The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

It was July 4th, and I wasn’t going to go through boxes of packed books on my day off to find something to read. So, I went through books on the Kindle and decided two Mark Samuels titles, Christmas gifts, seemed like just the thing.

Review: The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, Mark Samuels, 2011.

The stories of Mark Samuels are filled with perilous literary scholarship, sinister cartels, and encroaching decay of body and intellect – a mold of modernity. Yet, sometimes, hope is to be found in the alleys and wrecks of cities.

Some of the stories are homages or pastiches to dead writers of horror and the weird fiction: Poe, Stefan Grabinski, Karl Edward Wagner, Ambrose Bierce, and, of course, Arthur Machen. Bibliophilia, book collecting, and literary scholarship lead to strange places in Samuels’ fictions. Sometimes mere casual epigraphs from dead writers are surprisingly revelatory.

The first story, “Losenof Express”, is a fine example. Alcoholic horror writer Eddie Charles Knox hoists a shot of Jack Daniels to Poe as he drinks by himself in the obscure Eastern European capital of Strasgol. A well-paying career writing “the pulp adventures of Mungo the Barbarian and the sexual shenanigans of Mother Superior Lucia Vulva” seems like a waste of his talent, a betrayal of his one-time reputation as the “Berserker of Horror”. And when another man in the café seems to mirror Knox’s self-loathing, he becomes enraged and follows the man, eventually killing him. But things become strange when he hops the train out of town to flee arrest.  

There are probably some allusions I missed and elements I don’t appreciate in “The Man Who Collected Machen” since I don’t collect Machen and have only read half of his fiction. But I have read enough Machen, know enough of his life, to appreciate this story as a well-done pastiche and tribute. Machen enthusiasts will see elements of “N”, The Three Impostors, The Secret Glory, and “The Lost Club”.

Continue reading

Saving the World Through Science Fiction

Review: Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar, Michael R. Page, 2017.51jIRlPDtwL

Before I move on to the inevitable quibbles, let me say that anyone who is a James Gunn fan should buy this book. People who are curious about Gunn and his work should buy this.

Actually, since it’s the first and only book about Gunn, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter anyway.

I’ve long thought, even before starting this blog, that Gunn was an author unjustly neglected and that I should write a series on him. However, while I’ve done some posts on Gunn and read all his novels and most of his shorter works, I didn’t make notes on a lot of them. I’d have to do a lot of rereading and make careful notes.

Page has largely saved me the trouble. He says many of the things I noticed about Gunn. He also says many things I didn’t notice. Continue reading

Kampus; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Essay: Kampus, James Gunn, 1977.

Cover by Bob Larkin.

“It’s easy to loosen the reins of authority but difficult to tighten them again. That would have involved the kinds of effort we no longer were capable of making and would have revolutionized our society almost as much as you threatened. So we gave you the campuses. We walled you in. The serious scholars departed, and we left you here to play your games and survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would graduate. …

“You may think it’s ridiculous to have a mechanical Chancellor. But it is no more ridiculous than having mechanical students. And that is what you are, mechanically responding to stimuli like so many robots.”

The speaker is the Chancellor of the University of Kansas. It’s about 1998, and the students have gotten what they wanted after the Free Speech movement of the 1960s – a place to play their own power games and hierarchy struggles while complaining about social injustice.

In 1968, James Gunn, 45 years old and dealing with student unrest in his role as public relations director at the University of Kampus, started this novel. It wasn’t even conceived as science fiction though it uses the chemical memory theories of James McConnell. It was a to be a satire on the world, according to Gunn’s autobiography, Star-Begotten (to be covered in a future post),

the student rebels might have made if they had been successful and imagined a near future when the college campuses had been turned over to the students, and real science and scholarship had gone elsewhere.

The recipient of the Chancellor’s words is Gavin, our unlikeable, Candide-like hero. He will discover that world the students have made is definitely not the best possible one. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading

Eric S. Rabkin’s Science Fiction Lectures

As a consumer of the Great Courses lectures, I’ve looked at Eric S. Rabkin’s Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works for a few years. But somewhere in the back of my mind I had the idea — maybe from paging through something he had written, that he was a dry writer full of tedious literary theory.

I was mostly right.

However, amongst all the Freudian references (how can anyone still use the old fraud’s theories for any literature written before he published his work?), post-modernism, and symbolism (does no one see that the surface details of a story can be worth studying?), there are some things of value. Maybe even enough to justify its current selling price of $29.95.

