" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Horror and Science Fiction

  One thing I enjoy about science fiction is its fluidity. As a genre, it grew out of and encapsulated mythology, extraordinary voyages, lost races tales, future war warnings, scientific romances, and utopias and dystopias often accessed by voyages through time and space. Early authors moved between what we would now consider separate genres without perceiving any boundaries. Arthur Conan Doyle could offer us Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger, "When the World Screamed" and "The Horror of the Heights." H.G. Wells was, of course, everywhere, playing in every sand box known to science fiction with The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Food of The Gods, The Land Leviathan, and The First Men of the Moon among many others. As someone whose reading grew every much out a weird tale tradition, I have always been interested in the intersection between horror and science fiction. 

Two authors who are now well known for their work in other genres particularly interest me. One is George R. R. Martin, and the other, who I want to look at today, is Dean Koontz. I have just begun reading Koontz's work, and today I want to focus on two of his early short stories.

The first is "The Night of the Storm" (1974), which appeared in the Roger Elwood anthology Continuum 1. "This volume is the first of a series in which eight leading S.F. writers create their own very different worlds to which they will return in volumes 2,3, & 4." The further stories in this particular series are not by Koontz, and I will only look at his contribution at this time. This is the story of Suranov a robot living in a robot culture. Robots were created some 8-9 centuries ago. They are now dominate the Earth. The story of their creation by humans is largely considered a myth. Society is now run by the Central Agency. Individual robots "live" two hundred years, Then they have their memories removed and are reconditioned and released. Those whose data vaults have reached maturity are in line for promotion. One of these individuals is Bikermein, at 150 years old his data vaults are so extensive, he is immobile. Bikermein is Suranov's counsellor.         
  Suranov is 100 years old but has already begun to experience boredom. He had climbed mountains, penetrated halfway to the centre of the planet and travelled across the ocean floor for over a year, Suranov feels there is little more to experience. Bikermein points out that robots in this condition have found that deliberately reducing their abilities before undertaking new challenges helps alleviate this problem. Suranov undergoes this procedure and then joins three other robots on a trip to a hunting lodge at Walker's Watch. Since the robots prime directive forbids the destruction of life that cannot be restored they have only non-lethal weapons. 

I read the first page and a bit and thought this story was wonderful. My mind was racing with the implications. I love stories about robots and robotic societies. Also, Koontz had inserted that most hoary of horror tropes, the small group of strangers trapped in an isolated cabin in the wilderness. We have mysterious footprints and half-seen figures in the distance. Then, of course, one of the group disappears. This story was a great merging of horror and science fiction. I have the other volumes in this series and will be interested to see where the other authors take it.

The second Koontz story I wanted to discuss today is "To Behold the Sky," which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1967. The protagonist is Jessie Bacon, a "cybernaut" who is part of the crew of a spaceship voyaging to the Sun. During the voyage, Bacon's consciousness will enter the cybernet, a system that allows him to monitor both the ship and the crew. Bacon is a very familiar science fiction character. An irascible loner who has been recruited because his skill set is irreplaceable. He hates the media who hounds him because of his relationship with Mandy Moraine, the most desirable actress of the era. He is generally impossible to get along with, although he does rescue a crew member endangered during a training exercise. And he is haunted by dreams of an accident in which he panicked and left someone to die.

Once the mission begins, problems appear. Instead of checking in with the crew regularly, Bacon seems to become lost in the system. The crew has to resort to leaving messages to communicate with them by writing notes on cardboard and leaving it propped against Bacon's body. When Bacon does emerge from the system, the crew complains of haunting dreams and a great shape that moves around the ship in the dark. Initially, Bacon investigates and finds nothing wrong. However, as they approach the Sun, Bacon becomes more self-absorbed and disinterested in the rest of the crew. Another good story. I am always interested in the human-machine interface, and Koontz again does an excellent job of interweaving this science fiction theme with some very familiar horror tropes. 

Whether Koontz intended this, the concept behind Bacon's role on the ship reminded me a bit of the scanners in the Cordwainer Smith short story "Scanners Live in Vain". And I do like this kind of connection even if it is only in my mind. Given the state of the world, perhaps I such be seeking out some of science fiction's more optimistic themes, but I have enjoyed Koontz's work so far and plan on reading more. 

Cover credits:

Continuum 1: Patrick Woodroffe

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec. 1967: Jack Gaughan's illustration for the "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D." one of J.G. Ballard's Vermillion Sands stories. If you have not read them, stop reading this and go buy an e-version so you don't have to go out.

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