Sunday, 17 November 2013

This is the end!

Keep reading my blog at

Well, it had to come. My life and my ambitions have expanded beyond the cramped confines of blogspot and thus I've secured my own website - I am now master of my own domain.

This new site's going to let me ... well, do all sorts of cool things. I'll be able to... hm, well, you know! Just look at it! Isn't it cool?

If you're a follower you can either join my new Facebook group or  follow me on twitter @miwantok.

I'm shutting down the comments here (apologies recent commenter Andreas!) and I'll be moving everything over to the new site. Some of my older posts need formatting but so it goes. Thanks to blog spot for four or so years of terrific service.

See you soon at my new pad! Visit the brand new Pointless Philosophical Asides.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith

First publishedin Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1955.

Another one available as a free download from Project Gutenberg! It’s listed under the pseudonymous Smith’s real name, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger.

This is a story about, of all things, an office romance. Well, okay, not the office; in fact the battle room of an interstellar spaceship. Underhill is a telepath who uses his powers to detect what he calls ‘Dragons’, creatures that dwell in outer reaches of interstellar space. The object of his affections is his Partner Lady May, who works with him to detonate the ultra-vivid miniature photonuclear bombs in the creatures’ vicinity, as only intense bright light can damage them.

Theirs, however, is an impossible love. For Lady May is a Persian cat.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

He Walked Around the Horses by H Beam Piper

First published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1948.

This is another one that’s available free from Project Gutenberg.

In a coincidence that Charles Fort himself might have enjoyed, Piper and this story in particular are name-dropped in the latest issue of Fortean Times. An article by Bob Rickard outlines the close relationship between SF and Forteanism, and a photograph of Piper shaking hands with John W Campbell illustrates the article: an example of a writer who used Fortean ideas in his ficiton.

I’ve mentioned this before, of course, in relation to a lot of different stories, including Don’t Look Now and Up There. Science fiction and Fortean interests are also commonly associated in the public mind – SF fans are almost always as UFO nuts in popular culture , and the reverse is even more true. The reason for this is easy to spot, of course: they’re united by a love of UFOs and aliens, animal cryptids and the secrets of lost civilizations.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Specialist by Robert Sheckley

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, May 1953.

This is a great little story that’s on a par with the enjoyable Hands Off! that was in volume three of the History of the Science Fiction Magazine. These two stories remind me of how much I enjoyed Sheckley’s stories when I was a kid. In the olden days he was one of the relatively few writers who I’d bother with in single-author collections.

By coincidence, both of these stories focus on a key SF idea: the convincing and sympathetic portrayal of aliens. These types of story seek to answer one of the key questions of science fiction: if man is not unique in creation, what do other men look like?

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Voices of Time by J G Ballard

First published in New Worlds #99, October 1960.

Interestingly, J G Ballard reviewed The Golden Age of Science fiction for the Guardian. He mentions the stories in passing, praising the selection rather faintly as one of ‘accurate judgements’, but he’s not unjustifiably annoyed at some of Amis’s comments in the introduction. Ballard quotes the same section as I did in my note about The Old Hundredth.
The perpetrators of all this are whipped unmercifully. Moorcock's fiction "gives rise to little more than incurious bewilderment." Aldiss, in Barefoot in the Head, "interlards an adventure story with stylistic oddities, bits of freak talk, poems, some of them ‘concrete'." As for Ballard, on whom no verdict can be harsh enough: "Solipsistic… mystification and outrage… physical disgust… stories with chapters subdivided into numbered paragraphs [not true]… has never been in the genre at all."
According to Ballard the old man is out of touch; saying his hatred of modern SF is bound up with his hatred of modern life in general. He’s just a bitter old critic who backed the wrong horse.
To some extent Amis's distaste for science fiction can be put down to simple pique. Sharp observer though he was of 1940s and 1950s s-f, his prediction in New Maps of Hell that science fiction would become primarily a satirical and sociological medium proved totally wrong. In fact, American s-f veered away into interplanetary fantasy (Le Guin, Zelazny, Delaney), while the British writers began to explore the psychological realm of inner space.
However, it’s a long race and sometimes it has a surprise finish. Coming in on the inside straight was a dark horse that I think proves Amis right: cyberpunk.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Lou Reed has died

This is the first proper record I ever owned, not counting Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds and 'Rasputin' by Boney M. It was a present on my eleventh birthday from my brother Alistair.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Rise of the Robots: reading log, third quarter 2013

Once more the clock of the year arrives at quarter to midnight... well, practically ten-to now, but I’m doing the best I can here. It’s been a busy quarter covering the summer holiday period, although I know I make that excuse every time. My holidays were particularly great this year and I’ve been enjoying the Indian summer culminating in an amazing, albeit fleeting, literal trip to India for work.

So once again I find myself being thankful for all the gifts that life has brought while working hard to squander, ruin or debase them. Oh well, mustn’t grumble!

In the meantime, I distract myself with writing – the writing by others and writing of my own. In this reading report I’ll mainly be talking about Comixology, the gradual failure of my anti-gadget resolve and a bit more about – perhaps my final word on – the death of science fiction.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1961.

I’m a big Vonnegut fan. Like a lot of people I went on a massive Vonnegut kick when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and The Breakfast of Champions remains one of my favourite books ever.

