My brief series on Sam Moskowitz’s Science Fiction in Old San Francisco series concludes.
This one takes a look at the work of Robert Duncan Milne.
Raw Feed (1998): Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Into the Sun & Other Stories, ed. Sam Moskowitz, 1980.
“Introduction”, Sam Moskowitz — Basically a recapitulation of Milne’s career from the first volume in this series.
“Into the Sun” — I know for sure this isn’t the first disaster story of sf or proto-sf. Mary Shelly’s The Last Man was earlier, and there may be earlier disaster or post-apocalypse stories [for instance, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion from 1839]. Still, this is one of the first, and I suspect it was the first in a long line of sf writers trashing their hometown though Milne was actually a Scotch immigrant, but he was writing in a San Francisco venue for a San Francisco audience. The story roughly prefigures Larry Niven’s “Inconstant Moon” with the Earth’s rotation slowly bringing disaster. In Niven’s story, it was the heat of a sun gone nova. In Milne’s story, the sun flares up due to a comet hitting it. Milne’s science was logical. You can fault him for actually envisioning a mere comet causing a disastrous solar flare or the relatively simple atmospheric dynamics (simple but violent), but I’m not sure that Milne wasn’t using the best astronomical and meteorological understanding of his day. You can argue with the atmosphere heating up enough to melt metal too. Still, this is definitely an sf story with solid science and an early exploration of a popular sf theme.
“Plucked From the Burning” — A sequel to Milne’s “Into the Sun”, this story isn’t as good. The narrator of the earlier story survived and landed in Tibet where the story starts. There are detailed descriptions of a devastated San Francisco (even more disaster porn for the local readers than in the first story) and China. These scenes reminded me of the latter parts of H. G. Wells’ later The War of the Worlds. That similarity was heightened when the narrator leads an expedition from Tibet to San Francisco (I wonder if this was the first story to feature a wide ranging tour of a trashed out world) and finds a couple of miners, spared from the cataclysmic heat of the first story, digging for gold in the ruins of Frisco. They reminded me of Wells’ mad artilleryman in The War of the Worlds. The story ends with a very brief (the last two paragraphs, basically) description of the utopia (without laws or religion) formed by the Tibetan monks who rescued him. It seems implausibly tacked on.
“A New Palingenesis” — I was amused that when Doctor S explains the secret of the afterlife involves electricity and then goes on to note that he knows the phrase is “a generalization in which ignorance finds refuge”. That fits what quack medicine and early sf (and Milne himself in several stories) did with the concept: used it to rationalize a lot of wonders. (How many current sf stories using artificial life and intelligence and nanotechnology will look silly in a similar way to the future?). Moskowitz classifies this as a genetic engineering story, and it is, at its core, despite its effort to rationalize spiritualist notions. Taking into account what may have been valid scientific speculation at the time, it produces a genuine sense of wonder when Doctor S talks about the soul as “individual electrical energy” which controls the division of cells and their construction from basic chemicals. That is part of the concern of genetic engineering. This story kept me reading even get its dated science and spiritualist concerns.
“A Family Skeleton” — Story about a mutant with two faces and consciousness and how they kill each other over a woman. This is more a horror tale than science fiction though the mechanics of life for a Janus-faced pair of youths (with one body) is well thought out.
“A Man Who Grew Young Again” — I don’t know enough about the history of experiments in blood transfusions to know how much Milne violated contemporary science in this 1887 story. He has a blood transfusion from two young men reversing the age of a wounded older man. [Actually, this idea has again gained some currency in certain scientific circles.] The circulatory system of all three is linked together and their physiological ages sort of average out. Milne has his doctor character say that calve blood has been transfused into humans with no ill effect. That certainly is not true. The wounded man has a hard time convincing people he’s himself and not his son after the operation.
“A Base-Ball Mystery” — As Moskowitz notes in the companion volume, this is probably one of the first sports sf stories and certainly the earliest baseball sf story. Here a game is thrown via a bat and ball rigged to generate powerful attractions and repulsions via static electricity. The story is historically interesting for its picture of the terms (check out the hyphenated “baseball” of the title) and sociology of early professional baseball.
“Ten Thousand Years in Ice” — A tale of suspended animation in the ice, notable for the setup to its sequel, “The World’s Last Cataclysm” and for the public reaction. There are several letters from Hungarian readers reprinted. They were in response in the story’s appearance in a Hungarian newspaper. Besides constantly mentioning Sir Robert Duncan Milne (the translator had added a knighthood just to make the story better and, obviously, to some readers more credible and one letter giving Milne the title of doctor), they want to know just how much of the story is real. They seem to have regarded as fact thinly veiled fiction – a credit to Milne’s abilities though this time he did not set out to do a hoax.
“The World’s Last Catacylsm” — I don’t know if this story was written before or after Jules Verne’s “The Eternal Adam” [Verne’s story was 1910], but both deal with the notion of catastrophes occasionally wiping out civilization and leaving a few survivors. This story is more original than it’s prequel, Milne’s “Ten Thousand Years in Ice”. It’s interesting for a couple of points. First, there is what Milne depicts as the pre-cataclysmic utopia of the revived narrator. It was a world more advanced scientifically than 1889 America, and, thus, a golden age. There is “perfect control” over natural forces, lifespans in the hundreds of years. Electricity (the hot concept of a lot of Milne sf) is the tool that makes life so good. There is no necessity for labor, no capital, no money (labor is a medium of exchange), no crime, work is not toil. Art flourishes, there is no poverty and even communication with the dead. The second point of interest is the mechanism Milne chose for his global cataclysm: a slipping crust pulled via the magnetic attraction between it and a passing comet with an iron nuclear. This was years before Charles Hapgood popularized the notion and his modern disciple Graham Hancock picked it up (at least for awhile). I wonder if Milne got it from Ignatius Donnelly’s Ragnarok: The Age of Fire & Gravel, published in 1882. At least Milne had the excuse of less information than we have today about cometary composition, plate tectonics, and that those “Siberian elephants” he mentions were mammoths and not tropical elephants.
“The Silent Witness” — While this reads like a sf gadget story, it’s not. The device that saves a man from an unjust murder conviction is an already extant technology: the phonograph.
“A Question of Reciprocity” — In this story, Milne departs from his usual framing device (probably explained due to his background as a newspaperman and his stories appearing in newspaper venues) of the narrator relaying events experienced by a friend or stranger chance encountered. The basics of this plot – a rich group of Chilean businessman extorting San Francisco in revenge for supporting Chile’s previous dictator that took part of their wealth before overthrown, extortion via a high tech helicopter, extortion eventually put down by another bit of high tech, a magnetically guided torpedo – is not very far removed from many technothrillers plots today. I believe that Jules Verne’s Robur had already tread similar ground. Still, it’s a well told story that Milne tells as a story from the first and doesn’t frame it like a newspaper account or hoax.