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.

Continue reading

Dorsai!

I read this one for a couple of reasons. First, it’s mentioned as a source for the Traveller role-playing game in Shannon Appelcline’s The Science Fiction in Traveller – the book that initiated my recent burst of H. Beam Piper’s works. Second, it’s listed in “The 5 Parsec Shelf” of 50 significant science fiction novels in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. (After seeing it 40 years ago, I still haven’t read the entire list.)

Essay: Dorsai!, Gordon R. Dickson, 1960, 2013.

It’s an essay this time around because I had enough trouble writing this without the stricter structure of one of my reviews.

The gears of this novel did not easily engage my brain on a first reading.

There was the violation of expectations. For a novel cited, not only in David Drake’s introduction but elsewhere, as being, with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the founding text of the military science fiction subgenre, only a very small portion of it has scenes of combat. (I could make an argument for including L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout as an ancestor of the subgenre too.)

There is a lot of talking including in the combat scenes.

The names were, for some reason, hard to remember.

Dickson’s universe is sketched in very broad terms only. Humans have spread to the stars and are undergoing speciation of a sort with “exotics” of a rather ill-defined sort.

Continue reading

Uller Uprising

Review: “Uller Uprising”, H. Beam Piper, 1952.

It’s a science fictional retelling of the Sepoy Rebellion.

Military science fiction is often said to start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Genetic General aka Dorsai!. Even the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry on Military SF doesn’t mention this short novel by Piper, but I’d argue it should be considered as military science fiction.

Our hero is General Carlos von Schlichten, formerly of the Second Federation Army and now commander of the Uller Company’s troops on Uller. The company has a charter to administer the planet and its sentient aliens, the Uller.

But the story opens on another planet in the same system, Niflheim. It’s the planet the Uller Company is really interested in. It may have a poisonous atmosphere of fluorine, but it’s mineral rich. Ruling Uller was just a requirement of the charter from the Federation.

Mining is being done there using atomic explosives, a process of great interest to one of the Uller laborers there.

And then we go to Uller where things are not tranquil.

As with his model of India before 1857, Piper’s Uller is composed of many native principalities of various degrees of loyalty to the Uller Company and that often scheme against each other. The natives have many gripes. Human technology has disrupted trade patterns and native manufacturing. One Uller, the Prophet Rakeed, is preaching a straight-out anti-Company crusade and wants humans off the planet.

Continue reading

Of All Possible Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

The posts on William Tenn continue while I work on new posts.

Science Fiction Ruminations gives the parallax on this.

Cover by Bob Blanchard

Raw Feed (1998): Of All Possible Worlds, William Tenn, 1955.

Introduction: On the Fiction in Science Fiction” is William Tenn’s defense of science fiction. First, he argues that, contrary to critics, sf is about people as individuals or representatives of a “collective community”.  Second, popular art, which sf is, is helpful in attaining aspirations of artistic immortality. He argues that “a scientific error or two” would not mar classic sf. He explicitly mentions Robert A. Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, Frederik Pohl’s and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, and Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky as classics.  Responding to the old charge of sf as escapism, Tenn notes that new literary genres, be they novels or Elizabethan plays are always denounced as dangerous by an intellectual elite invested in the old forms. Tenn doubts that people read any fiction to learn more about their “unfulfilled” lives or gain a moral perspective. He thinks that people read fiction for escape, believable escape. Responding to the old and still present charge that sf has produced no Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Fielding, Tenn notes that Elizabethan dramatists produced nothing equivalent to Aeschylus either though it was the standard they were aiming for.  Good popular art has a certain primitive vitality and vulgarity, Tenn argues, which causes it to endure longer than boring art polished to the point of perfection.

Down Among the Dead Men” — This story, like Alfred Bester’s “Disappearing Act” published a year earlier in 1953, is a satire about the Cold War. Essentially both stories depict a society totally mobilized for war – and the qualities of those societies being destroyed in the act of defending them. I use to regard these stories as somewhat liberal whining about fighting the Cold War, but, in learning more about the total mobilization of America in WWII (which, of course, Tenn and Bester would have known first hand) and the encroachments of the government on liberty during that war and since, I appreciate these stories now. Here a decades long war with the alien Eoti has radically changed Earth’s society. Not only are millions dead and all of Earth mobilized, but, in a satirical point derived from the recycling drives of WWII, human soldiers, dead soldiers, are revived as ever increasingly sophisticated “soldier surrogates” or, in popular parlance, zombies. Sexual mores have changed drastically since Earth’s women need to pump out as many babies as possible. The narrator, his reproductive organs wounded – and the wound one of the few that are irreparable, is excluded from these couplings. I’m unsure whether to be glad, at the end, the protagonist as found a purpose and family (albeit a surrogate one) or horrified that familial and human sensibilities have been so distorted or wonder that humans are so adaptable.

Continue reading

Single Combat

Review: Single Combat, Dean Ing, 1983. 

Cover by Howard Chaykin

The world has settled down in the second book of Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy. The Fourth World War ended about five years ago. Nations are picking up the pieces. Technology has advanced. There are even plans for New Israel – now on leased land in Turkey – to build L-5 colonies.

Ted Quantrill is no longer a teenager trying to survive and find a place in a post-holocaust world. He’s found his place. It’s killing people for the government.