This story is definitely vintage Vonnegut. It’s got the characteristic sarky and exasperated Vonnegut tone (that’s so appealing to late adolescents), the distinctive character names (United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers) and a colourfully absurd climax. Plus it’s short – what’s not to like about short?

However, I’ve always felt a bit strange about this story. My enjoyment is more than somewhat hampered by a lingering suspicion that the whole thing is horribly right wing.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A Work of Art by James Blish

James Blish
First published in Science Fiction Stories, 1956.

I wonder sometimes if certain genres encourage certain sorts of structures in fiction. For example, horror stories seem naturally inclined towards the shock ending, a farce heads inevitably to a state of twisting plots and confusions, detective stories depend on short scenes and gradual revelations, and romances build sexual tension to bursting point then bathe in the afterglow of the big wedding or prom night.

Science fiction is no different. I think the substance of science fiction encourages certain structural elements. Most of these revolve around the need to get the most interesting element of the story – it’s science fictional idea – out into the open as soon as possible. As opposed to the shock ending, you might call this a shock opening.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss

First published in New Worlds, November 1960.
Amis is largely dismissive of the New Wave. Moorcock’s Cornelius novels ‘give rise to little more than incurious bewilderment if read with any close attention.’ J G Ballard’s own sense of his limitations has led him to write novels like Crash and Concrete Island ‘the one takes physical disgust about as far as I have ever seen in print, the other is a kind of urban non-escape story overcrowded with realistic detail. Thomas Disch has ‘real but unorganised talent’, John Sladek is ‘an experimentaliser in a mode sometimes compared with Kurt Vonnegut’, and Norman Spinrad is ‘notable for his use of four letter words’.

I don’t agree with Amis’s assessment of these writers, but on the other hand I do think he gets the deleterious effect of the New Wave pretty much right.
‘SF’ itself, a time-sanctioned abbreviation, came to stand for, not ‘science fiction’ but ‘speculative fiction’, a phrase signifying either a boldly liberating adventurism or a fairly frank admission that anything went.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Tunnel Under the World by Frederick Pohl

Amazingly, this story is available free as an ebook from Project Gutenberg!

Frederick Pohl died this year back in August. It’s a great loss to the SF world and of course to his family, but we can can take some comfort from the fact that he had a long and productive life as a writer, and lately memoirist.

This is a great example this terrific writer in his prime. It’s classic SF of the late Golden Age, where you can sense post-war doubts beginning to show through the façade of apparent normality. Stories from this era are steeped in discontent with the modern commodified world and distrust of its rulers. Nothing’s ever quite as it seems and things are always worse than you imagine.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Xi Effect by Philip Latham

First published in Astounding Science Fiction, January 1950.

There’s a tendency to over-think the relationship between surrealism and science fiction. The entry in the Science Fiction Encylopedia (1999 print edition) refers you on to the absurdist SF, illustration and the New Wave. There doesn’t seem anywhere to address the fact that SF has been a vehicle for bringing dream-like imagery into the real world since the beginning.

SF grew up at the same time as the surrealist movement, and shared its post-war Golden Age. Its rational and analytical approach gives its imagery the same pin-sharp focus as Dali, Magritte or Max Ernst. This story presents us with a complex scientific justification but its premise wouldn’t be out of place in a movie by Luis Bunel: what would happen if colour drained from the world.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Quest for St Aquin by Anthony Boucher

I think I read this as a kid
First published in New Tales of Space and Time, 1951, Pocket Books (ed. Raymond J Healy).

The religious SF story is a strange but persistent sub-genre. Off the top of my head I can think of 'The Nine Billion Names of God' by Arthur C Clarke (featured in the current volume!), A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr, 'Behold the Man' by Michael Moorcock, the Hyperion Cantos of Dan Simmons and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel. You could argue that Dune fits in this category, too, and Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury were both quite fond of the theme, in one way or another,

These types of stories directly address one of the key questions that Amis identifies as being at the heart of classic SF: how do we live in a Godless universe? I suppose an obvious answer is, 'keep believing because nothing’s really changed.'

But with the march of technology, religion needs to adapt and this is the story that asks, ‘could your iPad be a saint?’

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsely Amis

Amis in 1960, by Terence Donnovan.
Next up is this impressive anthology, first published in 1981. Amis contends in his introduction that SF-proper ended in 1960, and everything since then has been without merit. That’s obviously not quite right – Philip K Dick! – but he’s not necessarily wrong, given his own frame of reference about what counts as SF. And certainly by the mid-70s things were looking a bit tired. The battering ram of Star Wars seemed to drive all serious SF out of the market, while the cutting edge of the genre were heading off into the fringes of main stream post-modernism.

What Amis didn’t know, of course, is cyberpunk. This volume’s publication corresponds with the first publication of Willaim Gibson’s story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, the first story in the Mirrorshades anthology. While Amis despairs about the end of the genre in his introduction, the genre was about to get one of its most important and enduring kicks up the arse from Bruce Sterling and co. Far from disappearing, the genre was about to enter one of its most influential phases.

So, that’s got to be a fair warning that anyone who declares science fiction a dead end should be prepared to be proved wrong pretty quickly. If so then I’ll happily eat my words. I think you’ll find, though, that when it comes I will have defined all the terms carefully enough to ensure that argument is impossible without addressing the veracity of fundamental physical laws and historical fact.

