“The Book”

This week’s weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing is something fairly unique.

Review: “The Book”, Margie Irwin, 1930.

This story mixes a lot of things together. Part ghost story, part tale of demonic possession, and definitely a contaminated text story though of a different sort than Mark Samuels’ “A Contaminated Text” or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Ex Libris”.

The story opens one November night with protagonist Corbett looking for something to read after stopping his reading of an unsatisfactory detective novel. In the dining-room bookcase are some books, mostly “dull and obscure old theological books” inherited from his late uncle’s library. They are mixed in with cheap novels bought at railway stalls by Corbett’s wife and “respectable nineteenth century works of culture” that Corbett bought in his Oxford days, and children’s books. The uncle’s books have an “air of scorn that belongs to a private and concealed knowledge”. 

A fancy takes Corbett (in his “vaporous and fog-ridden” Kensington living room?) that a “dank and poisonous breath” is exhaled by some of the volumes. He grabs a Dickens’ work then goes back for a Walter Pater book. He notices a gap left by the Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop which seems too large. That seems strange. Corbett hurriedly leaves to return to his bedroom. He almost feels like his house is haunted. 

But the old pleasures of Dickens aren’t there this time. It seems sentimental, to take pleasure in cruelty and suffering. The humorous is now diabolic. The peculiar thought comes to him that there is “something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake”. 

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Of Men and Monsters; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz mentioned William Tenn.

I like Tenn but see I’ve never posted about any of his titles. So, since I’m still catching on reviewing my reading of the past few months, I thought I’d give you this. The parallax is, of course, provided by Boaz.

Raw Feed (1998): Of Men and Monsters, William Tenn, 1968.

Cover by Boris Vallejo

I enjoyed this famous Tenn novel about men living in the walls of the “Monster” alien race that conquered Earth. (I have not read Tenn’s “The Men in the Walls” which the novel expanded.)

Tenn’s story is humorous and almost savage in parts. 

The title comes from John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, but the inspiration and structure of the novel seems to come from the Brobdingnag section of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

The plot starts as a variation on that favored by many stories and films featuring primitive or post-holocaust primitives:  a young man finds himself on the wrong side of tribal politics and questioning a religious taboo

Here the heresy is man’s Ancestor-Science is not as efficacious in battling the Monsters as advertised. After all, as the uncle who initiates hero Eric the Only into the heresy points out, it didn’t do humanity much good in resisting the Monsters. 

But Alien-Science turns out to be, in part, a scheme by Eric’s uncle to become Chief, a scheme that leads to a brutally suppressed uprising. 

Eric takes up with the more advanced “back burrowers” only to find their technology and knowledge of Monsters impressive but their military skills lacking. Eventually, he meets, marries, and mates with a woman of the Aaron People (after a funny scene where he tries to act dignified while assessing his mate’s physical wiles). 

In a way, this is one of those conceptual breakthrough stories. Eric learns that the tribal society he was born in was based partly on fraud: rigged visions used in naming initiate warriors and “enemy” chiefs who will band together to quell heretic Alien Sciencers. 

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The Germans on Venus and Other French Scientific Romances

Timeslip Troopers and The Martian Epic got me interested in the works of Théo Varlet. So, as I usually do when reading more deeply in an author’s work, I sought his short fiction first.

Review: The Germans on Venus and Other French Scientific Romances, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2009. 

Cover by Gil Formosa

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 roman scientifique, 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.

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The Anatomy of Tobacco

Review: The Anatomy of Tobacco, Arthur Machen, 1884.

This is an 1884 work by Machen and his first publication.

It was published by George Redway, a bookseller, publisher, and entrepreneur who liked the 21-year old Machen and would eventually hire him.

The uncredited introduction in the Delphi Works of Arthur Machen suggests it’s a pastiche of “seventeenth century scholasticism” and follows similar parodies Jonathan Swift did. The only thing that comes to mind regarding Swift is vague memories of his “The Battle of the Books”. 

I imagine that it was written for amusement by Machen who was impoverished at the time and working as a journalist and tutor. 

It’s a paen to smoking, particularly pipe use. It’s credited to “Leolinus Siluriensis, Professor of Fumifical Philosophy in the University of Brentford”. 

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“Date 1965: Modern Warfare”

Review: “Date 1965: Modern Warfare”, William Hope Hodgson, 1908.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

This is a speculative essay, a form that Brian Stableford says in Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 thrived between the world wars in Britain. However, it existed before World War One going back to at least H. G. Wells’ “The Extinction of Man” from 1894. (Hodgson was an acquaintance of Wells.)

