“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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“Cinderella’s Sisters”

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

Review: “Cinderella’s Sisters”, Brian Stableford, 1989.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This 1989 story is more humane and emotional than the collection’s preceding “Bedside Conversations” and “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”. I suspect it makes that impression because, unlike those stories which feature, respectively, a man in strange circumstances and a strange man, this story centers around multiple people. Specifically, it’s a tale of sibling rivalry. Our siblings are the sisters Jeanne and Aurora Dark, two fraternal twins. 

This story has even more of a fairy tale structure than “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”. Not only is there the title alluding to a fairy tale, but the opening is “Once upon a time . . . “. 

Aurora is blonde and blue-eyed. Jeanne, the youngest by minutes, is brown-eyed and brown-haired. Their parents are fairly wealthy since Grandfather Dark made a fortune in the “bioengineering business”. Other children envy them for their wealth, but it is nothing compared to the envy each sister has for the other. 

Stableford says the ultimate reason for this probably goes back to their in-utero competition for resources. Their mother says Jeanne will never forgive Aurora for being born first. 

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The Prozess Manifestations

I’ll be returning to Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry shortly, but the usual method of operation at this blog is that the “literary reconnaissances” are posted in the order of observation, and I finished this book before Stableford’s.

As a reminder, posts marked “essay” contain extensive spoilers.

Essay: The Prozess Manifestations, Mark Samuels, 2019.

Samuels is not generally a weird fiction writer associated with a “mythos”. However, if you read enough Samuels, you realize some of his work is a constellation of stories around his fictional Victorian writer Lilith Blake and the area around London’s Highgate Cemetery.

And then there’s the series of stories in this book, most referencing a Doctor Prozess. But it’s not a mythos linked by plot or place or a chronology. Rather Prozess, as we’ll see, is more a symbol, and avatar of deeper forces and drives in our lives.

I’ll be looking at the stories in order, and some I’ve looked at before.

Decay“ has a setup reminiscent of an early William Gibson cyberpunk story since its protagonist, Carlos Diaz, is hired by the grotesquely fat Hermes X (a name suggestive of a seeker of magical secrets) to spy on one Cornelius Parry. Parry is a former researcher in artificial intelligence (I suspect the name “Parry” is an allusion to an early artificial intelligence program that simulated the personality of a paranoid schizophrenic) whose researches seem to have continued and yielded fruit.

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“A Career in Sexual Chemistry”

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

Review: “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”, Brian Stableford, 1987.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

While the preceding “Bedside Conversations” featured, in a sense, a child conceived sans sexual intercourse, this story is definitely concerned with sex (and, secondarily, procreation). Also, while “Bedside Conversations” handwaves its application of genetic engineering away with the phrase “tissue reconstruction”, this story is more specific in its biological speculations. 

The story opens with a discussion about people cursed with surnames having unfortunate historical associations, specifically Hitler and Quisling. Some change their names. Others adapt a “an attitude of defensive stubbornness” against the “mockery of the world”. Others see it as a curse and a challenge to heroically rise above the name. The name Casanova does not come with such associations. Men carrying it can see it as carrying a “mystique” which they could “wittily exploit”. 

But our hero, Giovanni Casanova, is not one of them. He is born in Manchester, UK on Valentine’s Day 1982. (Stableford actually says February 14th thus leaving the irony for the reader to catch.) His father was from a line of impoverished intellectuals unable, due to circumstances, to live up to their potential. He migrated to Manchester in the Depression to escape Fascist Italy. There, despite his good looks, he lived in “placid monogamy” after he married local woman Jenny Spencer. In the tradition of a “traditional working-class family” then, social mobility was regarded as being for sons only. Jenny was an apprentice hairdresser at 16, married at 17, and a mother at 18. 

