The Camp of the Saints

Essay: The Camp of the Saints, Jean Raspail, trans. Norman Shapiro, 1973, 2018.

Would you kill to preserve civilization? Specifically, would you kill defenseless children, women, and men to preserve civilization?

That is the question posed by Raspail’s novel, surely the most significant science fiction novel written in 1973 and certainly still the most talked about.

The novel’s theme is encapsulated by a remark of the French president in a radio address as Easter Sunday becomes Easter Monday:

cowardice towards the weak is cowardice at its most subtle, and, indeed, its most deadly.

We’ll return to that radio address later.

Reading this book, to say nothing of liking it and agreeing with its message, is enough to get you denounced and used as a weapon against you if you are a politician. In the month since I read this, that indeed happened to one American politician. You can do the experiment yourself. Do a Google search using “The Camp of the Saints” and “Raspail” and look at the first 12 pages. Three quarters of the entries will use words like “hateful”, “lurid”, “despicable”, and, of course, “racist” to describe the book.

Originally, I was going to do a three-part series on this book: the story, reactions to it, and the validity of its projections. Frankly, I didn’t think most people would want to read that nor would I change any minds in the related moral and political arguments.

So, I’ll mostly describe the book and conclude with some brief thoughts on its relevancy and place in science fiction.

You’ll get a better sense of the book here that any other place online I think.

Continue reading

The Best of Murray Leinster

While I work on a review of a World War One history book, the pulp series continues.

Raw Feed (1999): The Best of Murray Leinster, ed. John J. Pierce, 1978.Best of Murray Leinster

The Dean of Science Fiction”, John J. Pierce — Besides being a brief summation of the stories in this collection, this introduction talks about Leinster’s themes and career. It also relates some surprising information about Leinster. His first story (a fantasy) was written in 1919 (no date for his last work is given – he died in 1975). He converted to Catholicism, and it relates information I knew already – Leinster’s career as an inventor of the optical Jenkins Systems used as a rear projection system in movies and tv. [Leinster’s actual name was William Fitzgerald Jenkins.] Leinster also emphasized rationality and was an admirer of Thomas Aquinas.

Sidewise in Time” — This story is the original reason I bought this collection. It’s generally credited as being the first parallel universe story, and it holds up very will since its publication in 1934. Later on this type of story was rationalized with, as in Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats, the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Here Leinster introduces some twists on the notion that many later writers didn’t. First, his plot does not simply have a character or characters leave their own timeline willingly or unwillingly. Leinster introduces the notion of a tile-work Earth where each bounded area enters a different parallel universe than its neighbors do. One world has a strong Viking presence, another has China settling North America, another universe still has dinosaurs, in another the Roman Empire still endures, and in another the South won the Civil War. Leinster’s main character is a mathematician, Professor Minott, who is the only person who knows a cosmological upheaval, which eventually thrusts a quarter of the Earth’s surface into other universes, is about to take place. But he tells no one. He hopes to use the event to become more than just a mathematics instructor in an obscure community college. He wants to find a universe where his knowledge and technology can make him king – and husband of one of his students. His attempts to do this are fascinating as are the alternating sections showing what happens to some when their homes are suddenly bounded by other universes. Eventually, the students Minott tricks into joining him on his adventure (and they don’t follow him willingly for long) leave him except for a female student with a crush on him. The universe settles down, but the story ends with not all the tiles returning to their proper timelines. This is the first example of a parallel universe story and still holds up well. Leinster puts forth many intriguing alternate histories and works out or hints at the implications of his idea, and I liked the notion of a man who seeks to use such a cataclysm to gain respect and power. It’s a very human idea.

Proxima Centauri” — This is, in its notion of sentient vegetable men, a pulpy story in conception, but Leinster carries it off well, and there are several elements which make it a sophisticated sf tale, especially one published in 1935. Leinster takes some trouble to describe the construction of an artificial ecosystem in his interstellar ship. That, the inclusion of crews’ families to facilitate morale, and a mutiny from the psychological effects of a seven year voyage to the next star were all, I suspect, novel in 1935. Leinster does a credible job rationalizing, via atomic physics, his starship drive but it’s still unworkable. The vegetable men of Proxima Centauri seem brutal, but Leinster cuts them some slack by rightly pointing out that that aliens made of precious metals would probably be met the same way by Earth men, and he tries to construct a biological rationale (which doesn’t really work but it’s the attempt that makes it sf) whereby these mobile plants need animal flesh to live and how it excites them (they’re destroyed just about all animal life on their world). Actually, they’ve learned to live on vegetable matter but instinctually still crave animal products. This may also be one of the first sf stories to introduce an alternative to a fire and metal technology: the Centaurians mold protoplasm to their ends. I liked the human commander, at story’s end, contriving to get all the Centaurians to return to their home world to eat their Earth trophies and celebrate a new source of animal matter. Then he blows the planet up with a sabotaged starship engine. Continue reading

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

Since the recent Harry Harrison stuff was popular, I give you another of his titles.

