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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The tone of this intellectual horror story is elegiac because it is about the passing of Arcadia and all it symbolizes and the beginning of the modern age. The combination of Lovecraftian elements and Ancient Greece is something, I believe, Lovecraft himself would have appreciated.
At the start we are told the Great God Pan is dead and history is in gestation meaning the documents that will produce history are in gestation but haven’t been collected yet. The chronology we call history has “not yet settled into a mathematical pattern”.
Our protagonist is a poet who has come across a dryad’s body. He has seen the shadowy forms of dryad before but never one in broad daylight. Her body is pierced with an iron spike which he tries to pull out of her. The spirit folk are being hunted down and exterminated as “incompatible with the quest of civilization” and agriculture. It’s a shameful matter and killing the spirit folk is not talked about. The poet himself is ambivalent in his loyalty to civilization.
While trying to pull the spike out of the dryad, the poet is attacked by a faun and almost strangled to death except that one of the oldest of the fauns, a satyr, pulls the younger faun away. These mythical creatures speak Pelasgoi, a dying language spoken only by people like the poet’s household servant as Greek civilization spreads into Arcadia. The creatures are surprised the poet speaks it well.
The satyr says the dryad won’t live, but she’ll have a better death if they can get her to a cave.
As laid out in his “Introduction”, this is the second anthology of French science fiction or, more properly, roman scientifique that Stableford has done for Black Coat Press.
Unlike the first, which attempted to define and show the “fundamental pattern of development” of the French roman scientifique, Stableford merely seeks to come up with representative samples from the entire period of the genre. Unintentionally, it ended up being somewhat biased towards humorous stories, he says. When authors defend themselves against the charge of absurdity by being absurd, their narratives are pushed to the limits.
Following the turmoil of the French Revolution, propagandizing for progress was harder. The skepticism about the benefits of progress and the perfectibility of human society was a common theme. Many of these stories have the theme that Isaac Asimov dubbed the “Frankenstein complex”: no good can come from technological progress. Stableford’s “editorial sieve” wasn’t interested in the “more pragmatic aspect of antitechnological sentiment” because that’s rather mundane in the context of science fiction. He opted for the more extreme and interesting cases. And, of course, some stories touch on the growing conflict between society and religion which, in the romanscientifique, played out in two distinctive ideas not seen much in American science fiction or the British scientific romance: the “plurality of worlds” and cosmic palingenesis – the transmigration of souls.
I’m not going to mention much about the background of each writer, but Stableford does introduce each story with a useful literary biography of its author, their place in the roman scientifique, and any probable influences on their work.
It’s backward in time to cover my reading of the past five months.
And it’s back to Brian Stableford though, this time, only to one of the works he translated and annotated for Black Coat Press. After reading his co-authored Timeslip Troopers, I wanted to read more Théo Varlet.
Review: The Martian Epic, Octave Joncquel and Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2008.
The two novels in this omnibus, Les Titans du ciel [The Titans of the Heavens] and L’agonie de la Terre [The Agony of Earth], were originally published in 1921 and 1922. Stableford notes they were some of the most important works of roman scientifique published in France between the wars.
They certainly are remarkable, especially for an Anglo reader. That isn’t just because they are, as Timeslip Troopers was, a sort of sequel to an H. G. Wells’ work, but because they feature a significant strain of French cultural and scientific thought in the 19th and early 20th century: spiritualism, the idea of discarnate souls not only on our planet but others, souls capable of travel by thought.
There certainly are plenty of thrills in the wake of a Martian invasion in the year 1978, an invasion which the genius Wells’ had a sort of cloudy precognitive vision of: massive destruction social collapse with strange new cults and political movements springing up.
The Titans of Heaven is a compelling novel told as sort of a memoir as it happens by the narrator, Léon Rudeaux, Besides the intended echo of The War of the Worlds, the work is almost precognitive itself in anticipating H. G. Wells’ later The Shape of Things to Come. Like that work, Joncquel and Varlet give us a world state created out of war.
Ironically, it comes into existence when at the very moment the idea of a “yellow peril” is maligned. China and Japan set out to establish an empire by conquest. Fortunately, a secret committee of scientists thwarts them by the Great Discovery, an electromagnetic device that renders metal weapons dangerous to use.