" 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.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The City of the Living Dead Fletcher Pratt, Laurence Manning,

  This is a post I have intended to write for over a year. In my reading, I encounter texts that reawake my interest in certain aspects of science fiction. This may be a particular author, theme or period. I have mentioned in previous posts how influential the gift of two volumes on the history of science fiction by Davis Kyle were.

I was leafing through one of these volumes when I saw the illustration for The City of the Living Dead by Fletcher Pratt and Laurence Manning. A quick search of the ISFDB indicted where to find it and off I went. This discussion will include spoilers because I want to examine the theme in some detail, and I assume most people will not read it anyway. There is a certain level of racism, as was typical of the period so you are warned. The Anglesk have dominated the world we will eventually find, and there are mentions of barbarians of various colours, including white. 

Our story begins in Alvrosdale, an isolated valley in the mountains. Many young couples have gathered in the Hall of Assembly (formally The Hall of Power). The year is 4050A.D., and the couples are preparing to leave the valley via gliders to seek land in the wider world. The valley has been isolated since "Demon Power" destroyed the larger civilization and reduced the inhabitants of the valley to a simple agricultural existence. Before the couple can leave, however, they must attend a lecture by Hal Hallstrom, the first man to leave the valley and return in many years. Hallstrom is now quite old, but as a younger man, he managed to climb through the mountains to the plains below. Here he finds the abandoned homes of the people who lived here before civilization collapsed. The residents of the Alvrosdale attribute this collapse to the "Demon Power." Initially, Hallstrom's trip is quite uneventful, there are packs of wild dogs, but he does not seem to be in any great danger. There are none of the mutants, evil cults, hair raising escapes etc. that so often populate stories of this kind. 

Hallstrom finds a deserted city and enters the one lighted skyscraper. There he finds a room full of what at first glance appear to be giant silver ingots.

"I stood in a long hall with sunlight streaming through the glass walls and reflecting back in dazzling radiance from row on row of great  ingots of silver.

"So much wealth neither I or anyone in this dale has ever seen. Yet there was something curious about those ingots, when I looked at them a second time, for each one was laid on a table by itself, and each seemed rather a close winding of many wires than a solid piece of that precious metal. Dumb with astonishment at the sight , I stood for a moment, and then approached one of them, thinking that they might be a dream wrought for my undoing by the Demon Power. I noted that the form of the silver winding had, from a little distance, a certain likeness to that of a man, from one side of which many of the wires were collected and twisted through holes in a slab of stone on which the form lay." 

But of course, they are living people. Hallstrom searches further and finds a man in the metal mask seated in front of a control panel. This individual, over 100 years old, now seems to be the last conscious individual in this city. While he dismisses Hallstrom as a white barbarian, he does tell him the history of the civilization, whose remnants Hallstrom sees around him. Through the invention of the radio, Anglesk culture came to dominate. Once people worldwide could speak to each other, war ceased.

"In elder ages men quarreled, this group and that, and fought destructive wars in which thousands were slain by the use of guns, which hurled great pieces of steel that rent and tore asunder all that stood in their path. But among the English and the colonies of the English were many great scientists. These scientists designed Machines called Radio, fashioned so cunningly that a man had but to speak in them to he heard afar by many men in other lands. Now in the days of which I speak, the English spoke into their Radio and their tongue spread across the whole world. Then the quarrelling of nations ceased, for there is no quarrel that may not be settled by simple words when men may speak these words understanding to one another."

Hallstrom's "Demon Power" the power from the earth's core ushered in a period of industrialization that saw machines take over most aspects of society. Machines not only controlled transportation and manufacturing but also art and entertainment. Humanity began to rely on fictional adventures to give meaning to their lives. The people Hallstorm encounters in the ultimate manifestation of this trend. Surgeons exposed the nerves of participants and connected them to adventure machines via the silver wires. The bodies also receive nourishment via the silver wires and can survive indefinitely. Anyone choosing to undergo this procedure relinquishes all assets to the government and for most the procedure is too complex to be reversed. As more and more people began to undergo this procedure, the machines are left alone to run things. It seems that this abandonment is what leads to the destruction of civilization rather than war or environmental collapse. 

 The man Hallstrom meets was once such a dreamer. But he was removed from the system by the last of the surgeons to maintain the system and switch the adventure tapes. He admits, however, that he can only do this for a few friends. 

I found this interesting on several levels. This story, published in 1930, contains no mention of computers or robots. But it is, despite the rather crude surgical intervention required, an interesting example of the application and perils of virtual reality. Also, Pratt and Manning are interested in societal change, not the action-adventure so prevalent in the pulps of this period. This story seems, thematically, to explore the same issues concerning the rise and fall of civilization as H.G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come (1933) or Last and First Man by Olaf Stabledon (1930). I don't expect the predictions that science fiction writers include in their work to be accurate. But I am always interested in where their fictional thought experiments lead them and what it tells us about the cultural landscape in which it was conceived.

Reading The City of the Living Dead also encouraged me to learn more about the authors. I hope to prepare a post shortly on Manning's The Man Who Awoke, which investigates not only virtual reality but also themes like the generational conflict around resource use. 


