Disputed Earth

When I saw this book mentioned on Twitter, I knew I had to read a book combining two of my interests: World War One and geology.

Review: Disputed Earth: Geology and Trench Warfare on the Western Front 1914-1918, Peter Doyle, 2017.

The discipline of military geology was founded in 1913 by a military fortification engineer, Hauptmann Walter Kranz. The German Army would go on to employ about 250 military geologists throughout the German Army. While the British Army came to realize the discipline’s value, it employed only five full time military geologists by the end of the war.

The 440 miles of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland ran through five geologic zones.  From west to east, they were a belt of coastal dunes, the Polder Plain (some of it recovered from the sea) of mixed sand and clay, a high clay plain, sand ridges, the Coal Belt of French Flanders, and the chalk uplands of Artois and Picardy (which often reminded British soldiers of southern England because it was an extension of the same geology). These strata were further modified by erosion from the last ice age and the Marqueffles Fault. The relationship of clay strata –impermeable, to various degrees, to water– to chalk and sandy strata in any given area was a major concern of military geologists.

In trench warfare, local geology determined how deep a bunker should be dug and how it should be sheltered from various types of artillery given the geological materials at hand, what type of shoring would be needed to keep a trench intact, and how a trench would be drained at a particular location in order to prevent illness, especially trench foot?

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“The Aleph”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed by the Deep Ones over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Aleph”, Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Andrew Hurley, 1945.

As you would expect from Borges, this story is chockfull of literary allusions. 

The narrator, in fact, is called Borges, and the story starts out by noting the death of one Beatriz Viterbo on April 30, 1929.

She was a romantic obsession of Borges. To get closer to her memory and the places imbued with that memory, Borges develops the ritual of visiting her first cousin Carlos Argentino every year on the anniversary of her death.

The visits get longer until, during one, Carlos confides that he’s been working on a massive work of poetry. It’s pretty awful – we get quotes, but it’s certainly ambitious in attempting to accurately describe, in correct poetic form, the geography of Earth. 

Argentino expounds on why each line is so clever in its literary allusions, poetic form, and violations of reader expectation. He seems to be the sort of writer who imagines the literary praise critics will heap on each line of his work. Borges considers it about the dullest thing he’s read, and it’s not improved by Argentino elaborating his style with ever more varied adjectives (like different words for “blue”).

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“The Growth of the House of Usher”

My look at the fiction in Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection concludes.

Review: “The Growth of the House of Usher”, Brian Stableford, 1988.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This story stands at the head of Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution, a series of as many as 60 works (my bibliographic research has not established an exact number) of various lengths. As the title would suggest, it is an extended takeoff and inversion of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. After all, Stableford substitutes “growth” for “fall” in Poe’s title.

The opening echoes Poe’s syntax and tone:

It was a dull and soundless day on which I approached by motor boat the house which my friend Rowland Usher had built in the loneliest spot he could find, in the southern region of the Orinoco delta. 

The home of Poe’s Usher was ancestral, but Stableford’s Usher is building his.

The edifice which Rowland was raising from the silt of that great stagnant swamp was like nothing I had seen before, and I am morally certain that it was the strangest building ever envisaged by the imagination of men. 

The house is like a “black mountain” without windows (standard for new buildings in this future), no crenellations, no towers, no balconies.

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“The Engineer and the Executioner”

My look at the stories in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.

Review: “The Engineer and the Executioner”, Brian Stableford, 1975, 1991.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

While this is the oldest story in the collection, it is the most extravagant in its speculation and simplest in plot. The Brian Stableford Website says that Stableford rewrote it slightly for this collection but that the changes were minor and done to make the science correct.

The plot is simple. 

A robot, the Executioner, shows up at the asteroid Lamarck. It’s been hollowed out and used as a vast experimenal lab by the Engineer, Gabriel Samarra. While the other stories in this collection feature genetic engineering on earthly biology, the Engineer has created artificial life with various modifications including a double set of chromosomes each carrying a complete genome. The modifications facilitate constant mutation and give the organisms the ability to incorporate the forms of other organisms. 