Giovanni was cursed with looks and physique that were a “non-starter” in the romantic field. He can’t even flash his dark eyes. A bout of childhood measles left him very myopic and slightly crossed eyes hidden behind thick lens. (This is rather autobiographical. Stableford has written that a bout of childhood measles left him with very bad vision.) 

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“Bedside Conversations”

And I return to one of my favorite authors, Brian Stableford.

There’s a lot of Stableford to review – and that’s just his fiction.

Stableford and Nancy Kress are the authors who have most prolifically and rigorously dealt with the implications of genetic enginnering, and Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution is his most extended treatment of the theme.

Since I had Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Sexual Chemistry on the shelf, I thought I’d start there. Several months later, the project hasn’t gotten any further since I haven’t gotten all the many books in that series.

Still, I’m starting. As usual, Stableford will get one post per story.

While the stories in Sexual Chemistry all deal with genetic engineering, only one is in the Tales of the Biotech Revolution series. It’s “And He Busy Not Being Born”, and I’ve already briefly posted about it, so I won’t be covering it again. Actually, it’s “The Growth of the House of Usher”, and I will be covering it.

Review: “Bedside Conversations“, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

In the collection’s “Introduction”, Stableford starts out by noting the two great revolutions in human history: agriculture and industrialization. The “biological machines” that genetic engineering uses promise any even greater transformation. The possibilities of such a technology could be “hazardous and disquieting”. Used well, Stableford contends it can bring “paradise on earth”. Used badly, it could be apocalyptic. 

Stableford acknowledges some of the stories in this collection are, indeed, apocalyptic. More are ambivalent about genetic engineering and don’t represent its potential without “unqualified enthusiasm”. That, says Stableford, is not personal pessimism on his part. All except one story in the collection were written in the wake of the futurology work he co-wrote with David Langford, The Third Millennium. But, to dramatize the more bizarre possibilities of genetic engineering, fiction must be used. 

Science fiction can more effectively and imaginatively dramatize than futurology the implications of genetic engineering. It can ask question its implications “in a particularly cunning and pointed fashion”. The genre can help us imagine the future of humanity and the lives of our children though it can’t predict the future. Prediction is beyond the genre.

Stableford says he didn’t deal with the most likely applications of genetic engineering in these stories. Rather most of the stories deal with the themes of sex and death since they are at the heart of so many of our desires and anxeties. The stories are caricatures because caricatures more readily carry “meaning and implication” than realistic portraits. Absurdity and “entertaining nonsense” can help us more clearly see real possibilities. Utopias are boring fiction. It is the dystopia and apocalyptic that inspire the imagination if only to steer clear of an imagined future. 

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Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes

Low Res Scan: Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes, Mark Samuels, 2008, 2016.

Cover by Mark Samuels

Processes are those legal, political, technological, bureaucratic, and scientific things that define our modern world, a world Mark Samuels is not fond of. So it’s no accident that the very word process shows up in this collection’s title. I’ll eventually be looking at another work of Samuels’ called The Prozess Manifestations.

As befitting the “Low Res Scan” designation, I won’t be reviewing “Sentinels”, “Cesare Thodol: Some Lines Written on a Wall”, “Ghorla”, “Regina vs. Zoskia”, and “A Gentleman from Mexico” since I’ve looked at them already in my post on The Age of Decayed Futurity. This is a variant edition of Samuels’ 2008 Glypotech collection sans “The Cannibal Kings of Horror”, a satire story he deemed “wholly undertaken by even more outlandish developments”.

Psychotropic drugs had dulled its effects to the extent that he was almost able to ignore the surrender of the human race to this phenomenon of sham. But the medication only produced neutrality; one more means of ensuring his tacit compliance if not his participation. Early on, when he first recognised the all-pervasive nature of the sham-existence, he had talked to others about it. However, they did not seem to realise that all apparent solutions were equally part of the problem. Science, psychology, religion and philosophy were likewise only manifestations. There seemed only one viable way to circumvent the circus that is sham-existence: annihilation.

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