.) You can definitely trace these early works through their influence on modern authors such as Gaiman and Kelly Link. Many of these early works are beautifully written (although some aren't: I'm looking at you, Worm Ouroboros!) and many are very psychologically and philosophically complex (I'm thinking of George MacDonald's Phantastes and David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus respectively). And of course, you've got the mix of satire, fluffy entertainment, and serious themes that we still find today. There's a lot of richness to be found in the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. I'm very glad that I took this rather long tour through that history, I've found it to be entirely rewarding, even if I didn't uncritically love every work that I read.