The Executioner has shown up to take the Engineer off the asteroid and send it into the sun. The Engineer’s artificial lifeforms are deemed too dangerous to allow their continued existence. The Executioner cites the possibility of it seeding “Arrhenius spores” into space that would find their way to Earth.

The Engineer dismisses this as nonsense and sneers the robot can’t understand life because his kind can’t reproduce or evolve. The men who sent the Executioner are just afraid of what they don’t understand, and the fruit of fear is murder. 

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“The Fury That Hell Withheld”

My look at the tales in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry continues.

Review: “The Fury That Hell Withheld”, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

The Furies of Classical Mythology were not unleashed to punish faithless lovers, but to persecute undutiful children. In that tarnished Golden Age the fiercest hatreds and most awful jealousies were stored up in the bonds of maternal and filial affection.  . . . our nascent Golden Age, when men are beginning to acquire godlike power over the organic and inorganic alike, is in its fashion a Promethean Era. The tales we must tell of the time that is soon to be may echo in many ways the tales the Greeks and Romans told of the time behind them, and it again is a question to be asked what kind of Furies Hell has saved for the special damnation of men in the future.

This is a coldly intellectual and ironic retelling of the myth of the mother-murdering Orestes connected to the Greek myth of the Furies 

After a prologue including the above, we are introduced to Adam Emden, the most prominent hero of the “biotechnological revolution”. He was one of the first to apply genetic engineering techniques to cure injuries, augment the body’s powers of self-repair to heal wounds, regrow lost limbs, and repair damaged organs. A “sculptor of human clay”, he causes human tissue cells to “revert to blastular innocence” and then grow and respecialize for the desired effects. 

Besides his medical accomplishments, he also became famous for being the leading combatant in the Patent Wars which took his work from expensive, proprietary technologies to cheaper, widely available treatments. He spent so much time in the courtroom he took a degree in law as well as medicine. He is revered and widely known figure.

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“The Furniture of Life’s Ambition”

My look at Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.

Review: “The Furniture of Life’s Ambition”, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

While this is the most humorous story yet in the collection, it’s actually a horror story, a conte cruel. While we get plenty of background details about the uses this world has put genetic engineering to, speculatively it’s actually concerned with, ultimately, the manufacture of furniture from genetically engineered animals.

Our story starts out with a cri de coeur from our protagonist William Morris telling his wife Judy that he just can’t take it anymore. He has to get out. She represses a sigh, as she is wont to do on such occasions. While she loves William, he can be “very tiresome”. She tells him he’s just having a bad day.

He goes on about how the world is standing on the threshhold of a “new scientific revolution”. 

Our entire technological repertoire stands to be transformed in the space of a single lifetime – my lifetime. 

Instead, his employer Plasmotech has called him into a meeting to design a new kind of fish meat. All they care about is meeting consumer demand. “It’ll be kid stuff.  . . . one bloody supermarket novelty after another.” 

Judy knows she has to resist jokes about loaves and fishes. She loves William. He’s handsome and probably the world’s best genetic engineer. He’s also been spoiled from birth, “petulant, horribly jealous, and prone to outrageous tantrums”. Because of his looks and mind, people are willing to humor him. 

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“The Invertebrate Man”

My look at the stories in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.

Review: “The Invertebrate Man”, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

There is a minor theme in science fiction involving the peculiar psychology of scientists. As Stableford himself said in 2016’s New Atlantis, Vol. 1:

the image of the scientist has always been tainted by a hint of wizardry, so the reputation of would-be wizards, both real and fictitious, has always been tainted by a suspicion of madness.

You can see some of that peculiar psychology t in some of the collection’s earlier stories (“A Career in Sexual Chemistry” and “The Magic Bullet”), but this story features two odd scientists and is also more sardonic than those tales. 