For me the deck didn’t really get cleared for service until lecture six, “H. G. Wells: We Are All Talking Animals”. The idea is proposed that The Island of Dr. Moreau is told by an unreliable narrator. (Personally, I see it as Wells’ unintended satire on the folly of blank-slatism. The flesh, in other words biological drives and identity, can not be molded by the surgery of Moreau’s mini-island state.)

It’s sort of a semi-arid spell to lecture 14, “Mary Shelley: Grandmother of Science Fiction”, where Rabkin puts forth the idea, I think plausible, that Frankenstein is about the dangers of putting yourself outside of the human community. Doctor Frankenstein choses to exile himself. His creation has no choice.

“Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complexion” among other things talks about how Poe used the rhetoric of science (passive voice, precise and objectively quantified details) and romanticism.

“Wells — Industrialization of the Fantastic” actually convinces me that there are several Christian symbols in The War of the Worlds. (We are increasingly entering an age where people have to have even basic biblical allusions explained. In my English major days, a professor rightly said every one of us should have read the King James Bible so we knew the sources of allusions and phrases. If you were studying medieval lit, you had to read large chunks of the Catholic Vulgate.)

“The History of Utopia” actually mentioned in passing a couple of titles I hadn’t heard of and made Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We sound more interesting than it is (though it’s an important predecessor to more famous dystopias). However, I don’t buy the assertion that Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was a response to Thomas More’s Utopia.

“Science Fiction and Religion” is a good (and too brief) look at an important topic.

“Asimov and Clarke — Cousins in Utopia” provoked the thought that Judaism was a more important influence on Isaac Asimov than I thought. His Three Laws of Robotics (which he actually credited to John W. Campbell, Jr.) is rather rabbinical. And I certainly agree that Asimov was a believer in technoutopia. That seems to me a manifestation of the Jewish belief they should work to perfect the world. The theme of machines to beneficially manage our affairs is there in Asimov’s robot stories. But (and Rabkin doesn’t mention this) Asimov’s essay “By the Numbers” endorses the idea of rule by impersonal, bureaucratic computers.

“Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond” is very wrong-headed. The influence of the spy and noir genres — John Le Carre and Dashiell Hammett– seem as important to William Gibson as postmodernism not to mention the fact that Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17‘s opening paragraph is rather similar to Neuromancer (and Gibson is a Delany fan). Claude Shannon’s information theory and digital technology, the idea that information can be easily recorded, edited, combined, analyzed, and synthesized, I contend is more important than literary theory to cyberpunk. On the other hand, Rabkin does make the intriguing observation that the plot and images of Neuromancer closely follow T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.


The steampunk series continues because I can’t seem to get to writing any new stuff lately.

Raw Feed (2002): Homunculus, James P. Blaylock, 1986.Homunculus

I can see, after reading this book, why Tim Powers says many of the funny bits of his books are just notes from his talks with his friend Blaylock.

Blaylock is funny. He gives many of his characters endearing quirks. Captain Powers, no doubt named for Tim Powers who, in his The Anubis Gates, had a ship named the Blaylock, has a fondness for objects which double as flasks, including his peg leg. His friend William Keeble, a toymaker, despises the Utilitarian notions of philosopher Jeremy Benthem, in marked contrast to evil industrialist Drake, symbol of rapacious practicality. Langdon St. Ives is a brilliant scientist with a rocket ship in his silo. However, he can’t get into the Royal Academy of Sciences and likes the whimsy of poetry over the stiff requirements of science. Hasbro is his unflappable, practical gentleman’s gentleman. Bill Kraken is a lowborn man of a criminal past who now helps the Trismegistus Club, and he is sort of self-educated though his readings in science and philosophy, including a work by William Ashbless which stops a bullet from killing him, has left him with some strange notions. Willis Pule is a hapless, acne plagued villain who harbors constant fantasies of revenge and destruction against those who offend his dignity though none of his plans come out right. Hunchback Ignacio Narbondo is his boss. Shiloh the New Messiah is the putative son of Joanna Southcote, a real religious figure of the late 18th and early 19th century who, when she died, claimed she was pregnant with Shiloh who would rule nations with a rod of iron. (The modern Panacea Society, according to the Fortean Times, continues her teachings.)

I liked some of the plot elements of this novel: stealing carps from a public aquarium to use their glands in immortality and reanimation experiments; reanimating the dead and using them as followers for Shiloh, the attempted reanimation of Joanna Southcote’s skeleton, feeding the resurrected dead with literal blood pudding, Maxwell’s Demon turning out not to be an analogy but a literal being — in this case the stranded alien homunculus. Continue reading

Two Beautiful Titles

Two evocative titles — and also two titles way too long for a blog heading.

