Retrospeculative View: 1957

CallMeJoeBobEggeltonSome of the short fiction:

Hunting Machine, Carol Emshwiller
Omnilingual, H. Beam Piper
The Last Word, Damon Knight
I’m in Marsport Without Hilda, Isaac Asimov
Call Me Joe, Poul Anderson (surely a basis for the movie Avatar)
The Fly,  George Langelaan (a story that spawned five movies)

Some of the movies:

The Abominable Snowman (aka The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man)
The Amazing Colossal Man (purportedly based on a 1920s novel, The Nth Man, but I had a quick look and couldn’t find a mention of a book called the Nth Man (not to be confused with the comic book, Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja)) . Update 2014-04-26: The Nth Man was written by Homer Eon Flint, published in 1928 (information thanks to Dutch; see comments).
The Curse of Frankenstein, the first colour movie by Hammer Horror (Hammer Films), famous for their Gothic cinema productions.

And some of the novels:

Wasp, Eric Frank Russell. Wasp and Next of Kin are his best known novels; unfortunately, although they are interesting and fun to read, I think they lack the depth to sustain them. I prefer Russell’s short fiction, and highly recommend Allamagoosa (1955).

The Door into Summer, Robert A. Heinlein. A highly readable story (albeit a bit light-weight) that I enjoyed when I was a young man, but it includes a disturbing time-travel romance angle (which was recycled in The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger).

Eye in the Sky, by Philip K. Dick, who was still tinkering at this stage: his best novels were yet to come.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand. Her fictional magnum opus on Objectivism. Very popular.

Big Planet, Jack Vance. Like his wonderful fantasy series (the Lyonesse Trilogy and The Dying Earth collection), Vance’s science fiction novel Big Planet displays a flair for world-building: through the course of the novel  he unveils the planet’s ecology, as well as the technological, economic, and political miasma created by the inhabitants, thereby setting the tone for writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin (with Gethen, in The Left Hand of Darkness) and Frank Herbert (with Arrakis, in Dune). Big Planet was also a precursor to the  planetary romance genre. Vance may not be well-known to the younger generation, but he was an influential writer in the speculative field.

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. Probably his most intimate writing; nostalgic and poetic. Dandelions are symbolic of summer, medicine, and magic. The ‘magic’ of creating a bottle of dandelion wine from the ingredients is like writing and packaging the novel, which is a compilation of  the magic moments of summer experienced by the protagonist, twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding (who I suspect is a stand-in for Ray Bradbury).
On the Beach, Nevil Shute. A haunting, heartbreaking story of the slow, but inevitable end to human life on Earth due to radiation fallout after World War III.  Under Shutes’s name on the title page are two famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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And my pick for the retrospeculative novel of the year is…voss-patrick-white-hardcover-cover-art

Voss, by Patrick White. An exceptional novel by the Nobel Prize winning author. The main character, Johann Ulrich Voss (loosely based on the life of Ludwig Leichhardt), organizes an expedition into the Australian outback. Before he sets out on his expedition, he meets Laura Trevelyan; and, even after the two are separated, they are somehow linked metaphysically and are able to communicate through visions. The powerful personality of Voss drives the plot, and his adventures — as well as events surrounding Laura in Sydney — are imbued with religious symbolism. I particularly enjoyed the sections that examined the spirituality of the indigenous societies of the outback. Highly recommended.

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The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

S. R. DonaldsonThe final book in the Thomas Covenant series will be published this October, and I’m looking forward to reading it. It will be the tenth book in the series (an initial trilogy (1977-1979), a second trilogy (1980-1983), and a final tetrology (2004-2013)). Somebody asked me why the author would write another series after so many years had past, and why he wrote so many Covenant books. I answered that, like Agatha Christie, who wrote dozens of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple books,  he probably thought of more ideas to explore and he likes to write and make money at it; and, if readers enjoy it, why not?

Stephen R. Donaldson’s books are not for everyone; in fact, if I picked up Lord Foul’s Bane today, and read it for the first time, I would not make it to the end of the book. But in 1977, when the novel was first published, I was spellbound by the magic inherent in The Land, the peoples it was populated with (Stonedownors, Woodhelvennin, Ramen, Giants, Lords, and Haruchai/Bloodguard), the creatures that roamed it (Forestals, Ranyhyn, Waynhim, Cavewights, Ur-viles, and others), and the many memorable characters in the books (Saltheart Foamfollower, Lord Mhoram, Bannor, Atiaran, High Lord Elena, Brinn, Grimmand Honninscrave, etcetera). It is a series that must be accepted with its faults and appreciated for its virtues.