In the meantime, I’m going to read and review the stories before I write about the introduction. I realise I also owe you final words on the History of the Science Fiction vol 3. That might have to wait for my quarterly review, which is coming up soon. So sit tight and enjoy the stories. 

You can buy this volume quite cheaply on amazon if you want to read along:

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Wager by E C Tubb

First published in Science Fantasy, November 1955.

You can buy this one as an ebook from Wildeside Press here. That's where Igot this cover image.

This is another fun story that shows off SF’s ability to absorb other genres. This time, it’s a crime thriller. Crime and SF are a pretty good match. Both are what I think of as ‘exploratory’ genres. The setting part of SF and the mechanics of a mystery plot are both kind of artificial effects. The two activities of looking for clues and discovering a scientific idea fit together quite well – clues and plots can hooked on to science fictional elements and different steps in the clue trail.

As the reader gets deeper into the mystery plot, the science fictional elements can get similarly complicated. The mystery plot handily pulls the reader through the setting, through the SF concept that the writer’s got in mind.

In this story, the big idea is humanity’s place in a universe teeming with technologically advanced civilizations. It’s explored through a tale of bizarre murder, terrestrial and interplanetary police forces, predatory alien thrill-seekers and the most sci fi TV and movie cliches you’ve every seen in one place.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Hands Off! By Robert Sheckley

First published Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954.

One of the great strengths of SF is its flexibility. You can take a lot of other genres and lay an SF gloss over them. That’s why we get space cops, mil SF, noirish cyberpunk novels and of course, space westerns. This is another of the  frontier stories that keep cropping up in these volum, featuring a heroic prospector and some hijacking varmints.

Hands Off! is a tale of two spaceships on a remote and undeveloped planet. The first – the near-derelict Endeavour – is crewed by a gang of pirates ready to do anything in the name of loot. The second is owned by a hard-working prospector trying to make a living.

The twist, of course, is that the honest miner is an alien.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Last Day by Richard Matheson

First published in Amazing Stories, April-May 1953.

One of the things that genre fiction does very well is to isolate very specific aspects of life and bring them out in high contrast. You accept all the assumptions and conventions around a genre – the body in the library, the anthropomorphic aliens or fantasy race, the paranoid fantasies of the thrillers – because they provide circumstances where a perceptive writer can find elements of truth that are hard to spot amongst the noise of real life.

Genre fiction can explore life in moments of extremity. Characters can be subjected to the threat of violence or exposed to bizarre worlds and phenomena or have extravagant and extraordinary adventures of all unlikely sorts. By putting human nature under strain, great genre writers can reveal human truths and maybe make us reflect on what we really think is worth fighting for.

This story is a brillaint example of that type of story done well. It takes a really simple genre conceit – the end of the world – and simply and powerfully delivers a sublime description of the maternal bond.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

They Fly So High by Ross Rocklynne

You know who else liked messianic protagonists....
First published in Amazing Stories, June 1952.

After World War 2 showed that many of SF’s warnings were not the fantasies that many believed, SF writers felt somewhat emboldened to give the world a good ticking off. That’s what Memorial is all about: it’s basically a scolding showing us what silly fools we are. It’s a popular form, and one that’s often aped by writers from outside the SF tradition when they want to make a point through the medium of the post-apocalypse or dystopian satire: You silly fools! See what you have done!

Within the genre, this type of highly didactic story has another form. In this form, the story centres on a messianic figure who stands in as a mouthpiece for the author to express his (always a him!) ideals to the captive audience. Hari Seldon, for example, gives us great slabs of Isaac Asimov’s political world view, Robert Heinlein wrote a string of opinionated novels climaxing with A Stranger in a Strange Land and Frank Herbert’s Dune is entirely focused on the transformational possibilities of radical politics.

Unsurprisingly, L Ron Hubbard, who made such a big impression on the SF community in the era covered in this volume, was also fond of this technique.

In defence of unmarried super heroes

And so the news that DCcomics has forbidden the marriage of Batwoman to her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer and the predictable uproar follows. There are multiple sources of outrage to enjoy: editorial interfering in the sacred creative process, homophobia, dramatic stagnation, anti-marriage prejudice and of course the lingering hurt of a self-in-the-foot-shooting spree by DC over the last couple of years.

But I think it’s the right decision. I think splitting up Spidey and Mary Jane was the right decision and splitting up Superman and Lois was the right decision, too.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Earthman Beware! By Poul Anderson

First published in Super Science Stories, June 1951

I hope you all read this article in the Guardian I linked to earlier in the week about the main-streaming rise of geek culture. There are a number of reasons why this has happened that are touched on the article, but one that I think is only tangentially approached is the myth of self that’s expressed by the figure of ‘the geek’.

The geek is a loner. The geek never compromises. The geek is an expert in his specific field. The geek is so exceptional that he’s permitted – even expected – to act like an ass. Most of all, the geek’s power is hidden. Yes, they all think he’s just a poindexter, but if they only knew! Peter Parker is a geek. Clarke Kent is a geek. Bruce Wayne pretends to be all lah-de-dah but what does he do in his spare time? Geek!

