“If Destiny Still Reigns”

I picked up the first issue of Penumbra – A Journal of Weird Fiction and Criticism solely for this story.

While I won’t be reviewing much else in the magazine, I will say it’s worth picking up if you like weird fiction. Not only are there stories by writers currently working in the genre but also reprints of classic works including translations from non-English works. There is also some decent poetry. The critical articles are mostly jargon free, often insightful, and, at worse, merely state the obvious.

Review: “If Destiny Still Reigns”, Mark Samuels, 2020. 

Cover by George Cotronis

The story opens with one of those sinister tv transmission that frequently show up in Samuels’ work. The so-called December 8th transmission appeared on the world’s televisions for about a minute. The commentariat had an explanation.

The already limited attention span of the average consumer of mainstream mass media was further shortened when responsibility for the transmission was claimed by an obscure climate change campaigner and technology insider who also maintained that he had hacked into the network systems delivering terrestrial and satellite data streams.

But, while the impressions viewers of it had are written off as pareidolia, they seem remarkably consistent:

another world, one whose surface consisted of cratered, rusted, and blackened metal. The succession of still images were rapidly intercut and speeded up in order to incorporate the greatest number of them within the limited time available. And in that series of desolate tableaux I espied an almost infinite series of underground tunnels in what was a honeycombed, machine planet; one populated entirely by hideously wrought components, cogs, or other mechanisms of incomprehensible import. There was nothing in those images that pertained to organic life, nor any indication of its having had prior existence there at all

The narrator, a journalist seeks answer, and he knows whom to ask: a Russian communication expert named Josef Rostok who lives in the polluted Siberian mining city of Arkilsk, once a gulag.

Continue reading

“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.

Continue reading

“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. 

Continue reading

“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.

Continue reading

“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. 

Continue reading

“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. 

Continue reading

“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. 

Continue reading

“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. 

Continue reading

“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.) 

Continue reading

“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. 

Continue reading