More in the Zelazny vein with Samuel R. Delany thrown in.

Some spoilers follow in the discussion of two novellas about those who live apart or invisible from global, technocratic societies.

Home is the Hangman

Raw Feed (1990): “Home Is the Hangman” by Roger Zelazny, 1975 and “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line“, Samuel R. Delany, 1968.

“Home Is the Hangman”:  An impressive work solo.  This is the last of three stories — assembled as the fixup novel My Name Is Legion — involving a troubleshooter who has opted out of having his real identity recorded in the vast computer system that tracks the world in this future.  Zelanzy proves why he was a sf master by weaving the ideas of telepresence and artificial intelligence with character and philosophy to produce a unified organic whole.  Zelazny deals with guilt, religion, retribution, madness (not so strange for an author who studied psychology and Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in school), parenthood, the social order and the state of those who “dwell apart” (the Hangman in the stars and the narrator apart from society, loving a shadow life of non-existence).  I liked the philosophical discussions of hubris and schizophrenia.  I especially liked the Hangman reaching consciousness because of guilt (the theological question of sin being a necessary pre-condition to intelligence) and his comments on how guilt sets man apart from other animals because it is the evidence that he knows he is more capable of noble actions that he has not lived up.  Guilt creates these impulses.  I also liked the Hangman’s ruminations to the narrator on the futility of assigning ourselves guilt for what our presence or absence causes others to do.  I also like Zelanzy’s exploration of Karl Mannheim’s description of humanity as either conservative gardeners (given to thinking about side effects, globality) and tinkerers (progressive reformers given to thoughts of modifying society.).  I liked the ambiguous ending of the story with the narrator not knowing if he has caused this computer monitored and directed society to change.  And I liked the narrator not knowing if he liked the Hangman remembering him amongst the stars.  A evocative, poignant, downbeat ending.

“We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line”:  The best part of this novella is its odd, very evocative, very memorable title so well suited to the story.  This is the story of a group of what are essentially futuristic outlaw bikers who don’t want to join the world order symbolized by Global Power’s electric grid.  Delany has a gift for nomenclature that is both natural and symbolically allusive:  the Power workers are devils; the bikers (typically Delany romantic outcasts and criminals that left their mark on cyberpunk) are angels; the Power line laying machine is a Gila Monster.  Delany even seems to have spent a fair amount of energy thinking out the details of laying out a global power grid.  Unfortunately,  Delany’s writing makes visualizing his inventions next to impossible — a paradoxical fact since Delany’s writing is packed with adjectives, some quite evocative but not on the technical aspect.  The story’s major flaw was its plot with little payoff after setting up an interesting conflict.  I was left with a feeling of “so what?”


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.




Yes, it’s time to get out that retro-review.

The occasion was listening to Samuel R. Delany on Episode 241 of the Coode Street Podcast.

He discusses Joanna Russ’ dislike of modern literary theories, his contemporaries Thomas Disch, Russ, and Roger Zelazny, his life in academia, and the futility of driving readers to your books. It’s the first time I’ve heard audio of him. He seems an interesting fellow (“interesting” is a favorite Delany word but I don’t think our ideas of “interesting” would coincide much) and engaging (perhaps because his speech patterns remind me of a friend’s).

As for my review, I would not change a thing since I wrote it on March 10, 2006.

Well, I would change one thing — the last sentence. It turns out I underestimated the appeal of an undecodeable story with an Ouroboros plot.

Review: Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany, 1975.Dhalgren

What to make of a novel once called “a vast monument to unreadability”?

First, I confess to not being a Delany fan. I think some of his popular science fiction criticism is worthwhile. He has a great talent for titles, and some of his descriptions have real poetic power. One need to look no farther than the opening page of his Babel-17 which heavily inspired the more famous opening to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But his fiction leaves me cold, and I find it unmemorable for the most part though this one, the worst I’ve read, will stick in my brain.

It’s not accurate to say Dhalgren is unreadable. Large chunks of it make sense and seem to be following a narrative pattern — at least until the final “plague journal” segment. Our amnesiac hero, the Kid, wonders into Bellona, a city suffering from a recent and never specified disaster, meets some strange people, has lots of sex, takes up poetry and leading the Scorpions, a quasi-criminal gang. (Someone recently remarked on Bellona’s resemblance to post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s probably not entirely coincidental given that Delany wrote part of the novel in that city.) Continue reading