In the olden days men grew up wanting to be their Dads. That lost it’s appeal after we all realised that Dads aren’t always the kindly figures they claim to be: it’s called the patriarchy for a reason. Starting after World War II, that all began to change and one of the places the change started was at the greasy fringes of pop culture, in sci fi mags. This story is an excellent example of the dawn of this geek myth of self-actualisation.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

When everyone's different, we're all the same

A really interesting article in the Guardian today about the rise of geek culture. This is one of the other many things I hate about the modern world - I feel appropriated! Definitely worth a read.

This nugget in particular is worth mentioning, as it touches on Our Topic:

In turn, as cheap technology advances it has colonised what used to be the mental playground of the geek world, science fiction itself. What used to take place in a Gollancz paperback now happens in the real world. "A lot of people are arguing that the science fiction novel is dying," [Warren] Ellis explains, "but it's thriving everywhere else, in television, fashion, pop culture, everywhere."

The most interesting contemporary science fiction, he thinks, is being created in "design fiction". Here, otherwise staid design firms and architectural practices visualise future trends much as The Usborne Book Of the Future [large PDF] did for 70s kids – but with added plausibility underpinned by hard design and science. Design fiction is where the geeks roll up their sleeves and it can be dazzling.
I used to own that book too - it's on the kids bookshelves now, I think. What we see here is a culture so deeply steeped in science fiction imagery that science fiction itself is no longer necessary.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Print volumes from SF Gateway?

I don't usually get excited about consumables, but it looks like the SF Gateway digital imprint (of Orion/Gollancz) is going to start bringing out print editions. Check out this collection of Jack Vance goodies. A similar volumes coming out of Tim Powers' Last Call series and a rather nifty looking collection of Henry Kuttner (I think I might have The Best of Henry Kuttner in  box somewhere.

Publishing dates for these are still in the future (the Tim Powers doesn't come out til 2014!) and they're pricey (print on demand?) but it looks like a lot of reading for the money. I'll probably stick to the ebooks by and large, but those of you who still long for print - and maybe for the Jack Vance volume - these look like a fantastic deal!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

To Serve Man by Damon Knight

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950.

This kind of twist-in-the-tail story is really becoming a feature of this volume. There were a few in the previous anthologies in this series – Out of the Sub-Universe in volume one, and Almost Human and The 4 SidedTriangle in volume two - but most of the stories are generally adventure stories or satirical traveller’s tale.

The twist in the tale typically takes the form of bad luck of the kind you reap when your sowing choices are poor. In this way the genius scientist is destroyed by his own work, the foolish lover loses their heart’s desire and the choice you made is never what it seems.

These stories are a sort of joke. They trick us like a joke does. But like a joke, after you’ve seen the trick you need something else to keep this type of story interesting.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949.

I found this fantastic video on youtube - it's by youtube user Joey Fameli.  

This is probably the closest thing to a bona fide sci fi classic in these three volumes. I know it, of course, from The Illustrated Man, one of the greatest collections of SF stories ever. I read it again and again when I was a kid. I can still feel the strangely embossed cardboard cover of the edition I owned back then (Corgi Essential SF Library Edition – I also owned Golden Apples of the Sun in this version). It came from the stack of second hand sci fi in The Beehive Book Exchange in Porirua, down the alleyway by the big butchers’ shop in the old part of the mall.

That copy’s long gone, but I picked a new copy a couple of years ago, after many years away and visited it again. Some of the stories are a little corny by today’s standards – The Man, The Visitor and The Other Foot, for example, are very much of-their-time – but everything was dignified and carefully crafted and some of the stories pack a real kick. The Veldt is still brilliantly chilling, The Rocket is sweet and moving, The Exiles is delirious and slightly unnerving.

This is another one that still has its charge. Understanding why must surely take us closer to understand the heart of classic sci fi.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Don’t Look Now by Henry Kuttner

First published in Startling Stories, March 1948

There’s always been a lot of common ground between science fiction and the work of Charles Fort. Like SF writers, Charles Fort tried to make his readers see a world that was like their own but changed. Fort understood the fundamental law of SF that we are always just one surprise discovery away from the paradigm shift.

Stories like this one are usually associated with the saucer craze and Cold War paranoia, but the current issue of Fortean Times covers (number 305) – coincidentally – a very similar tale that has it’s origins in the years immediately after World War I. There are even older examples if these type of delusions like the air loom gang from the early 19th century, and Arthur Miller famously drew parallels between the atmosphere of the Cold War in America and the 17th century witch craze in Salem, Massachusetts.

So, this sort of story was already out there before the red scare, in the popular consciousness. In many ways, it just waiting for the red menace to come along and give it a credible human origin, because science fiction had already created and discarded its own version of the insidious enemy within in the shape of the Shaver mystery.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Fires Within by Arthur C Clarke

This story was originally credited to O G O'Brien
First published in Fantasy, August 1947

This story casts the mad scientist and the pulp prodigy aside in favour of a more realistic version of science. In this story we get scientists affiliated with a university, financed by government grants and working on a specific technology rather than just plundering the secrets of the universe on their own more at less at random.

The bulk of the story is written in the form of a report from a certain Doctor Matthews to the Minister of Science concerning the work of Professor Hancock and Dr Clayton. They’ve been investigating ways of using sonar as a geological probe, but when Dr Clayton is killed in a motor accident Professor Hancok goes a little bit unhinged and discovers what looks like artificial structures miles underground.

