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.
“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 →
Sam Moskowitz showed up in some of my reading lately, so I thought I’d post reviews of a couple of his books I mentioned in passing in my Bitter Bierce series.
While I’m a bit leary of a book that mentions the Black Hills of North Dakota and Rod Steiger’s The Twilight Zone, this was still an interesting book. I took away a few things from it.
First, further information on the role that newspaper hoaxes played in early American sf or proto-sf.
Second, that there really was a community of San Francisco writers who published in numerous San Francisco publications and mostly set their stories, not surprisingly, in Frisco. The constant referrals to each others’ works shows a clear beginning of the genre awareness necessary to say that sf existed as an “invitation to form” then. There was also a generous helping of foreign sf and fantasy, including Jules Verne, published in these same magazines and newspapers. I found it interesting that many writers, foreign and American, referenced Edgar Allan Poe as the father of the new genre that was to become sf. He certainly inspired Verne if not Wells. Poe, as a writer (and I never noticed this point) created stories of the fantastic without the supernatural. Poe, under the “invitation to form” definition of sf, may have a pretty strong claim to founding sf.
The Frisco writers may have influenced Wells since their work was sometimes reprinted over seas. William C. Morrow may have been the inspiration for the idea and eponymous character of Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Moskowitz’s main emphasis is on the career of Robert Duncan Milne, a Scottish-American (a very well-educated remittance man and drunk) who, from 1881 to about 1899, has a very good claim to being the world’s first full time sf writer.
Continue reading →
It started innocently enough.
I read a few stories in September, so I could get more out of a one hour convention panel celebrating Bierce and the (probable) 100th anniversary of this death.
I couldn’t just read the stories, though. Those Civil War stories and memoirs in between the covers of Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs looked interesting. And I had plenty of time left before returning it to the library.
And then it was interesting enough to buy my own copy. And then I find out that Mr. Joshi co-edited a whole bunch of Bierce satires in the vein of his “Ashes of the Beacon” and “For the Ahkoond”.
So I bought that. And read it cover to cover.
Review: The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, eds. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2001.
As I said when last speaking of Bierce, death is Bierce’s usual punch line.
And the joke was starting to wear thin for me with this book. Continue reading →
“For the Ahkoond”
If you’re one of those sticklers who think satire must have some kind of call or plan for reform, you might not find this Ambrose Bierce story fitting the bill. However, Bierce calls it a satire in a footnote he inserted when he included it in his Collected Works in 1909.
On the surface, given the number of gadgets he mentions and invents, you might think this is his most science fictional work and shows something of his friend Robert Duncan Milne’s influence.
You would be wrong, though. Continue reading →
The most anthologized of Bierce’s science fiction works are “The Damned Thing” and “Moxon’s Master”. I suspect that is a function of both their relatively short length and timeless themes. Bierce’s other science fiction works, some of which I will be covering in my next posting, are satirical vehicles for political issues we either no longer care about or vehemently disagree with Bierce on.
“The Damned Thing” (with Spoilers)
This tale is justly celebrated, one of Bierce’s most controlled in terms of tone. It concerns a lethal, invisible entity in the hills around San Francisco.
H. P. Lovecraft’s description of Bierce’s weird fiction in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as “malignly supernatural” works for this particular story. But so do the words of James Gunn in introducing the story in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells:
“The Damned Thing” is typical of a kind of science-fiction story that focuses on a fantastic event that has no explanation — except one or more that science has not yet discovered. The story has its psychological basis in the observed fact that new discoveries about the nature of the universe, continue to be made, and the most profound of the discoveries were unpredictable and would have been incomprehensible to an earlier generation.
Continue reading →
If you look up some standard reference works on science fiction, you will see a few Bierce tales mentioned. They always mention “Moxon’s Master” (1909), an early robot story, and “That Damned Thing” (1898), an early invisible menace story.
Robert S. Coulson’s entry on Bierce in the James Gunn edited The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction mentions both as well as “The Realm of the Unreal” which I’ve already discussed.
The Bierce entry, authored by Peter Nichols and John Clute, in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia mentions several weird tales I’ve already discussed using the justification that “the speculative environment they create is often sufficiently displaced to encourage the interest of sf readers”. But they also mention “John Smith Liberator: (From a Newspaper of the Far Future)” aka “John Smith” (1873), “For the Ahkoond” (1888), and “The Ashes of the Beacon: An Historical Monograph Written in 4930” (1905) which is a radical revision of “The Fall of the Republic: An Article from a ‘Court Journal’ of the Thirty-First Century” (1888). I will be talking about all these stories in future posts except “John Smith” and “The Fall of the Republic”, neither of which I’ve gotten my hands on yet.
For now, though, I want to briefly talk about Bierce’s place in science fiction as an editor, critic, cheerleader and, in a sense, imitator. Continue reading →