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.