Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Note on a Passing

Brazil has lost another national treasure--and the world a world's treasure--with the death of João Gilberto, who died on July 6 at age 88. He was, in Antônio Carlos Jobim's words, "O Baiano bossa-nova," thus the name of a kind of music that would soon take the world by storm. Even now, sixty years after its beginnings, listening to bossa nova is still a great pleasure. This of course has nothing to do with weird fiction, fantasy, or science fiction, but as I've written, I'm working on a long science-fiction story right now, and in tipping my hat to the people of Brazil--a great people: you can tell by their music--I have given the female lead in my story the Portuguese name PaulinhaMuito obrigado and R.I.P., João Gilberto.

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, July 8, 2019

Problems in Science Fiction No. 2

Another problem in science fiction is an old one, but it's becoming more pronounced with each passing moment. The problem is this: with as rapidly as things are changing in the real world, science fiction is in danger of becoming obsolete even before it's published. I'm not sure that anyone can keep up with the rapidity of change in our world. I don't think that even a polymath like Isaac Asimov could have done it. That presents a real challenge to the science fiction writer, whose story may be sound in one area and completely fall apart in another because he or she fails to make proper allowances for new developments in technology. I think of all of those science fiction stories from the 1950s in which people of the future light up a smoke or hand each other sheaves of paper to read. Another example of this perceived problem is in Neuromancer by William Gibson, from 1984, an extraordinary work of imagination and in many ways quite visionary, and yet the Japanese in Mr. Gibson's novel/romance stride over the world of the future (our present, or soon to be). To be fair to Mr. Gibson, many people in the 1980s thought that the Japanese would soon stride over the world. Some even thought that we would come to blows with them because of it. But if we call Neuromancer also a predictive work, then it fails miserably, as the Japanese are, in our current world, rapidly not-reproducing themselves out of existence. The seeds of Japanese decline had already been planted by the 1980s, yet few--if any--people saw it. And if the experts got it wrong, how could a science fiction writer get it right? Even more glaring is a total lack of cellphone technology in Neuromancer. In fact, no one that I know of in science fiction foresaw that we would even have cellphones, let alone described just how dominant and world-destroying cellphone culture would become. We are in effect enslaved by and addicted to this technology and by some perspectives have fallen into Dystopia as a result. And yet no one, as far as I know, foresaw it.*

There's a way around all of that, though, and that is to realize that the purpose of science fiction is not to predict the future but to make projections or extrapolations into it based on the writer's understanding of human nature and the possible effects of science and technology on human conduct and human society. The writers of the 1950s didn't do anything wrong by putting cigarettes between the yellowed fingers of guys in futuristic Kelly Freas-style duds. It might be kind of comical now for us to read these things, but they did nothing wrong. Likewise William Gibson. He got enough right in his projections that the things that he might have gotten wrong--what we might erroneously call predictions rather than properly see as projections--are negligible. Neuromancer, because it is so powerful, has not reached obsolescence. It may yet, but I doubt that it will because it is such a vivid and imaginative look at life in a fully realized future world. And though no one foresaw Cellphone or Smartphone World, many, many writers have successfully described Dystopia, probably none as well as the Big Three, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell. They didn't know about cellphones, but they knew human nature.

I have been thinking about these things because I'm currently working on my own science fiction story. Right now it's novella length. It will probably reach near novel length once I have finished it. I have set my story in the far future, after people have reached the stars. Here's the problem with that or any such story: interstellar travel in convenient periods of time is the last technological problem. If you have solved that problem, you have surely solved all others. All other things will already have been tried. So how do you get your people to the stars and only then have them respond to problems presented by new technology? This is a serious question. Maybe I'm flubbing it.

One possible solution is to do what science fiction has always done, that is, to assume certain conditions for the sake of your story and to proceed from there to isolate just one problem and to address only that problem. In writing a science fiction story, you're not in the business of making predictions. If you get your technological developments out of future-chronological order, or if you get the future just plain wrong, it doesn't matter or shouldn't matter as long as your story is strong and your characters are recognizably human. In other words, we get people into the petri dish of the stars so that we can test them with our material. I think Star Trek is an example of this kind of storytelling. Star Trek obviously got things wrong, but the show wasn't trying to predict the future. It did what science fiction in general does: it projected the people and culture of its own time into the future as a kind of experiment: What will the man or woman of today do under the pressures of future technological developments? The result is a television show that, in my opinion, is exciting, engaging, and entertaining even now, half a century after it reached its end.

In any case, I would like to hear what you have to say about these things, and I invite and welcome comments. I look forward to hearing from you.

*The lowly comic strip has actually been pretty good in the department of predictions. For example, long before cellphones and even before Star Trek communicators, Dick Tracy had his two-way wrist radio. For another, the first depiction of a televised moon landing was not in science fiction but in the comic strip Alley Oop.

