“The Devil in Manuscript”

This week’s subject of discussion over at the Deep Ones chat on LibraryThing.

Review: “The Devil in Manuscript”, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835. 

There is an element of the supernatural in this story, one of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Stories”, but it is mainly about the early state of American publishing and the psychology of writers and the act of creation. 

The narrator goes to visit his friend, a lawyer and an author, on a very windy but snowless winter night. 

There are manuscripts piled about in the office of that friend, Oberon. Oberon relates the problems of getting published including that publishers don’t want American authors. But he is also dissatisfied with the quality of his work whether produced in the heat of inspiration or done under cold reflection.

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“The Wedding Knell”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing’s weird fiction group the Deep Ones.

Review: “The Wedding Knell”, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1836.

As you would expect from Hawthorne, this is a moralistic tale. 

Ultimately, it’s not really a weird tale, but it does have a striking weird image. 

The plot involves a wedding between the elderly and never married Mr. Ellenwood and a woman, Mrs. Dabney. 

The story begins rather whimsically (and there is humor throughout) with the account provided to the narrator by his grandmother who saw the events in person. However, as he cheerfully admits, he never bothered to research the New York City church in question to see if it could have happened. 

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“A Garden of Blackred Roses”

I’ll get back to Byron Craft’s Mythos Project in the next post.

Right now, though, it’s time to look at the weird fiction being discussed this week on LibraryThing.

Review: “A Garden of Blackred Roses”, Charles L. Grant, 1980.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one. It annoyed me greatly, an annoyance probably aggravated by recently finishing a couple of other anthologies with stories which also annoyed me.

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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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Scientific Romance

Being a fan of Stableford’s work, I immediately requested a review copy when I saw it on Netgallery.

Review: Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction, ed. Brian Stableford, 1917.Scientific Romance

Before America colonized science fiction with its conquistador John Carter in 1912 and made it into a genre concerned with space and adventure, it was something different. It was, argues Stableford, a stream of literature interested in “the adoption of the scientific outlook and the attempt to employ the scientific imagination as a springboard for speculative fiction”.

Just as the Vikings colonized the New World before Columbus’s voyage, Francis Bacon and Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac discovered new frontiers for literature when they wrote scientific romances. And, just as the Viking colonization inspired no immediate imitators, no writers imitated Bacon and de Bergerac for a while. Bacon’s New Atlantis was unfinished and published posthumously in 1627. De Bergerac’s L’Autre Monde ou les Etats et Empires de la lune [The Other World] wasn’t published until the 1920s.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that authors in France, America, and England began producing work that was noticeably something different and that stuck in the public mind. These were stories about the drama to be made out of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and the peculiar psychologies of inventors and scientists. Continue reading

Vermilion Sands; or, Adventures in Reader Reaction

I’m off reading new stuff, so you’re getting old stuff.

Specifically, the short J. G. Ballard series continues work with this book of linked stories.

Speculiction provides an alternate perspective.

Raw Feed (1997): Vermilion Sands, J. G. Ballard, 1971.Vermilion Sands

“Preface” — A collection of linked stories from a time when futurists worried about how we would adapt to the future leisure society. Vermilion Sands is a place, cheerfully admitted by Ballard to exist in no real geographical point in the future, in such a world. Ballard says its “spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach” but that he sees it popping up on the northern shores of the Mediterranean where all of Europe seemingly spends its summer. Alas, this world where “no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work” was not to be, and Europeans now find their vacations cut short to compete with Americans, Japanese, and the ambitious Asian nations. Vermilion Sands, says Ballard, celebrates the “neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid, and bizarre”.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” — Like his novel Crash, this story starts with a rather melancholy summary of how the story ends (though here the summary is shortened because this is a short story and not a novel). (The deaths of major characters in both cases transpire in attempting to fulfill some artistic obsession.) The invented art of sculpting clouds by silver iodide dispersing gliders is implausible but a wonderful image. This story has been described by some critics as a sf version of the movie Sunset Boulevard. There is some truth to that in that it is a tale of artists destroyed by a rich, vain woman – here out of a desire to win her approval, in the film to presumably to tap her fortune.

Prima Belladonna” — This story reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter” in that both feature strange, exotic women with affinities for strange plants. In Hawthorne’s story, it was a woman of poisonous breath in a poisonous garden. Here beautiful singer Jane Ciracylides appears to be some mutant hybrid of insect and man attracted to the “Arachnid orchid”. The image of singing plants is bizarre and wonderful and Ballard works it out in enough implausible, but compelling, detail to make work even better. It is strongly hinted that, like the “khan-Arachnid spider” she needs to lay eggs in it. This is Ballard’s first story, and he does a wonderful job depicting leisured young men casually pursuing art and attracted to the woman with “insects for eyes”. Ballard has wit and a knack for concise evocation of mood and character in his first work. I suspect this story with its “Recess”, a ten year period of economic slowdown and “high summer” lethargy and part-time artists, was the inspiration for Andrew Weiner’s excellent “Waves”. Continue reading