The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction

You won’t be surprised I first heard about this book from a review in Fortean Times.

Review: The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction: Charles Fort and the Evolution of the Genre, Tanner F. Boyle, 2020.

The price for the Kindle edition — $27.99 – was ridiculous. (Evidently, McFarland and other academic publishers think there are no non-academics who want to read their books.)

I’ve known about Charles Fort and his relationship to science fiction for 40 years since encountering Brian Ash’s The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I’ve read Charles Forts four famous books. I’ve read Damon Knight’s and Jim Steinmeyer’s biographies of Charles Fort. I sought out the blatantly Fortean science fiction novels: Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier and Dreadful Sanctuary and James Blish’s Jack of Eagles. I’ve long known about the Fortean influence on Arthur C. Clarke explicit Fortean influence. I’ve subscribed to Fortean Times for decades.

Was Boyle going to tell me anything I didn’t know?

Yes.

Charles Fort was the father of what Boyle calls “maybe fiction” – all those “occult” and paranormal studies and personal accounts, all the hidden (and usually ancient) histories, and UFO abduction stories we’ve heard of, authors like Graham Hancock, Richard Shaver, and Whitley Streiber whose accounts we either believe, judge as innocent mistakes, or regard as works of insanity. These are tales we are asked to believe whether couched as academic works or autobiography.

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Final Blackout

Since I mentioned this novel recently — and because I still don’t have any new reviews written, you get this.

Raw Feed (1998): Final Blackout, L. Ron Hubbard, 1940, 2991.

Algis Budry’s “Introduction” is somewhat incredulous about Hubbard’s purported accomplishments but has interesting things to say about this novel’s importance. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 (March through May I believe), this novel is remarkable. It’s not just a novel of future war. They existed before this novel. Budrys finds the novel original in its political sophistication. He explicitly compares it to George Orwell’s 1984 which was to come years later. (Though he doesn’t specifically mention it, both feature worlds under the thumb of constantly warring totalitarian states.) It was also one of the first (maybe the first) US novel to feature US Marines suppressing the “hero”.

Hubbard’s own “Preface” is for the 1948 postwar edition of his novel. (Unfortunately, I don’t know how it varies from the magazine edition.) Hubbard’s account of the controversy around the novel (he was called a Fascist and a Communist) is true. But the preface is a bit too fulsome and coy. Still, as Hubbard points out, when he wrote this novel Britain banned its publication and was not Socialist (as it became post war) and Russia was sitting out the war. It also predicted (no great trick) civilian casualties and atomic warfare (H. G. Wells did that first). His most awkward moment is when he thinks most of the novel’s critics were Communists.

This novel stands, I suspect, at the fount of modern military science fiction. There were certainly future war stories before. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds springs to mind immediately. But the modern incarnation of military men in science fiction, the no-nonsense mercenaries of David Drake and Jerry Pournelle immediately come to mind, probably all go back to Hubbard’s Lieutenant. (He is never called anything else.) 

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“After Moreau”

And here we look at the story to be discussed next week at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “After Moreau”, Jeffrey Ford, 2008.

I suppose you could call it this an existentialist post-modern story given that it is a sequel and rewriting of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and one of the films based on it, The Island of Lost Souls. 

But, as is often the case when authors let some other writer do at least half the work in constructing the imaginative scaffold for a story, the central idea behind it is rather trite: all of Moreau’s experimental subjects started as humans (abducted from American beaches) and were turned into animals. 

In this 1,930 word story, our narrator, Hippopotamus Man, tells us what happened post-Moreau: the understated agonies of transformation from Moreau’s injections, the persisting ability to communicate with other victims of the House of Pain, and how they could still have sex with each other. And we get the rewrites of the Lawgiver’s dictums from the film. They are all cheap paradoxes – or, at the very lest, hardly rules — like “Eat Don’t Eat” with only the final rule breaking the pattern: “Fuck Whenver You Want”.

Even among the experimental subjects living in the wake of Moreau’s fall, there are some especially odd ones. The Boars still wear human clothes and talk “crazy politics not of this world”.  Giraffe Man keeps injecting himself with Moreau’s drugs and becomes a putrescent mass.

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The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

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Out of the Deeps

Raw Feed (2005): Out of the Deeps, John Wyndham, 1953. 

Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Wyndham is often referred to as the founder of the “cosy catastrophe” sub-genre, a peculiarly British institution.  He is also said to epitomize post-World War II British fears. This is the first of his disaster novels I’ve read unless you wanted to stretch the point and call his The Midwich Cuckoos a disaster of alien invasion/hybridization. You could also see that novel as a metaphor for the unease of the World War II generation for their youngsters.

You can definitely call this a cosy catastrophe novel. Slickly narrated, this novel is presented as history being written by a radio reporter which allows him to present a personal encounter with the kraken and yet briefly summarive the invasion’s effect on the world and engage in lots of foreshadowing. The aliens who invade Earth, colonize the sea, and make incursions onto coastal areas are never referred to as krakens, but the novel’s original British title, The Kraken Wakes, suggests the word)

The cosiness comes in because, though the narrator and his wife narrowly escape being killed by the krakens in the Caribbean, we don’t get any closeup looks at famine victims, people battling for survival supplies, the triage of survivors, and the struggle for survival that makes the disaster and post-apocalypse sub-genres so compelling. (Wyndham — who wrote sf starting in the 1930s under a variety of names and quite successfully retooled his identity when he changed his pseudonym with The Day of the Triffids — paved the way for John Christopher whose disaster novels are far less cozy.)

