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.

This story takes the form of three letters from Carolus, a 17th century seeker of mysteries to an unnamed correspondent. Each letter describes the things the creature tells him and of his own attempts to get the creature to share the secret of it’s supernatural powers. The creature talks of coming from another sphere, of making a great voyage across the sea of worlds in a ship that sails between...

Well, I think it’s obvious what’s happening here. Carolus’s demonic prince is of course stranded alien. As the last of its kind, it’s pass on its knowledge and the scheming Carolus is keen to learn all its words of power and magical signs. Naturally, Carolus is unable to comprehend the advanced scientific concepts that the alien is trying to explain, and we get a bit of comical vexation on his part.

Then he spoke of flying through the emptiness of the empyrean, which again is not clear, because all can see that the heavens are fairly crowded with stars, and he spoke of many suns and other worlds, some frozen some merely barren rock. The obscurity of such things is patent. And he spoke of drawing near to this world which is ours and an error made as if it were in mathematics –instead of a rebellion – so that they drew close to the Earth as Icarus to the sun. Then again he spoke in metaphors because he referred to engines, which are things to cast stone against wall and in a larger sense for grinding corn and pumping water.

As well as this kind of anachronistic befuddlement, the story also explains the origins of certain myths. The alien is elfin in appearance and has a fatal weakness to iron, as nods to fairy folklore. We’ve mentioned Charles Fort in this volume already, but this story brings up one of his theories that’s a regular in popular SF – what one might call the Von Daniken hypothesis, after it’s most notable exponent.

It’s an enjoyable black comedy, buoyed along by Leinster’s skill with clever characterisation. Even through the skilfully executed archaic diction, the letters reek of Carolus’s greed for wealth and power. Every expression of confusion and irritation is fuelled by his avarice, as is every action. He recognises a weariness and loneliness in the alien, but still attempts to ruthlessly exploit it. Leinster let’s us peek through Carolus’s narration at the alien itself, it’s haughty disdain for the irredemably dense Carolus and just enough hope in him for the last betrayal to have a bit of edge.

It’s another morally charged story. Humanity is shown once again to be inherently heartless and untrustworthy. In volume one this was usually articulated by the discoverer – or someone close to them – actively deciding that humanity isn’t ready for the new technology. The stories in volume two revolve around what happens when those fears become a reality. The moral challenges of new science are not merely professed, they’re demonstrated through the actions of the cast.

Maybe this is what Ashley means when he talks about the general tone shifting away from ‘Gernsbackian science taught as fiction’ to ‘scientific adventure’. Many of the stories in volume one relied on a fictionalised theoritician giving us a description of his experiments and their consequences. Here we see characters in action, more often than not, which makes these stories immediately more exciting and interesting.

Themes: aliens, Forteanism, fantasy, historical SF, horrible humans, the last of its kind, fairies, occultism.

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