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.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Machine Man of Ardathia by by Francis Flagg

First published in Amazing Stories, November 1987

If you thought transhumanism and the singularity were new ideas, think again! 1927 is the year that that Fritz Lang released Metropolis, Charles Lindberg made his first tarns-Atlantic flight and The Jazz Singer came out in the cinemas. Radio was still radical and new, and even evolution was a relatively novel - and dangerous  - concept. But SF writers were already imagining the creature that these two new and forces could bring about and the consequences of such a profound change.

While studying, the narrator suddenly sits up from his desk to see a bizarre apparition before him: a shrivelled human form encased in a mechanical cylinder. Glass and metal tubes ‘run at places into the body’ apparently sustaining it’s life. It claims to be from 28,000 years in the future and appeared in the narrator’s study by accident while travelling in time on a study trip elsewhen. 

It’s hard to imagine how extraordinary this idea must have felt to the readership at the time. A plausible demon or angel – not really either, but a man as unlike the man of today as the caveman was from the pulp-reading classes of the USA.
Poor prehistoric mammal, how could you, groping in the dawn of human existence, comprehend what is beyond your lowly environment! Compared to you, we are as gods.
Thousands of years of evolution don’t appear to have improved humanity’s manners. Perhaps the consequence of merging with its tools has made humanity a bit of a tool in the process.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Coming of the Ice by G Peyton Wertenbaker

First published in Amazing Stories, June 1926.
This story starts with the idea that our regenerative energies are somehow dissipated through the process of reproduction. The mad scientist figure in this story – a sober establishment type called Sir John Granden – explains it thus:
You have heard, of course, that our bodies are continually changing, hour by hour, minute by minute, so that every few years we have been literally re-born. Some such principle as this seems to operate in reproduction, except that, instead of the old body being replaced by the new,and in its form, approximately, the new body is created apart form it. It is the creation of children that causes us to die, it would seem, because this activity is, dammed up or turned aside into new channels, the reproduction operates on the old body, renewing it continually.
When Sir John tells his flatmate about this, he’s immediately keen to give it a go. But there’s a price to pay:
One must give up love and all sensual pleasure. This operation not only takes away the mere fact of reproduction, but it deprives one of all things that go with sex, all love, all sense of beauty, all feeling for poetry and the arts.
Young Dennell is engaged and decides he should ask his girlfriend if it would be okay if he was to have an operation that denied him access to any tender emotion in the name of immortality. She readily assents and says she’d like to go through with it too, which suggests their relationship was perhaps not as passionate as it could be.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The History of the Science Fiction Magazine volume 1: Introduction

I think that science fiction is dead. I think that what we see published under that label today is a kind of zombie genre, kept alive more by the commercial demands of the media – publishing, movies, TV, comics and journalism – than by the urgent questions that formed the seeds of the genre as it emerged last century.

I’m conflicted by doubt of course: is SF really dead or am I just a miserable old git? Many other signs point to the latter being so. 

For my own peace of mind I need to know. I need to understand what has changed and why: is the genre dead or have I simply lost my capacity for wonder? To test the vital signs of science fiction today, I need a solid idea of what those vital signs are. I need to make sure I’ll know them when I see them before I declare them absent from the contemporary scene. For that reason, I’ve been looking for a way to re-familiarise myself with classic SF. 

I came across this set of three volumes in a second hand bookshop in New Zealand, a snap at forty dollars for all three. Each volume covers a decade, starting with the foundation of Amazing Stories in 1926, with the third ending in 1955. (There’s a fourth volume, covering 56 to 65, which would have been handy to have, but it looks like that one didn’t a proper distribution and is hard to come by.)

It’s my feeling that the nature of science fiction is as much about the nature of its audience as about the texts themselves. Ashley’s chosen starting point seems to back this up.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Reading report Q1 2013: Kindle is King

For me, the first quarter of this year was dominated by February, when I fled the winter chill of London for a month of summer in my antipodean mother land. I won’t bore you with how great it all was – great weather, old friends, family on good behaviour, plenty of good wine and beer and so forth. Instead I’ll bore you with far less interesting chat about reading.

I’ve had a Kindle for a couple of years and have taken it on holiday a couple of times, but this is the trip it was made for. I always end up taking what I consider a sufficient number of books (perhaps six) and then while I’m in NZ one thing like to is search second-hand bookshops for obscure SF paperbacks from the seventies and eighties. What I particularly love is a small town book exchange (every small town in NZ has got one) with a SF section that looks like it might have come from the estate of a lonely farmer and SF fan.

I’ve done pretty well with Jack Vance, picking up nice seventies and eighties editions from Grafton and the New English Library with cool covers by Jim Burns, Mick van Houten and Peter Elson, etc. But this year I discovered something that’s killed that hobby dead: The SF Gateway

It’s changed my holidays for ever and I may now never visit New Zealand again.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Cadwal Chronicles by Jack Vance

This series of three novels – Araminta Station, Ecce & Old Earth and Throy – sees the arrival of Vance’s late style. It sets the tone for Vance’s final sequence, Nightlamp, Ports of Call and Lurulu, a series of elegiac novels set in his established far future of galactic civilisation, the Gaean Reach.

The Gaean Reach isn’t an especially detailed setting. It’s more like a set of conventions that look a lot like pulp-era space opera: easy interplanetary travel, wide-spread human settlement, near-universal currency, language and police force across the galaxy, and thriller plots based on simple motivations of greed, lust or revenge. Vance uses this classic setting as a background for his vividly detailed imagination for place, his ear for droll, self-regarding rhetoric, particularly on the part of his villainous characters, and the extraordinary vocabulary he deploys with such effortless flair.

However, the pulp-era elements he leans on so heavily are built on attitudes that are these days considered naive, and even offensive. Many readers will find the sexist thriller clich├ęs and character types distracting, and the rough and ready evolutionary anthropology suggested by the numerous depraved or backwards societies of the Gaean Reach has disturbing implications.

Could it be that hiding behind the jovially cruel Vancian world view lies a racist and sexist tract?