Okay, I take it back. Maybe we are back into the pulp world of mad scientists and mysterious subterranean civilizations.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Memorial by Theodore Sturgeon

First published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1946.
Sturgeon is immediately to the left of the spine, in the top row in a blue jacket.*

Six months or so after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, Astounding SF published this dark and bitter story of human folly. Ashley highlights this several times as one of the key stories in his narrative of the history of SF. For him, it signifies a moment when SF stopped being playful conjecture and began to engage with the forces that shape the world.

I wrote in my review of the introduction about how Ashley regards this period as the years when science fiction grew up, and clearly this is the sort of story that he’s talking about. It’s a well-written story, that makes its point with careful force. It’s angry and outraged and at the same time helpless, addressing all colours of atomic-age angst.

For all that though, it still relies on some hoary SF cliches that have have become overly familiar over the course of these volumes.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The End of Summer

And so summer comes to an end. Oh yes, I know it's only the middle of August, but I've had my holidays and now begin settling in for work once more.

While I was away, I found this at The Bookman in Norwich:

Signed by the man himself!
This is why I maintain my second hand book shop habit! I actually own a more up to date version of this in the British Library publication Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography but who could resist a document signed by JV himself. Only a tenner, too, which is beer money, really!

While I was away, I also decided to turn my incorrigible instinct for second hand bookshops to evil: I intend to build up my collection of large SF coffee-table art books from the 70s and 80s.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Reading report - second quarter 2013

Summer is typically a busy time of year for me and this year is no different. The unexpected arrival of hot weather and sunshine has further kept me away from the keyboard, and I admit that the blog has had to take second place recently to some fiction I’m working on (gasp!) and a Secret Project: the latter two will hopefully come to fruition in the autumn when I suppose I’ll make another of my misguided attempts to make something of my dreary creative ambitions.

So, there’s not been a lot of time or motivation to consider my quarterly reading report. I’d hoped to have the three volumes of the History of the Science Fiction Magazine wrapped up by now, but that hasn’t happened. The fact is that the necessity to blog about each story holds up the reading: as I get behind, I’m disinclined to read more. This means I’m on track to have read even fewer books this year than last year. But, as I approach volume three, it seems a good time to think about what these volumes have shown us about what SF and where it came from, and that’s mostly what this review is going to look at.

But first, let’s have a look at what’s turning into my primary source of reading love: super-hero comics.

It makes for a long post, but there you are: these reading reports always get out of hand.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Power by Murray Leinster

Murray Leinster
First published in Astounding Science Fiction, September 1945.

One of the complaints in the article that inspired this series was the increasing influence of fantasy. Either the stories were fantasies dressed up in SF garb, or SF stories borrowing the language and structure of fantasy. I think this style of ‘historical SF’ is a variation on this approach.

There seems to be something similar going on. It’s an attempt to de-culture some of the standard SF baggage. So, an alien becomes a demon, technological vocabulary becomes words of power and technological processes become magical rituals.

More importantly, the historical variation is a chance to write about the silly past people and to remind ourselves that we’ll past people one day, too.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Wanderer of Time by John Russel Fearn

I love this cover!
First published in Startling Stories, summer 1944

This time travel story has the same basic idea as the first story in this volume, The Circle of Zero. If space-time is infinite then somewhere, our history must have repeated in the past, and it will repeat again in the future. The way of getting to these forgotten past lives is kind of similar, too. The Circle of Zero relied on hypnosis, this story relies on the memories being written into a mysterious ‘blind spot’ in the brain.

By attaching some kind of incredible invention to his head, Blake Carson is able access these memories and paradoxically remember his future. Naturally, the first thing he sees is his own death. We’re back in the land of rationalist fables.

A great video featuring Asimov, Ellison and Gene Wolfe!

I came across this brilliant video on i09. It's pretty interesting in regard to my argument about SF being dead. Much depends, of course on what we mean by science fiction. All three have interesting points to make on that topic, and there's a lot left unsaid, too.

I'd like to come back to the things said in this video a bit later, perhaps as part of my second quarter reading round-up, where I'll also be considering The History of the Science Fiction Magazine vol 2.

Plus, doesn't Isaac have a great voice!

Monday, 1 July 2013

Almost Human by Robert Bloch

First published in Fantastic Adventures, July 1943.

Robots make great subjects for thought experiments. Their naïve rationalism is a sharp light to shine on non-linear human doings, serving to highlight the way that humans rationalise away the contradictions of supposedly rational society. It’s no surprise that the most memorable character in I,Robot is the chilly, calculating Dr Susan Calvin.

With Almost Human, Robots make their first appearance in this series, but not in the shape of one of the famous Asimov stories was publishing at the same time this came out. I would guess, however, that these stories are sufficiently well-known to make inclusion here a bit unnecessary.

Instead get this neat little tale from Robert Bloch. It’s an interesting contrast – Bloch is a horror writer by inclination, and so this story has a far darker side.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Up There by Donald Wolheim

First Published in Science Fiction Quarterly, summer 1942.

