“The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”, Brian Stableford, 1980.Opening Minds

In this long essay, Stableford presents a taxonomy of man-made catastrophes presented by science fiction.

The sense that humans could compete with nature in creating catastrophes started in the latter part of the 19th century.

There were works hostile to the growing effects of technology like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and William Morris’ News from Nowhere, but they didn’t present notions of true catastrophe at the hands of man’s machinery. Stableford claiming that Richard Jefferies After London (1872) left the reasons for a pastoral, medieval like England being created as “deliberately unspecified” doesn’t quite jibe with my memory of that novel.

While he doesn’t nominate it as the first work of man-made catastrophe, he notes that Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column had a world wrecked by the capitalist system. (And, I suppose, I should clarify that catastrophe does not equal a literal doomsday or human extinction.) Continue reading

Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Into the Sun & Other Stories

My brief series on Sam Moskowitz’s Science Fiction in Old San Francisco series concludes.

This one takes a look at the work of Robert Duncan Milne.

Raw Feed (1998): Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Into the Sun & Other Stories, ed. Sam Moskowitz, 1980.Science Fiction in Old San Francisco

“Introduction”, Sam Moskowitz — Basically a recapitulation of Milne’s career from the first volume in this series.

Into the Sun” — I know for sure this isn’t the first disaster story of sf or proto-sf. Mary Shelly’s The Last Man was earlier, and there may be earlier disaster or post-apocalypse stories [for instance, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion from 1839]. Still, this is one of the first, and I suspect it was the first in a long line of sf writers trashing their hometown though Milne was actually a Scotch immigrant, but he was writing in a San Francisco venue for a San Francisco audience. The story roughly prefigures Larry Niven’s “Inconstant Moon” with the Earth’s rotation slowly bringing disaster. In Niven’s story, it was the heat of a sun gone nova. In Milne’s story, the sun flares up due to a comet hitting it. Milne’s science was logical. You can fault him for actually envisioning a mere comet causing a disastrous solar flare or the relatively simple atmospheric dynamics (simple but violent), but I’m not sure that Milne wasn’t using the best astronomical and meteorological understanding of his day. You can argue with the atmosphere heating up enough to melt metal too. Still, this is definitely an sf story with solid science and an early exploration of a popular sf theme.

Plucked From the Burning” — A sequel to Milne’s “Into the Sun”, this story isn’t as good. The narrator of the earlier story survived and landed in Tibet where the story starts. There are detailed descriptions of a devastated San Francisco (even more disaster porn for the local readers than in the first story) and China. These scenes reminded me of the latter parts of H. G. Wells’ later The War of the Worlds. That similarity was heightened when the narrator leads an expedition from Tibet to San Francisco (I wonder if this was the first story to feature a wide ranging tour of a trashed out world) and finds a couple of miners, spared from the cataclysmic heat of the first story, digging for gold in the ruins of Frisco. They reminded me of Wells’ mad artilleryman in The War of the Worlds. The story ends with a very brief (the last two paragraphs, basically) description of the utopia (without laws or religion) formed by the Tibetan monks who rescued him. It seems implausibly tacked on. Continue reading