Tranatlantic Tunnel

Raw Feed (1996): A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, Harry Harrison, 1972.

I decided to read this book to see how it influenced Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove’s The Two Georges since Harry Harrison is specifically mentioned in the acknowledgements of the latter novel.  This novel is better than that one, and there are enough similarities between Harrison’s alternate universe and that of The Two Georges to show Turtledove’s and Dreyfuss’ debt is great.
Both feature worlds dominated by French and English Empires and lacking united Germanies though Harrison’s novel mentions Russia very little.  Both novels feature relatively genial worlds spared our two World Wars; indeed, one of the final scenes in Harrison’s novel is a psychic viewing our world and horrified by what she sees.  Both have North Americas with prominent Indian and Irish populations.  While both novels feature Iroquois Indians, Harrison’s novel mentions several other Indian tribes in North and South America who seem to have maintained sovereignty or, at least, respect and power.  Still, as befitting the pseudo-Victorian tone of this novel, the Irish and Indians are mainly there to be colorful, humorous characters.  The Two Georges really only mentions the Iroquois and the Irish but treats their situation (possible cultural death in the Iroquois case and discrimination and appalling labor conditions for the Irish) in a much more realistic manner.  Both novels postulate worlds more technologically backwards than ours though Harrison (as befitting the author who put steam powered robots in one of his Stainless Steel Rat novels) creates some delightful variations on current technology – typically large, unique, and underemployed.  His hero, Augustine Washington, travels by huge “helithopter”.  Large, mechanical computers and their new electronic counterparts are rare and unaccountably referred to as “Brabbage” engines not Babbage engines.  Transoceanic flight exists but in large, very ornately decorated airplanes owned by the Cunard line which views them as they once did ocean liners.  They prefer to go for quality of passenger and not quantity.  Both novels also feature the American Revolution as never (at least successfully) occurring.  In Harrison’s novel, unlike The Two Georges, Washington is a reviled traitor.
However, this novel features another turning point.  In the year 1212, Crusaders in Spain do not defeat the Moslems at Navas de Tolosa, and the nations of Spain and Portugal never come into being.  England discovers the New World and seems to have settled North America much more slowly.  Indeed, Washington works on the transcontinental railway when a young engineer though the novel takes place in approximately 1973.  Both novel feature a typical humorous aside of alternate history novels – characters alluding to or reading alternate histories describing our world.  Thomas Bushell in The Two Georges dismisses an alternate history describing WWII as absurd.  Here Harrison alludes to his friend and literary colleague Brian Aldiss.  Here he is the Reverend Aldiss who writes “popular scientific romances”.  While I normally don’t like fannish allusions to other sf authors, the joke and idea is much more palatable in alternate histories since part of their charm is seeing literary and historical characters in a new light.  As befitting Harrison, this novel features many humorous scenes using this element.  Another Harrison friend, colleague, and author is mentioned – Kingsley Amis, here Lord Amis, “foreign minister”.  The engineer who enthusiastically talks Washington into being the first human to cross the Atlantic via rocket bears the name Clarke, a suspiciously close resemblance to Arthur C. Clarke.  Dick Tracy even shows up and economist Keynes is mentioned.
This book is a quick, concise, charming read.  Harrison proves he can do the hard science when describing strange Victorian vehicles (I liked the carriages hooked up to electric cars controlled by horse reins.) and, of course, the charming and plausible seeming centerpiece of the novel:  the transatlantic tunnel (Though Harrison does a mighty bit of hand waving when explaining how his bridge across the mid-Atlantic fault zone will accommodate mid-ocean spreading).  Critic J. J. Pierce called this sort of story (he was talking about another novel featuring a transatlantic tunnel), “industrial science fiction”.  That’s a good description though there’s action and a bit of intrigue here too.
 More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Briefing, Scolding, Questioning

Cheap Science Fiction Reference Books

More than a few of the bloggers I read and regular visitors to this site (sometimes the same crowd) like old science fiction and might find old reference books on science fiction interesting. I’m talking about books from publishers like Greenwood Press — expensive and really only intended for libraries.

Well, enough time has passed that libraries are starting to get rid of them. Their loss might be your gain.

In the past year, I’ve picked up all but one of John J. Pierce’s critical works. (He’s still working on the subject and posts infrequently on his blog.)