1 & 2 From The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams, David Kyle (69) illustrations by Frank R. Paul

3 Avon Fantasy Reader, No. 2, 1947 cover ?

Science Wonder Stories, May 1930, Frank R. Paul

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Books; Gimme Shelter, Ursula the two Rays and me

  I am still a bit melancholy and missing Shaun of course. Experience has taught me this will last for some time. What I do when stressed or depressed, is turn to favourite authors like Louis L'Amour or Dorothy Sayers or special books. Often they are older books, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Beston's The Outermost House, Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, My Belief a collection of essays by Herman Hesse. And as you might expect science fiction, authors like Simak, Norton, Clarke, Heinlein (the juveniles) and, of course, Ray Bradbury. Tuesday Helen was going to an appointment, as I knew I would be waiting some time. I decided to take a real book. I have two shelves with display space dedicated to Bradbury. I choose a copy of The Machines of Joy that I purchased a few months ago when I decided to spice up my holdings to reflect how important Bardbury's work had been in my mental landscape. I read four stories while I waited, I may have read Tyrannaous Rex previously but retained little the rest were new to me. In the order, I read them. 

"The Machineries of Joy," set in Chicago, the story deals with some acrimony between priests living in the same rectory. Father Brian is particularly aggravated by Father Vittorini's interest in the rocket launches at Cape Canaveral. He is also unhappy that Father Vittorini has been up watching them half the night on the television set, of which he also disproves. A second Irish priest Father Kelly is less dogmatic but sides with Father Brian when Father Vittorini produces a newspaper clipping in which the Pope blesses the space program. Eventually Pastor Sheldon, he is also Irish, but born in California and thus apparently less dogmatic works to broker a peaceful solution. It seems Father Brian and Kelly feels that humanity's expansion into space may make ministering to their flock even more problematic. 

"The Machineries of Joy" is a slight and rather silly story, and possibly the emphasis on the nationality of the priests might offend some readers. I enjoyed the story. The dynamics of the group reminded me of situations I have been in when living in the field with coworkers (archaeology). But in the abstract, this friction was amusing. Also, I felt Bradbury captured both the excitement and uncertainly caused by the space race. By current standards, the story was naive and nostalgic, but that is Ray. I have to admit that when the story begins, Father Vittorini is eating cornflakes, and when we stopped at the store on the way home, I bought some. Nostalgia can be a powerful force.

"The illustrated Woman" is pure Bradbury, set in the world of sideshows and doctor's offices with a large illustrated woman, her tiny husband and a somewhat overwhelmed psychiatrist. Dr. George C George is waiting to meet his next patient when in comes all four hundred pounds of Emma Fleet. Emma starts by telling the doctor her personal story. As a girl, she was always heavier than her friends. Her weight always made her feel unattractive and insecure. Then on a trip to the carnival, she encountered Willy Fleet. He had been travelling with Singer's Midgets for six seasons before taking a position running the Guess Your Weight machine. Willy, it seems, has a secret. He is actually a tattoo artist and in search of a perfect canvas. It's kismet, of course, Willy and Emma fall in love, and they spend many happy years while Willy creates his masterpiece. Lately, however, Emma has noticed some changes in Willy's behaviour, and he has been dusting off the Guess Your Weight machine. Can Dr. George help? The original short story version of, "The Illustrated Man", not the collection, was a very dark tale that first appeared in Esquire (July 1950). Remember, Bradbury started publishing in Weird Tale. This story "The illustrated Woman" was a much lighter tale that still embraced Bradbury's fascination with  carnivals, sideshow performers, strange confessions and the vagrancies of life, love and the human condition.  

"Tyrannosaurus Rex", I am not going to say much about the plot of this story. The protaganist John Terwilliger is a stop-motion animation artist. He is building a T-Rex for Joe Clarence, a horrid Hollywood producer who rides him constantly. Nothing is good enough, cheap enough, scary enough, they also argue over the final ownership of the model. Their disputes are mediated by Mr. Glass, the long-suffering studio lawyer and my favourite character. Another good story. 

I know I read it when I was younger, but I suspect that while I enjoyed it, I did not understand the significance the story probably held for Bradbury. Bradbury loved the movies, collecting autographs at every opportunity and, as an adult, he worked on the screenplay for Moby Dick. He was also lifelong friends with Ray Harryhausen, the great stop-motion artist of films like Jason and the Argonauts, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and The Valley of Gwangi. When I had the opportunity to have Mr. Harryhausen sign some items at a film festival, I brought out Bradbury's A Graveyard for Lunatics, which features a character based on Harryhausen. 

The last story I read that day was "To The Chicago Abyss," which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for May 1963, which was the Ray Bradbury tribute issue. It is a dystopia. The action takes place in a ruined city. An old man has been accosting strangers reminding them of items that used to be available before the current period of strict rationing. However they now live a police state with laws forbidding all public disturbances. Finally, he is assaulted and then hidden from the police by a stranger. There are obvious hints of Fahrenheit 45i in this work, with its police state and suggestions of bombed-out cities. But what struck me the most was how the protagonist resembled Bradbury. His crime is reminding people of vacuum-packed coffee, and Butterfingers chocolate bars just as in other works Bradbury repeats the advertising jingle Denham's Dentifrice or has a character expound on the virtues of Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes. Bradbury often comes across as a storyteller almost consumed by his wild enthusiasm for the setting and action of his own stories. Here protagonist shares Bradbury's uncontrollable, nostalgic love of simple pleasures and happier times. 

Wednesday, we went out for another appointment and visited Shelf Life books. I had hoped to find some of the MIT presses editions of Stanislaw Lem's work. They were not to be found. 

However the helpful young man with the wonderful tattoo's, big insects and geometric diagrams, had placed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven one of my favourite SF novels among the staff picks by the register. My previous copy is falling apart and I have long wanted the cover with the flying turtles/Aldebaranians. So I have spent part of the evening flipping through it, eating tuna fish sandwiches (p103) and listening to the Beatle's "With a Little Help From My Friends" (p154) and getting by.