Our hero is Patrick O’Connell. When he was five years old, he fell on a thumbtack, and it pierced his knee. It brought an overwhelming, seemingly unending stream of tears. At first, his parents were sympathetic then, finally, annoyed. Fatefully, Patrick hears his father tell his mother one day “I don’t care what you say . . . that kid has no backbone.” From then on, whenever he gets hurt, Patrick cries a lot. 

Of course, this makes him a target of school bullies. Like his parents, his teachers are initially sympathetic but their patience is not endless. He isolates himself from his “dangerous peers”, reads a lot, and wanders the woods around his small town in California. 

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“A Vintage from Atlantis”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed by the Deep Ones over at LibraryThing is a Clark Ashton Smith story I haven’t reviewed before.

Review: “A Vintage from Atlantis”, Clark Ashton Smith, 1933.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, in their notes for this story in A Vintage from Atlantis, state that several of Smith’s stories for Weird Tales were specifically written as “fillers”, usually less than 3,000 words in length, between longer stories. 

This is one though Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejected it twice before finally printing it. 

It has a simple plot. 

Recounted by a Stephen Magbane – oddly enough, a Puritan, it’s a tale of pirates and not set in one of Smith’s fictional worlds of the past or future. 

On an island ideally suited to keep their vast loot, the crew of Captain Barnaby Dwale notice a peculiar large jar – seemingly something like an ancient amphora – that has washed up on shore.  Dwale is a man of some learning and notes its similarity between old earthen wine jars and pronounces it a “rare vintage” from Atlantis. 

He decides to sample it. 

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“The Magic Bullet”

My look at the stories in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.

Review: “The Magic Bullet”, Brian Stableford, 1989.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This is the first genuinely apocalyptic tale in the collection, and, like its predecssor “Cinderella’s Sisters”, it’s something of a feminist tale too.

The story opens with Lisa Friemann, a woman nearing her 60th birthday and retirement from her job as a police scientist. She has a degree in Applied Genetics, and is called in by the UK’s Ministry of Defence not to investigate the firebombing of Morgan Miller’s lab but as an expert witness, an advisor. She is not eager to talk about her 40 yearlong private relationship with Miller, a genetics researcher. 

Miller has had a building full of a thousand mice for over 40 years as successive generations were bred. Lisa suspects Miller, a man of habitual secrecy, had some secret that caused someone to destroy his research animals. It was a secret kept from her, one secret, and it hurts her pride that her longtime lover kept it from her. It might also make her look bad to whatever department is really investigating, under the umbrella of national security, the bombing. 

The destruction of the building and all its mice was complete. Lisa asks the caretaker if Miller has been informed. After calling the fire department, he tried to call Miller, but he couldn’t reach him. He also tried calling Miller’s research assistant, a Dr. Stella Filisetti. 

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“The Tenants of Broussac”

Just because I’m doing a series on Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry doesn’t mean we won’t have a weird story this week.

Review: “The Tenants of Broussac”, Seabury Quinn, 1925.

This is part of Quinn’s long running series centering on Jules de Grandin, an occult detective. 

There’s nothing really unexpected in the story or truly weird, but it’s pleasant enough. The most interesting moment is the scene of erotic horror featured on the cover of the Weird Tales it first appeaed in.

The narrator, Dr. Trowbridge, happens to run into his friend de Grandin when he’s vacationing in France. De Grandin invites Trowbridge along to investigate the dreadful circumstances surrounding the chateau de Broussac. Maimed bodies of two of its recent tenants have been found, and one woman was found mad in the estate’s chapels. 

The most recent renter is Mr. Bixby, an Oklahoman who became rich after oil was found on his land, his rather noveau riche and annoying wife, and Adrienne their daughter. The place is rented for a year – partly to keep Adrienne away from a local Oklahoma man whom she was engaged to marry but now deemed unworthy by Mrs. Bixby. 

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