This is a strange piece from 1908. I’ve seen it called Swiftian, presumably because it involves cannibalism like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

It’s interesting for its commentary on modern war given Hodgson’s obvious patriotism in volunteering for the British Army in 1914, rejoining it after he was discharged for medical reasons, and his death in the war.

The story is framed as a Member of Parliament, John Russell, delivering a speech on the “new war machine”. The story is prescient about “gigantic butcheries which follow in the wake of certain ‘talkee-talkees’”. War, the fictitious Russell says, is no longer a glorious and patriotic pursuit but a “profession of human butcher”.

This is seen as a good development because it is “the best means of developing all that is highest and most heroic in man”. This seems to be evidence that the notion war was needed to prevent social degeneration was prevalent before the war. Modern man is becoming “soft of fibre and heart”. It will get used to horrible war just as it got used to the speed of modern transportation. War, Russell says, should be a matter of intellectual sanity and not “unreasoning, foolish slaughter”. Continue reading

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford

I’ve already reviewed later volumes in this series, so I thought I’d go back to look at the first two.

Raw Feed (1991): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1:  The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford, 1987.PKD 1

Preface” — This is an interesting piece by Dick on what he valued in sf. Dick makes the valid point that all fiction involves dislocation from the reader’s world but that sf involves a major conceptual dislocation. Dick eloquently speaks of the joy in reading sf coming from the “chain reaction of ideas” set off in the mind while reading good sf. What is good sf to Dick? New ideas or new variations of old ideas. He quite clearly says it isn’t just the future or advanced technology. I disagree with this view. To me Dick is guilty of committing a variant on the sin of many other sf critic/author: he insists that sf meet some functional definition (define man’s relation to technology, the effect of change, prepare man for change, the dreams of technological society) and not assign a descriptive definition like it being fantasy with a pseudo-scientific or technological or scientific or pseudo-technological rationale. [I think younger self missed the importance of “good” in Dick’s argument. He may have considered a lot of things sf — just bad sf.] Many sf critics and authors seem quite content to denounce large parts of the sf genre as unfit for the label. I can’t see the need for this.

Foreword“, Steven Owen Godersky — It occurs to me in reading the Philip K. Dick Society’s Newsletter (and biographies and interviews of Dick) that the quality and character of Dick scholars varies greatly: some examine his mystical visions and religious themes for signs of mental illness, philosophical speculation, or divine revelation; some proudly point to him as one of sf’s best, others — scornful of most sf — point to him as a wasted gem in the garbage of sf; some see him as liberal, others as paranoid. Godersky sees a major theme — which he obviously, in a liberal way, likes — of anti-military, anti-war. That may be true but I suspect this strain in Dick’s work has more to do with living in the tense 1950s and having a strong distrust in authority.) Dick may be one of those rare authors that many a critical theory and observation could apply to. Dick’s contradictory statements, the philosophical/religious speculations, his concern over the small, his characterization and empathy, his distrust of authority and descriptions of reality all mesh to create a multi-faceted and complex man and body of work that can be described in political terms (such as Cold War satires), religious terms (the gnosticism of later books), and philosophy (e.g. Paul Williams description of the I Ching‘s influence on Dick). In some sense, most of these views are right, provide insight, and can be supported (and almost all contradicted) by evidence. Godersky makes the valid observation that Dick’s fiction has cosmic struggles between good and evil, death and life, order and entropy, callousness versus empathy often taking place in out of the way corners in a muted, hidden way between rather small, ordinary figures. The everyday, the mundane in Dick can have cosmic significance. Continue reading

The First Men in the Moon

The H. G. Wells series continues.

Raw Feed (1996): The First Men in the Moon, H. G. Wells, 1901.H G Wells

I had read this novel once long ago and found it boring.

This time I liked it much better though I could not find much of the Jonathan Swift influence other critics have mentioned other than a certain parallel between Cavor and the Grand Lunar and Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms. The Grand Lunar criticizes man and finds him barbarous after talking to Cavor just at the Houyhnhnms do after talking to Gulliver.

I suspect, with Cavor, Wells produced another influential depiction of the scientist for sf and popular culture: here the portrayal is of the naïve, unworldly, eccentric scientist purely interested in knowledge. Continue reading