The Futurians in 1938 - DAW is top row at the right.*
Coming straight after Lowndes, we have one of the most important editors in the later development of SF. Wolheim was already a seasoned pro at age 28 when this story was published, having made his first professional sale 10 years previously. He was an active SF fan and had been involved in one of the earliest of fandom’s schisms. 

In the 30s, Hugo Gernsback had used the pages of Wonder Stories to promote the official-sounding ‘Science Fiction League’ as a kind of rallying point for the growing fandom movement. Ashley observes that ‘For science fiction fans [emphasis in original] the fiction came secondary in Wonder Stories.’ One of SF’s biggest magazines had become a house organ for a social group, rather than being about stories at all.

Wolheim was expelled from the Science Fiction League in 1935. He’d been responsible for setting up the International Scientific Association which, in Ashley’s words, ‘opposed the Science Fiction League’ on the basis that fan organisations should be separate from commercial publishers. The feud lasted a few years and numerous splinter and fringe groups grew up in its wake, like protestant religious factions in the 17th century. Wolheim was later a founding member of The Futurians, perhaps the most influential group in the history of SF, and certainly in the genre’s golden age.

In light of all this, this story becomes less an individual work and more like a rallying cry for certain types of fan.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Abyss by Robert A.W. Lowndes

First published in Stirring Science Fiction, February 1941.

In my review of AlanMoore’s Neonomicon over on the Zone, I mention H P Lovecraft’s role in the early days of fandom. By the time he started publishing stories in Weird Tales he was already a stalwart of the American Amateur Press Association and related small-circulation pamphlets and publications, the equivalent of fanzines or these days websites like Lightspeed and Strange Horizons. For HPL, It was an outlet for Lovecraft-the-hermit’s bottled social instincts and in that controlled environment he thrived.

I’m sure all this was a key driver of the spread of the Lovecraft mythos. Seeing his ideas in other stories was a kind of a social reward for HPL, and so he encouraged it. He could be generous with time and encouragement, too, and that’s how the mythos story came in to being: HPL was the first SF writer to officially endorse fan fiction.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Hermit of Saturn’s Rings by Neil R Jones

First published in Planet Stories, Fall 1940.

This is an early example of one of sci fi’s hoariest yet most enjoyable genre mash-ups: Robinson Crusoe In Space. It’s a great way for a writer to explore a setting and the main character’s conflict against the environment provides constant spikes of suspense. At the same time, the hope of rescue gives the whole thing forward momentum. You can even have an alien Man Friday if you like.

SF fit right into a whole bunch of existing story types: the adventure thriller, the traveller’s tale, the western and the military novel. These are all genres of the frontier, of taming the fringe zones and keeping the lid on the natural world. These are all frontier genres and they fit with SF so well because SF is the ultimate frontier genre. This story is a great example of why.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Further news on the death of science fiction

John Gray reviews The City & The City in The New Statesman:

If science fiction is no longer a viable form, it is because the humanist assumptions that underpinned it are no longer credible even as fictions. The hybrid type of writing that has evolved in recent years is symptomatic. "Slipstream", "cyberpunk" and "new weird" blend together influences as diverse as Arthur Machen and Mikhail Bulgakov, Charles Williams and William S Burroughs. What these styles of writing have in common is an absence of politics. No world-changing project features in any of them.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The 4-Sided Triangle by William F Temple

First published in Amazing Stories, November 1939.

This story asks one of the most fundamental questions of SF – what is a real person? Given you have two exactly identical versions of a thing or person, which is the ‘real thing’? More importantly, does the issue of a real thing make any sense in that context? It’s one of the great themes of SF that takes the genre away from mere technological futurism or social satire, and into the realm of philosophy.

This story’s a neat take on a sci fi perennial, but it emphasises for me how SF is so often just a re-statement of old ideas in a new context.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Dead Spot by Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson was born in 1908 and died in 2006, aged 98
First published in Marvel Science Stories, November 1938.

In his introduction, Ashley says that science fiction in this period began to change from the educationally inclined ‘scientifiction’ of Gernsback towards a more adventurous character. I’m guessing that this story is the sort of story he’s talking about.

It concerns a mysterious ‘dead spot’ that appears without warning in an area of about 10,000 square miles in the mid west of America. Everyone inside – and anyone who enters it subsequently – quickly dies and is reduced to grey powder by the mysterious ‘sigma radiation’ that emanates from the very ground.

The government is baffled and calls on the young scientist Ryland Ames to help them get to the bottom of the mystery. What follows is a mix of elements from pulp heroes like Doc Savage, scientific romances of the Burroughsian sort and just enough science to keep it on the the right side of respectability for the sci fi audience.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seeker of Tomorrow by Eric Frank Russell and Leslie J Johnson

First published in Astounding Stories, July 1937.

For all the talk of the bold steps the science fiction was taking in the 30s and 40s, this story feels very old fashioned even in comparison to the previous volume. Not only is it very heavily influenced by Wells’ The Time Machine (that’s being kind) which was 40 years old by the time this came out, but it has a nested narrative of the ‘traveller’s tale’ sort that was the a huge feature of fantastic fiction from the17th century on.

Like The Time Machine, this story is a vehicle to provide us with snapshots of the future of humanity. It gives us a look at five periods of the future, although some are glimpsed only briefly. The protagonist – Glyn Weston – comes from the year 1998. He spends a short time in 2007 – just long enough to conclude that his device works – and then travels forward to 2486 where he spends a bit more time, and then 34,656 where spends several days. He ends up 75,000 or so years in the future, from where he tells his story to the remains of humanity who have abandoned the barren Earth in favour of Venus.