We get those things, but the narrator and his wife survive in relative comfort compared to Britain’s woes.  It is those woes, Britain the naval power being denied (with virtually every other nation — though it is strongly hinted at novel’s end that the kraken will be defeated) the use of the sea, that could serve as a metaphor for Britain’s post-war dis-ease.  (Another unexpected sign of this is the complaint of the narrator and a citizen that the government — just like in World War II — doesn’t trust its citizens with weapons to defend themselves.)

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The Midwich Cuckoos

While I get some more new reviews written up, it’s time to look at John Wyndham, another author Science Fiction Ruminations brought up recently.

Raw Feed (1988); The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham, 1957. 

Cover by Dean Ellis

To my knowledge, this is the first John Wyndham I’ve read. 

You could have fun finding a sort of feminist subtext in this novel which is to say it would be fun defending an essentially not quite valid premise., One of the central plot features is, of course, the sudden, unexplained, and unwanted pregnancies of most Midwich women, cosmic rape if you will. There are veiled references to abortion. Differences between men and women are discussed in passing. Zellaby talks of women’s arrogance in assuming their perpetual place on Earth. (This goes against feminist ideology, of course, but Zellaby discusses women as Mother.) Zellaby also bewails women not being more independent. 

The novel was surprisingly full of wry wit. The retired major (a minor character) was a bit like a Monty Python character. 

Surprisingly, the narrator was a bit character in the whole drama which gradually gains a sinister, foreboding air. In keeping with Wyndham’s reputation as a writer of “cozy disaster novels”,  there is little, if any, horror here, and I can’t see it rightly being marketed as a horror novel which, as I recall, when I first saw it on the rack many years ago as a child, it was. 

The theme of the story is simple:  to protect “civilization” it may mean compromising its values of peace and justice.  (Very reminiscent of arguments on how to fight terrorism.) Wyndham manages to bring up major questions in a skillful, naturalistic way. 

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The Martian Epic

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.

Cover by Arnaud Demaegd

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.

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Timeslip Troopers

In keeping with the World War One theme I started with The Russian Origins of the First World War, I picked this book off the shelf.

Review: Timeslip Troopers, Théo Varlet and André Blandin, trans. Brian Stableford, 1923, 2012. 

Cover by Mandy

When Lieutenant Renard rotates into command of a group of poilu defending on a small French village, he finds out that the officers have a very well-stocked wine cellar. But the Englishman who left it – he was shot as a German spy — also left behind a time machine and his journal. While the tone of the book is closer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is explicitly a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine since that Englishman is Well’s time traveler.

When Renard discovers the journal and machine, he shows it to Sergeant Dupuy, the unit’s clever radio man and a mechanic before the war in the factory owned by Renard’s father.

When an accident with a time machine transports a group of French soldiers from the Western Front of World War One to the Spain of 1321, we get a wry, entertaining novel. It’s the first science fiction work I know of in the tradition of radically displacing earthly soldiers in time and space. It blazes – without, presumably, any influence on those later works – the path followed by Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze, Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries, and Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World series.

The two take it out on some test flights for a bit of R & R in Paris before and during the war. Both trips are near disasters, and the Germans unexpectedly attack the unit during one, and Renard has to come up with an unconvincing story about why he and Dupuy were gone at such a critical time.

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“Some Words with a Mummy”

It’s a welcome return to Poe this week over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones.

Review: “Some Words with a Mummy”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1845.

The plot on this one is pretty straightforward, and it’s less weird fiction than sort of American proto-science fiction as well as being a satire. A mummy is revived and discusses Ancient Egypt and nineteenth century America with the narrator and three other men.

So, with some help from Stephen Peithman’s annotations, let’s look at this one.

Poe’s humor doesn’t always work here. Jokes tend not to age well in literature. After all, many modern Shakespeare productions omit some of his humor which, if you’re reading it, often has to be footnoted to get the joke. A joke explained is no longer a joke. Still, the story does have its funny moments.

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The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins)

This one ended up being a Low Res Scan for a few different reasons.

First, I was feeling a bit lazy last January when I read it and didn’t make notes on every story.

Second, there are a lot of stories and a few poems in this book, 18 French pieces and 18 English pieces. It’s a sampler of British and French literary Decadence.

Third, a lot of the stories are quite short and a review risks spoiling their often surprise endings.

Fourth, not all of the pieces were fantastic. Since the blogging madness has to have some kind of limit, I don’t normally review fiction that isn’t fantastical in some way.

Review: The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins), ed. Brian Stableford, 1990, 1993.

If this book just had Stableford’s long introduction, it would still be worth reading. Stableford has been writing about weird and decadent fiction almost as long as he’s been producing critical work on science fiction. Here, he produces a useful history and definition of Decadent fiction

Decadence is a concept going back to Montesquieu’s writings on the fall of the Roman Empire, and the first true Decadent work was Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection Fleurs de Mal in 1857. Decadent fiction was a short-lived phenomenon in France in the 1880s and works in it are sometimes cataloged in the Symbolist movement (which, in my vague understanding, involves non-realistic narratives with allegorical symbols). 

The English Decadent movement was in the 1890s, and, after Oscar Wilde’s conviction for sodomy, few people wanted to be associated with the label. 

Stableford usefully lists Decadent fiction’s primary themes: a celebration of artifice and skepticism of the Romantic ideal of nature (that virtue reposes in nature), impuissance (the feeling of powerlessness), and spleen (an angry melancholy). There was also a drug element. Sometimes, as in Théophile Gautier’s case, drugs were taken under supervision of medical men; however, in other cases, like Arthur Rimbaud seeking his “rational derangement of the senses”, they were not. 

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