The protagonist of the series, Thomas Covenant, is a bitter man, a leper who is shunned by the people in his (our) world, but he is transported to, and adopted by, an alternate reality, The Land, a place he cannot believe in because it will break down his careful guarded defenses, the belief system he must maintain to survive as a leper. Covenant has been referred to as an anti-hero, but I think he is a flawed man who is unable to cope with his situation; as the series progresses, he grows, and ultimately transcends his faults and limitations. He was characterized with too much recursive pathos, but Donaldson’s other characters provide a sense of balance.

The Illearth War; cover detailThe Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

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Retrospeculative View: 1956

minority report movie photoSome of the short fiction:

Judgment Day, by L. Sprague de Camp

The Game of Rat and Dragon, by Cordwainer Smith

The Minority Report, by Philip K. Dick

Drop Dead, Clifford D. Simak

Exploration Team, Murray Leinster (Hugo Award for Best Novelette)

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ForbiddenPlanet_posterSome of the films released:

Forbidden Planet, a science fiction re-telling of The Tempest. This is a classic film; interestingly, I enjoy dated science fiction films more than dated science fiction novels.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, inspired by the non-fiction book, Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe, an early leader in the field of ufology.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel. Movie producers have an unusual attraction to this story; it was also adapted to film in 1978, 1993 (Body Snatchers), and 2007 (The Invasion).

Rodan, (Sora no Daikaijū Radon), the first kaiju (strange beast/monster/giant beast) movie filmed in color.

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Novels:

The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis. The final installment in the Narnia series.

The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke. A good Clarke novel, but it is a rewrite of Against the Fall of Night (1953). Clarke wanted to improve the earlier novel and supplant it; oddly, both novels remained popular.

The Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert. The characterizations are weak, but the novel presents themes of psychology and religion that are precursors to the core of Herbert’s classic novel Dune (Dune’s sequels were not (IMO) nearly as good).

The Shrinking Man (aka The Incredible Shrinking Man), by Richard Matheson. A man’s confrontation with masculinity, loneliness and mortality (it’s also about a radioactive cloud that makes a guy shrink). The novel was adapted into a movie in 1957.

The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!), by Alfred Bester. A rollicking adventure, often cited as one of the all-time classics of science fiction. After re-reading this novel, it didn’t strike me as a well written book: pulpy, disjointed, cardboard characters, et cetera. It may be a classic of the genre, but it hasn’t aged well. I couldn’t convince myself to name it as the best of the year.

The Naked Sun coverThe Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov (serialized in 1956) gets my nod as best speculative novel of 1956 (another year without any strong literary candidates). It is not his best novel, but it’s a fun blend of science fiction, robots, and the mystery genre, and was a welcome addition to his robot mystery series (The Naked Sun is the sequel to The Caves of Steel (1954), which is one of Asimov’s classics). This is the second of three novels featuring Elijah Baley (a detective from Earth) and his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. There aren’t enough murder suspects to make a first-rate mystery, but I read this when I was quite young, and it happened to be one of the novels that piqued my interest in ‘social’ science fiction, which became my preferred sub-genre. The setting is Solaria, a planet with a culture that is quite exotic to Earthman Elijah Baley (as the novel is based in the future, there are some interesting cultural changes on Earth as well). The events in the Naked Sun trigger further ramifications in the direct sequel, The Robots of Dawn (1983), and in Foundation and Earth (1986), the novel that connects these robot novels to the Foundation series, all of which are historically significant science fiction works.

Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M. Banks

feersum-endjinn-cover-artFeersum Endjinn is a non-Culture Science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks (for those who don’t know, Mr. Banks has been diagnosed with a terminal illness: more information. A sad update:  Iain Banks passed from this realm on June 9, 2013).

The action takes place on Earth, far into the future. Reincarnation is a common occurrence, facilitated by the uploading of mindstates into a massive computer network known as the data corpus or the cryptosphere (often shortened to crypt). An individual is allowed a certain number of real-life ‘reincarnations’ and then their mindstate is uploaded into the data corpus for another series of virtual reality lives before being absorbed into the data-stream. There are also artificial intelligences within the cryptosphere.  