The secret group of assassins, called T Section, he works for is at the center of the book. It hides behind the cover of Streamlined America’s Search and Rescue organization which goes out and helps people in the still devastated areas of the country. From Systemic Shock, there’s Sabado, the unarmed combat instructor who recruited Quantrill out of the Army; Seth Howell, political instructor; Marty Cross, an expert at covert pursuit; and, Mason Reardon, a master at surveillance. Most importantly, there is Marbrye Sanger, the first trainee Quantrill met, and the two have a relationship. It’s sexual with much unsaid because things can’t be carried further when your every conversation is monitored, and, if your lover goes rogue, they’ll end up dead – maybe at your hand. Any intimate discussion or thoughts of rebellion has to be in notes and sign language.

But, at a T Section briefing, Quantrill learns that resistance to President Young’s Streamlined America has gone beyond guerilla actions into a more organized phase. There are even rumors some T Section members have gone rogue. Perhaps, he thinks, the regime can be changed after all.

Continue reading

Turn Off Your Mind

I’ve longed liked Gary Lachman’s articles in the Fortean Times. I’m also an admirer of his work, under the name Gary Valentine, with the rock band Blondie, particularly his song “X Offender”.

So, it was only a matter of time before I decided to read one of his books.

Review: Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, Gary Lachman, 2001. 

Lachman’s basic thesis is that several elements of the mystic 1960s led not just to the Summer of Love but the murders of Charles Manson and that the strains of thought that produced both go back to the late 1890s.

It’s an interesting story, but most parts of it were familiar to me already, and I’m not going to talk much about them. I am also not sympathetic to mysticism, the Summer of Love, or the spirit of the 1960s.

What I am going to talk about is the surprising amount of material in the book about writers and works of fantastic fiction and how they were connected to the mystic Sixties.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s not only wrote the very popular The Morning of the Magicians, but Bergier also wrote a letter praising H. P. Lovecraft that appeared in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales. The Morning of the Magicians, published in 1960, had Fortean material and centered on mysticism, transcendence, mutation and the evolution of consciousness. It was a heady mix that drew from the zeitgeist.

Continue reading

Georgia on My Mind and Other Places

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1995.GRGNMYMNDN1996

Introduction” — Short, no nonsense, no-frill introduction for a collection of stories ranging from “silly to personal and serious.”

The Feynman Solution” — This is a fantasy. The mechanism of time travel is never rationalized beyond the point of artist Colin Trantham saying he’s a sort of positron which physicist Richard Feynman described as an electron traveling back in time. The story involves Colin, suffering from a brain tumor (the major scientific interest of the story is the descriptions of cancer therapies, their successes, methods of operation, and failings) and seeing visions of increasingly ancient and mostly extinct life which he draws with his usual precision. The relationship between Colin and his paleontologist sister Julia and his oncologist James Wollaston (eventually Julia’s lover) was well handled. The Tranthams, like Bey Wolf in Sheffield’s Proteus novels, love to quote all kinds of things from Samuel Johnson to movies. I suspect Sheffield does this too.

The Bee’s Kiss” — Like Sheffield’s “C-Change”, this story involves aliens who are concealing things. A very skilled voyeur is forced by a tyrant (after the voyeur is caught spying on him) to spy on some enigmatic aliens, the Sigil. It turns out the aliens have become alarmed after learning humans use sexual reproduction. The Sigil are asexual and use a parasitic means to reproduce like Earth’s sphinx wasp. This story has good psychological insight into a voyeur. Continue reading

Proteus Combined

And it’s more Charles Sheffield.

Raw Feed (1994): Proteus Combined, Charles Sheffield, 1994.

PRTSCMB1994
Cover by Barclay Shaw

An omnibus of Sheffield’s Proteus series.

Sheffield is known as a hard sf writer and has written some good hard sf – he’s certainly got the technical background for it.

However, I suspect (like James Gunn’s The Immortals) this story owes more to some fanciful playing with dubious, but popular notions of biomedicine than real science. Here Sheffield takes the 70’s notion of biofeedback to a bizarre level: the human form can actually be changed with the help of computerized biofeedback.

In Sight of Proteus, Sheffield develops the idea while wending a way through a complicated plot involving secret and illegal form manipulation for the benefit of man and space travel and alien contact.

There are catalogs that cater to fashion in forms, form change to prolong life, illegal forms that hero Bey Wolf searches out for the government, and conflict over the use of forms (“spacers” don’t like them), and the redefining of humanity as someone who can use biofeedback equipment at an early age.

I liked the plot element with some humans – under the influence of illegal form change equipment – being contaminated with Logian viral DNA and changing into aliens. Loge – and I have no idea if the purported pre-1975 science listed is real – is the planet that supposedly existed (according to Bode’s Law and evidenced by the asteroid belt and the calculated origin point of some comets) between Mars and Jupiter. Aliens lived on it as evidenced by transuranic elements. Continue reading

Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8

 

51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re in the next subcategory of Gunn’s “plots of circumstances” where a protagonist must deal with problems inherent to the world he finds himself.

That subcategory is “a future being in a future world”.

The future is a great place to set a story, and a successful science fiction story only has to worry about the credibility of his imagination, and Gunn notes “credibility can be stretched a long way”.

However, Gunn isn’t too keen on past examples of stories in this subcategory. He thinks its potential has been abused more than any other plot category. Writers wrenched

the future into any shape they liked – utopian writers the foremost among them. They set up unlikely characters doing implausible things in absurd places; the plot form was undisciplined and chaotic.

Modern sf, realistic sf, occurred when readers started to demand plausible future and writers responded. Attendant to that was better characterization and dialogue. Continue reading