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!