It’s a combo of speculation of observing trends and considering where they might lead and Swiftian satire. As such, it inevitably tells us more about the times it was written than the future.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Circle of Zero by Stanley G Weinbaum

Weinbaum died of throat cancer in 1935, aged 33
First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1936

This story is one of the first in these anthologies to deal directly with current events, in this case the Wall Street Crash. Jack Anders, is a bond salesman who’s been wiped out in the Crash and his old professor from uni – with the unlikely name Aurore de Neant – has seen his retirement savings similarly decimated. They need a way to get rich quick.

De Neant, being a pulp sci fi mad professor, comes up with the obvious solution: endeavour to see into the future somehow to predict a market rally. To make it happen he’s sitting on two ideas that are interestingly ahead of their time.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The History of the Science Fiction Magazine volume 2: Introduction

If anyone needed a demonstration of how technology was changing the world then World War Two was surely it. The Great War was the first time that the new toys got a proper outing – mass transit, telecommunications, air power, chemical weapons, high-powered explosives – but the technology was still in its infancy. Meanwhile, military thinking hadn’t really caught up with the possibilities - leading to massacres like Gallipoli and the agonising stalemate of the western front - and the military structures of the main participants were still based on obsolete aristocratic models.

Frighteningly, it was the bad guys who figured it out first: if anyone truly foresaw the potential of the sorts of ideas bandied around by Gersnback and his associates it was the freshly minted tyrannies of Europe and Western Asia.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Jack Vance has died

There is a human quality that cannot be precisely named: possibly the most noble of all human qualities. It includes but is larger than candor, generosity, comprehension, niceness of distinction, intensity, steadiness of purpose, total commitment. It is participation in all human perceptions, recollection of all human history. It is characteristic of every great creative genius and can never be learned: learning in this regard is bathos - the dissection of a butterfly, a spectroscope turned to the sunset, the psychoanalysis of a laughing girl. The attempt to learn is self-destructive; when erudition comes in, poetry departs. How common the man of intellect who cannot feel! How trifling are his judgments against those of the peasant who derives his strength, like Antaeus, from the emotional sediment of the race! Essentially the tastes and preferences of the intellectual elite, derived from learning, are false, doctrinaire, artificial, shrill, shallow, uncertain, eclectic, jejune and insincere.

Life, Volume IV by Unspiek, Baron Bodissey, quoted in The Killing Machine.

The Cadwal Chronicles

Fantasms & Magic

The Durdane series

Lurulu (review for The Zone)

A short profile (also written for The Zone)

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The History of the Science Fiction Magazine vol 1 - post script!

So, that’s the first volume done, and I’m even now cracking on with volume two. 

I’ve also found some of these texts online. I’ll add links to the separate entries in the fullness of time (it’s getting late here), but for now, here’s a list:

As far as I know, these links are all legit. Let me know if that's not the case and I shall remove.

My main interest here has been to review the themes in these early stories, so that I can make a judgement later on if contpemporary SF has got anything new to say. Let’s just take a quick look at the the themes we’ve found so far.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Davy Jones’ Ambassador by Raymond Z Gallun

First published in Astounding Stories, December 1935.

There’s been one big thing missing from this anthology: aliens. Sure, yes, we’ve had a few Martians, but they were basically humans in drag, and while TheMachine Man of Ardathia was pretty freaky his petulant manner was all too recognisably human. Maybe it’s just the particular stories chosen here, but these early SF writers don’t really seem to have grasped the nettle when it comes to exploring non-human life.

Until now. This story presents us with a fascinating alien society with its own weird morphology, technology and society. It’s more bizarre than any of the Martians we’ve seen so far or the far-future societies that have featured. An yet it’s relatively close to us in both time and space.

The title of this one’s the give away, of course: the alien society is deep beneath the sea.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

One Prehistoric Night by Philip Barshofsky

First published in Wonder Stories, November 1934.

You can download this story from this site. I'm not sure if this is in the public domain: if you're the copyright holder let me know and I'll take this link down if you want. Otherwise I'll leave it up as a service to readers.

Many of the stories in this collection revolve around science lessons of one sort of another. We’ve had lectures on the sub-atomic world in Out of theSub-Universe, cellular biology in The Eternal Man and The Coming ofthe Ice, and astronomy in The Voice From the Ether; scientific principles are more subtly laced through The Asteroid of Gold but the story still provides a decent grounding in the physics of gravitation and space-travel.

This didactic element is one of the key parts of what I think of as ‘real’ science fiction. The story needs to outline the science that surrounds the plot, and it can’t help but be somewhat pedagogic. It was one Gernsback’s original motivations for publishing ‘scientifiction’ and maybe it’s why my school years were packed with those junior SF anthologies stocked with Golden Age stories like these.

As the title implies, this one gives us a Walking With Dinosaurs-style glimpse into the Jurassic age.

Grant Morrison explains his take on Batman

Here's a terrific video (via Bleeding Cool) where Grant Morrison talks to Kevin Smith about how he approached his recently finished run on Batman.