Long before the beginning of the novel, a large portion of humanity left the planet to seed the stars (The Diaspora). The remaining humans have lost the ability to understand advanced technologies; unfortunately, the solar system is drifting into an interstellar dust cloud (referred to as the Encroachment), which will weaken the amount of the sun’s energy reaching the Earth, resulting in an end to all life on the planet. There may be a device (possibly within a neglected space elevator) that will save the planet, but the knowledge of how to use it, or what it is, has been lost.  

The story unfolds in four threads that eventually converge. Each chapter reveals the progress of four principal characters: an enigmatic woman, possibly an emissary from the crypt (an asura), who’s powers are gradually unveiled; Hortis Gadfium, a high-ranking scientist who is a member of a group trying to uncover a secret that may save the world; Alandre Sessine, a General who is about to discover a conspiracy of the heads of state, is assassinated several times (in real and virtual lives), and is searching for answers in the cryptosphere; and last, but not least, Bascule, a young teller, a job that depends on submersion within the crypt (I should also point out that Bascule is dyslexic: his sections are spelled phonetically, like the book’s title. Some might find these sections difficult/annoying, but I thoroughly enjoyed them).  

Mr. Banks does an excellent job of imagining a virtual reality world and the immensity of a space elevator: his canvas in this novel is extensive. It’s hard science fiction, but doesn’t always feel like it. The characters are likeable and interesting (particularly Bascule), but they were not plumbed to any great depth: the novel is plot and concept driven. Banks does a wonderful job of creating a believable world and dancing the reader through it. If you’re not a science fiction fan, you might think it is interesting, but unspectacular; but, for a hard science fiction geek, it’s amazing.

The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R. Delany

original Ace paperback coverWill our stories outlive us; and, if so, how will we be perceived when they are discovered?

When I was younger, a couple of Samuel R. Delany’s novels eventually discouraged me from reading any more of his works. I had enjoyed Babel-17, Nova, and Triton (aka Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia); but, when I got bored in the middle of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (SiMPLGoS), I turned to Dhalgren, whereupon I gave up on the author for over twenty years. I recently read SiMPLGoS and enjoyed it immensely (it is now my favourite Delany novel), and I even managed to struggle through Dahlgren, learning to appreciate its brilliance (although it is not a novel to be taken lightly: a steadfast immersion is required). So I thought I’d try The Einstein Intersection (a novel that is reputedly difficult), and I’m glad I didn’t read it when I was younger; it would have been too different. Fortunately, after reading Dhalgren, The Einstein Intersection is a walk in the park.

I think in this short novel Delany is showing off (or he was a heck of a lot smarter than I was at the tender age of twenty-three), but if the reader can struggle through the confusing patches there are delights to be had. Delany is definitely not for everyone, but the novel includes some wonderfully lyrical writing, and the story is quite satisfying if you’re able to immerse yourself in his world-vision. It amazes me that Delany was published in a pulp fiction market. His working title for the book was A Fabulous, Formless Darkness (from a William Butler Yeats work he’d quoted), but it was ‘re-worked’ by the publisher, Ace Books (of  garish covers and low-priced packaging fame). Ace‘s main audience was teenage boys who wanted formulaic plots with the usual science fiction stereotypes; Delany employed the stereotypes, but twisted them into unusual perspectives. Even though he set his stories far in the future, they were designed to describe the world as it was.

The novel takes place on Earth; however, it is set tens-of-thousands of years into the future: myths run rampant and are only partially explained at the crossroads of logic and irrationality (with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I’d suggest searching at the corner of Einstein Street and Gödel Avenue). Two of the major themes are travel, through space,  time, and thought, as echoed in Delany’s travels through the Mediterranean, Spain, and Greece (which he relates in between-chapter notes), and difference from the ‘norm’, as demonstrated by the mutating aliens, who are attempting to maintain a sense of conformity while sifting through the gossamer memories of a sentient species — humanity — that has vanished.

Humanity has long since moved on and the Earth is radioactive, which causes rapid genetic mutations in the aliens. Some are born as non-functionals, and are kept in a kage, where they are watched over and protected. It is unclear where the humans have gone; perhaps they are nothing but psychic memories. The aliens have become anthropologists, attempting to interpret the spirit of humanity, researching by immersion: they adopt human form and re-enact fragments of humanity’s stories, integrating mythological accounts and pop-culture, which they are unable to separate as different types of memory. To some extent, the pop-culture inclusions date the book, but it is the concept that is important, and the pop-culture aspects are possibly essential to Delany’s ideology.