And, when I was in the bookstore selling off a seven volume history of the Prussian Empire, I came across another: Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, ed. E. F. Bleiler from Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. It was all of $10.

There are articles on various authors from a variety of scholars. Some are expected: John Clute, Peter Nichols, Brian W. Aldiss, Malcolm Edwards, and Bleiler himself. Brian M. Stableford has several, but I have many of his lit-crit collections from Wildside Press, so many of these are not new to me.

Other names I either didn’t expect in this context or are new to me: John Scarborough, James L. Campbell, Sr, John R. Pfeiffer, Willis E. McNelly, Robert E. Myers, Charles L. Elkins, Ronald D. Tweet, L. David Allen, Chris Morgan, Gardner Dozois, John B. Ower, Richard Finholt, John Carr, L. David Allen, Marilyn J. Holt, and Susan Wood. Colin Wilson shows up not only with the expected essay on H. P. Lovecraft but also A. E. van Vogt.

As for subjects, all are defensible and familiar except for the name Luis Philip Senarens covered by Bleiler. Favorites of mine omitted are James Gunn and Charles Harness, but I think that’s defensible.

Fritz Leiber

Speaking of Bleiler, the modern incarnation of his old employer, Dover Books, has started a series called “Doomsday Classics“. One of the reprints is Fritz Leiber’s The Night of the Long Knives.

And There Arose a Generation Which Did Not Know …

Over at the Coode Street Podcast awhile back, Kristine Kathryn Rusch talked about an upcoming anthology, Women in Futures Past. Motivated by bizarre claims she would hear from writing students about women (or the lack thereof) in science fiction history, she has undertaken an educational mission.

But why does she have to? Why does this kind of ignorance exist among the most connected people in the world?

Back in the 1970s, when I started reading science fiction as a poor student in a backwater town in South Dakota, I knew about these authors — even if I couldn’t get my hands on their books. My high school library had The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In the post Star Wars years, I managed to pick up a cheap, but new, copy of Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by Robert Holdstock. It also mentioned women science fiction writers besides Ursula K. Le Guin. So did Baird Searles’ paperback A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. So did James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction series.

I seldom, if ever mention, “diversity” issues. But even I bought, in the 1990s, three landmark anthologies on women in science fiction: Jean Stine and Janrae Frank’s New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow and Pamela Sargent’s two-volume Women of Wonder anthology.

Bought them and read them.

So why does the generation that grew up with huge amounts of data available with the twitch of fingers on the keyboard as opposed to a drive to the library or weeks long wait for loaned or purchased books know so little about this subject? Is the internet age or modern education destroying their curiosity?

The ignorance Rusch cites is among self-professed fans, neigh would-be writers.

I wish Rusch well on her project. If she has enough new material I don’t already have, I’ll probably buy the book.

I’m genuinely puzzled why it’s needed though. The digital age reducing the mental habitat of Arthur Koestler’s “library angels“? Overbooked schedules allowing less time for casual curiosity? Shortened attention spans? Still, we are talking about the age of the hyperlink.

I guess, as Merlin remarked in John Boorman’s Excalibur, “For it is the doom of man that they forget.”

Convergent Evolution in Post-Holocaust SF and After London

Science fiction scholar John J. Pierce is still around and still producing work on his blog The Seventy Year Itch.

His post “Science Fiction Invention and Reinvention” looks at convergent literary evolution in the post-holocaust story. It’s long but well worth a look.

He has extensive excerpts from various works including Richard Jefferies After London, so, for the occasion, I’ll post my review, from August 29, 2011. Pierce’s posting, though, provides a lot better sense of the work and its influence.

Review: After London; or, Wild England, Richard Jefferies, 1885.

After LondonAfter watching the original version of the BBC’s Survivors series, which aired from 1975 through 1977, I decided to read this, one of the first post-apocalypse novels.

To be sure there were earlier stories that killed off most or all of humanity including Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826) and Edgar Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), but Jefferies may have been the first to create and describe new social orders in the world after the apocalypse. Here, England befalls some unknown disaster which empties London and creates a vast lake in the center of the country.

The first five chapters of the book are Jefferies’ future historian narrating how the ecosystem of England has changed, and there is no mention of the hero of the rest of the novel: Sir Felix Aquila. And they stand at the beginning of a line of speculation about the decay of the world after humanity that continues through the cable tv show Life After People.

As for Felix, he’s the usual impoverished aristocrat who wants to impress the daughter of richer aristocrats, and he leaves home seeking fame and fortune. His story ends rather abruptly and, frankly, it’s not that interesting. You can get a nice sense of the book’s strengths by reading the first five chapters and chapters 23 and 24.

The ecologically centered post-apocalypse tale wasn’t to achieve these heights again until George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.