I read most of it, starting around about issue 666 and bailing out about halfway through Batman Inc. It's one I'll come back to this someday, I think, filling in the gaps with trades, as I did with Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four.

I'm reading his run on X-Men - New X-Men - at moment. It has its moments but it's a bit up-and-down, I think. I might write more about this in the near future...

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Island of Unreason by Edmond Hamilton

Yep, that's the sort of thing I mean.
First published in Wonder Stories, May 1933.

Left and right, right and left: what do these things mean, really? SF fans generally pride themselves on being a pretty progressive lot – being champions of new technology and new ways of living surely inclines one to progressive views. And in fairness, the large majority of SF fans I’ve met over the years have been socially liberal, at least.

But there are very strong and enduring elements of SF that I have always found distinctly right wing. The elitist ‘fans are slans’ tendency, the hedge-fund venture capital view of life of the cyberpunks and the racist implications of a lot of planetary romance all stick out as distinctly conservative view-points. It’s a range of views that sees Ayn Rand still held up as a paragon by many and feeds the ‘libertarian’ view of life that runs so powerfully through the work of Robert Heinlein.

Not surprisingly, it’s something that’s in evidence from early on, and this story is pretty good example.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Asteroid of Gold by Clifford D Simak

First published in Wonder Stories, November 1932.
What's really important to readers!

This is exactly the type of story that I loved when I was a kid: tough guys in a realistic future with a an exciting problem. It’s the sort of thing that filled up the junior anthologies I used to get from the school library or the children’s sections of Titahi Bay and Porirua libraries.

We've left the era of obscure journey men and we're into the Golden Age proper now. I wouldn’t say I was ever a particular fan of Clifford D Simak, but his was one of those names I’d spot in the contents list – alongside other reliables like Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Pohl, Le Guin, Sheckley, Moorcock or Dick that would indicate an anthology was probably worth picking up. It’s a name that I associate indelibly with what I think of as ‘real’ science fiction, and this is a great example of what I mean.

The Voice From the Ether by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach

First published in Amazing Stories, May 1931.

You can download this story from this link. I'm not sure if it's  in the public domain: if you're the copyright holder let me know and I'll take this link down if you want. Otherwise I'll leave it up as a service to readers.

My favourite pulp-era cliché is the ranting mad scientist super villain. The best pulp villains are like tragic romantic heroes, driven to extreme acts by the power of their passions. Spurned in love or by society, they exact their revenge.

'The Voice From the Ether' tells the story of Tuol Oro, one of the greatest scientists on Mars. When his latest amazing discovery is dismissed as a mistake by the Martian scientific establishment, Oro decides to exact  ironic revenge – he will destroy them using the very discovery they mocked so cruelly! Like the scientists in Out of the Sub Universe, he’s discovered life in the sub-atomic realm and using Mad Science he’s able to grow the sub-atomic creepy crawlies to a macro-scale and unleash them against his tormentors.

Oro’s spirited description of his ghastly revenge makes this an enjoyable take on a story that never gets old. Tuol Oro is just a vehicle for the legendary forces of retribution that have been in existence since ancient times. Like a storm from the heavens, he merely unleashes the forces that destroys a decadent society.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Power and the Glory by Willard Diffin

First published in Astounding Stories, July 1930.

This story is in the public domain. You can download it from Project Gutenberg by following this link.

 I have to say, I would not normally touch a story with a name like ‘The Power and the Glory’ unless it was an obvious piss-take. I guess it felt sombre and deep to the author at the time, but today it just seems ridiculously portentous, the sort of meaningless thing that Jeffrey Archer or Ken Follet might call a novel – in fact a google search reveals a Graham Greene novel of 1940 and a Spencer Tracy melodrama from 1933. Yeah, that fits.

The title fits this story, too. Like in The Eternal Man, we’re being talked down to here, given a good stiff talking to about important stuff.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Eternal Man by D D Sharp

First published in Science Wonder Stories August 1929

First appearance, August 1929
Some of these stories succeed despite their slightly corny and old fashioned ways. The stagey monologues, the weird willingness to self-experiment, the slab of mad science that justifies some arbitrary set of so-called scientific laws rules for the protagonists to fall foul of or all now the corniest of SF cliches. But sometimes it all works – Out of theSub Universe and The Machine of Ardathia are both pretty good.

When it doesn’t work, though, when the story’s po-faced and static, the quaint temporality of the writing shows through. It doesn’t help that this is a classic idiot story.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Out of the Sub-Universe by R F Starzl

First published in Amazing Stories Quarterly, summer 1928

This story is an example of the anthropic principle in SF: where ever you go in the universe, no matter how far in the future, how remote in time or how distant the alien galaxy, every where is more or less like our world now.

It relies on the idea that that the structure of the atom is not just metaphorically a solar system but literally one, too. I remember this being quite common in comics and movies when I was a kid, but by then even I knew that the concentric circles we were drawing in our science books told only a part of the story, that the reality was far more complicated.

Even for the 1920s this would have been a very simplistic interpretation of atomic structure. Despite the authoritative tone of Professor Halley, the story doesn’t depend on even contemporary science. It’s more like a fairy tale – the plot is a consequence of clear but entirely arbitrary boundaries that the characters are encouraged to break.

Instead of scientific speculation, this is a propagandistic fable about power of scientific discovery.