There is at least one modern alien metropolis on Earth (Branning-at-sea), but the protagonist, Lobey (an Orpheus and Theseus archetype, with many characteristics of the Roman God Pan) is a sheep herder in a small village. After Lobey’s lover — Friza — is killed, he sets off on a quest to avenge her in a pseudo-reenactment of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Other mythical beings and real-life pop-icons (Ringo Starr, Hades, Billy the Kid, the Minotaur (and Phaedra, Theseus, and Ariadne), Elvis, Odin, and others) are infused  into the Orpheus myth, resulting in a fair bit of fanciful confusion.

The reader is immersed in the alien’s milieu, just as the aliens are immersed in the quagmire of humanity’s psychic memories. Within the body of the novel Delany has included some travel-notes that he wrote while wandering through foreign lands, while creating the novel. At one point [p.119 (1998 Ed.)], he writes: “…perhaps on rewriting I shall change Kid Death’s hair from black to red.” But the reader has already encountered the character, and his hair is red, which demonstrates Delany’s interest in time, events in time, and awareness; what has been, what might have been, and what is. And he has also set up a conscious association between the author, the reader, and the words on the page (something he does to a dizzying degree in Dhalgren). At another point [p. 65 (1998 Ed.)], Delany implicitly states that “…the central subject of the book is myth.”

It is a book full of myth and peppered with confusion; nevertheless, if you enjoy a story that requires some cobbling together and leaves you thinking after you finish, I highly recommend it; along with Dhalgren, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, it displays Delany at his myth-spinning best.

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Some Extraneous Stuff:

What happened to the humans and what are the aliens?

  • It is possible that humanity caused an apocalyptic event, leaving the Earth radioactive. The aliens then found the planet, and are attempting to understand the species that destroyed itself.
  • It may be that humanity somehow exited this plane of existence (to a higher evolutionary state), and the surface radiation comes from tunnels below the planet. The radiation leakage is controlled — released — in order to provide more genetic variation in the aliens, who are attempting to recreate the achievements of humanity.
  • It is possible that the aliens are in a virtual reality, a simulation (several times Lobey is  told he is ‘real’; as opposed to what?). This would explain the unusual abilities of some characters, and the possibility of characters ‘coming back to life.’ Perhaps Lobey, and the others, are not aliens, but the beings that inherited the Earth after the humans ‘disappeared.’ Perhaps they are the descendants of humanity (the meek, who inherited the Earth) and are attempting to build a utopian,  human-like society.

Some of the notes I made while reading (mostly obvious stuff; some potential spoilers (but I don’t think they ‘spoil’ anything)): Continue reading

Retrospeculative View, 1955

Some short fiction published in 1955:

The Darfsteller, by Walter M Miller (Hugo Award for best novelette, 1955)
The Star, by Arthur C. Clarke (Hugo Award for best short story, 1956)
Allamagoosa, by Eric Frank Russell (Hugo Award for best short story, 1955)
The Country of the Kind, by Damon Knight
Of Missing Persons, Jack Finney

Some movies from 1955 (and it’s no wonder my parents didn’t want me reading science fiction…)

This Island Earth an alienIt Came from Beneath the Sea: featuring stop-motion, model-monster effects
This Island Earth, in which aliens recruit Earth’s nuclear scientists to aid in an interstellar war
Panther Girl of the Kongo: a scantily clad woman and an evil scientist who breeds giant crayfish. Wow!
Timeslip (The Atomic Man in the USA): “This was the deadliest secret of all…the man with the radioactive brain”
Tarantula: Another in a long line of ‘big-bug’ horror movies.

And last, but not least, the speculative novels from 1955:

The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney. A staple of B movie makers (1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007).

Martians go Home, by Frederic Brown. A humorous science fiction  novel (a blueprint for Douglas Adams?).

The Magician’s Nephew, another installment in the Narnia franchise. As I’ve noted before, the series never ‘hooked’ me; however, it has definitely garnered a cult following, and is certainly a classic of fantasy and speculative fiction.

The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov. I was excited when this novel was republished a couple of years ago: a classic Asimov time-travel story that I’d somehow missed when I was younger. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good as I’d anticipated. The characters were wooden and the plot was somewhat telegraphed and gimmicky. Perhaps I was expecting too much.

The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham, a thoughtful, post-apocalyptic novel. This book came close to my choice for best of 1955, but suffers slightly in comparison. It was the only science fiction novel I remember reading within the school curriculum, and I can only recall three other speculative fiction works I was introduced to in public school: the second chapter from The Hobbit (Roast Mutton), which was read out loud by a nice lady in the mobile-library van when I was in grade two; All Summer in a Day, a poignant short story by Ray Bradbury that Miss Teeple read to us in grade three; and the time when Ms. Dover, bless her heart, noticed me reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in the school library and she introduced me to a collection that included The Machine Stops, a short story by E.M. Forrester (I’m sure this was a clever ruse on her part to introduce me to more ‘intellectual’ authors, but it only made me aware of the existence of science fiction and fantasy short story collections). The Chysalids takes place generations after a nuclear war (a real and constant fear when I was young): the elements of hard science fiction (mutations) and reactions to them are believable, but the telepathic elements don’t work as well for me, and some plot elements could have been refined. Nevertheless, it is a robust speculative fiction classic that can spark introspection; a light, enjoyable novel.

My choice for the best of the year is not a literary standout (I searched for a more ‘literate’ novel to quell my snobbish sensibilities; however,  I found nothing to supplant it. Perhaps this blog will highlight the development of more literate speculative fiction…): it was wonderful science fiction in the 1950s, but  it now seems like light entertainment. Regardless, my choice for the Retrospective Novel of 1955 is…

double_star_masterworks_coverDouble Star, by Robert A. Heinlein, which won the Hugo Award for best novel. I’m going to feel like an old fuddy-duddy, but here goes…it is a fun read, an excellent example of science fiction in the 1950s, but not a great novel. The story moves at a rapid clip (it is, after all, quite a short book), the main character is well drawn and provided with plausible motivation for his actions, and there is an abundance of humour to drive the narrative, but the story is improbable: too much of the plot hinges on luck and coincidence, and there are sections where the main character manages to acquire complex skills with ease. Nevertheless, I was somehow able to suspend disbelief and my heart was won over; after all, this is one of Heinlein’s best, and he deserves mention as a major player in the genre science fiction of his time (his two other noteworthy novels — IMHO — are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and these will get more attention in future posts).

Stations of the Tide, by Michael Swanwick

sations of the tide coverStations of the Tide (1991) is full of symbolism and allegory dressed up as a cyberpunk detective story. Sections in the middle of the novel are disjointed and elusive, but  the surface plot is quite easy to comprehend: the bureaucrat (he is never named) is sent to a planet, Miranda, to investigate whether a self-proclaimed wizard, Gregorian, has smuggled contraband technology onto the planet.

The planet Miranda has three moons and an eccentric orbit about its sun: every two-hundred years there is an  instantaneous polar ice melt that causes the world to become almost entirely aquatic; this event is referred to as the jubilee tides, which, as the novel begins, is imminent.

Without giving too much away…

Transformation and death are recurring themes, epitomized by the  ability of Miranda’s indigenous species to instictively transform from land-based to aquatic creatures; many die in the jubilee tides, but enough survive to ensure species continuity.

There are many Biblical references in the novel. Some examples: The Jubilee Tides echo the Jubilee year in the Book of Leviticus (remission of sins, and an ‘impact’ on the ownership of land); the Jubilee Tides also symbolize the cleansing of the Biblical flood; and, Stations of the Tide mirrors Stations of the Cross (there are fourteen Stations of the Cross & fourteen chapters in the book).

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is alluded to (the Prospero system, the planet Miranda…) and there are similarities to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And one of the characters is a sentient briefcase.

Before human colonialism there was an indigenous intelligent species, the haunts, on Miranda; although the haunts are presumed to be extinct, many colonists believe they still exist, hiding where they cannot be discovered, perhaps even masquerading as humans. The haunts, alike other species on Miranda, were capable of transforming their bodies quickly. The haunts, and the rumours about them, are reminiscent of the shape-shifters in Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. 

The novel has disjointed sections, especially the middle portions, but the novel, as a whole, somehow holds together. Michael Swanwick writes quite eloquently at times, particularly in his descriptions of the scenery and buildings on Miranda; however, although I enjoyed the ending, it felt a bit contrived, a deus ex machina.

I enjoyed the book (several levels above the average science fiction novel), but I felt there was something missing; after the labyrinth of the middle sections, I was expecting a more mind-expanding culmination.