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Another Anniversary

If you're a comic book fan, you probably know that this is the 80th anniversary year of Batman, who first appeared in Detective Comics #27 on March 30, 1939 (with a cover date of May 1939). There has been a lot of hype on this anniversary. For my part, I drew some Batman-related sketch cards and took them to Bat-Con, a Batman-themed comic book convention in Nitro, West Virginia, a couple of weeks ago. In doing a search on the Internet, though, I find that another 80th anniversary seems to have slipped by unnoticed. The event was the first World Science Fiction Convention, also called Nycon or Worldcon, which was held eighty years ago this week, July 2-4, 1939, in New York City, in conjunction with the New York World's Fair. (That conjunction was fitting in that the theme of the world's fair was the future.) Science fiction fans near and far converged on New York for their convention, including Ray Bradbury, Forrest J Ackerman, and Morojo, who came all the way from Los Angeles. (Given that Ackerman and Morojo wore science fiction-themed costumes, this must also be the 80th anniversary year of the first cosplay.) The World Science Fiction Convention of 1939 is supposed to have been the first science fiction convention held in the United States, at least as we understand conventions. I would like to be the first, I guess, to say Happy Anniversary to Science Fiction Conventions in America.

Forest J Ackerman and Morojo, in costume, at the first World Science Fiction Convention, July 2-4, 1939, in New York City.

Text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Problems in Science Fiction-No. 1, Continued

On May 11, I wrote about a problem in science fiction, which is this: In the future, nothing will be named for anyone or anything that is not politically correct or that is in any way connected to a period in history that has been, must be, or will be relegated to the memory hole. (That's the first reference today to 1984.) That means no names or references to anything Classical, Western, Christian, European, American, etc. You can name things after supposedly oppressed people, or people who are sufficiently high up on the ladder of victimhood to warrant it, or those who are sufficiently woke. You will also be able to name things after communists, socialists (the international kind), Marxists, and believers in other leftwing totalitarian systems. If you doubt that, just think of the places and commercial products currently named for the Marxist murderer and thug Che Guevara. Along those lines I thought of a couple of commercial products of my own with great potential, products that can be named after such people:

Buttigieg Boots--Perfect for Stamping on a Human Face Forever!

(There's the second. By the way, Mr. Buttigieg doesn't know who Alfred E. Neuman is, but I guaran-damn-tee you, as older generations might say, that he knows who Antonio Gramschi was. Just another way that he's out of touch with ordinary Americans.)

Here's another:

Biden Shampoo--Makes Your Hair More Sniffable!

(The problem with that one is that Mr. Biden himself appears to be edging his way towards the memory hole and will probably soon be gone.)

One problem in all of this is that what is okay today will be verboten tomorrow, and there isn't any way of knowing who or what will be shoved into the memory hole. After all, we're all guilty and merely waiting for our crimes to be uncovered.

Anyway, almost on cue, a story came up just six days after I wrote, on May 17, about a "controversy" over a celestial object named Ultima Thule. That name comes from the Classical world and has been used for centuries to describe places in the farthest north, beyond the bounds of the known world. Unfortunately for those two harmless words, the Nazis glommed on to them, and so they are, in the minds of the politically correct, forever tainted and must be removed from human memory. (What a phrase, "minds of the politically correct.") I'm not sure that any sensible person is troubled by the words Ultima Thule, but The Atlantic is. That's where I read about this issue in an article by Marina Koren called "A Nazi Controversy Deep in the Solar System," from May 17, 2019. You can read more about it yourself by clicking here. There may be some resistance among astronomers to doing away with the name, but I suspect that they will give in and that Ultima Thule will ultimately be renamed. For a new moniker for this object that looks like a split cell, how about Meiosis or Mitosis?

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, July 4, 2019

A Teller of Weird Tales at Normandy

I have fallen far, far behind in my writing and other work and have missed so many anniversaries and other topics these past many months, but I can at least get in this brief observation. Last month was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the landings at Normandy and the cracking open of Hitler's vaunted "Fortress Europe." We would be remiss not to remember the courage and sacrifice of the men who carried out the landings and those who supported them. Their numbers are rapidly dwindling every day. It's sad to realize that in our lifetimes--we who were born into the world they made--the last of them will pass away.

This week, I finished reading D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen E. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, 1994). While reading, I ran across the name of a teller of weird tales, R. Ernest Dupuy (1887-1975), who, as General Eisenhower's press aide, was first to confirm to the press that the invasion had commenced by reading the following communiqué at about 9:30 a.m. London time: "Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France." (p. 490) It's worth noting that "[t]he impluse to pray was overwhelming" in England and on the Home Front, as Stephen Ambrose observed. (p. 495) Even the New York Times got in on the act: " 'We pray for our country . . . . The cause prays for itself, for it is the cause of the God who created man free and equal.' " (p. 494) That was the New York Times that expressed that sentiment. Times--and the Times--have sure changed.

By the way, there is one other tangential connection to a teller of weird tales in the late Mr. Ambrose's book. On page 492, the author remembers that One Touch of Venus, which was playing on Broadway in June 1944, had dances by Agnes De Mille, who was a classmate of Leslyn MacDonald (1904-1981) at the University of California, Southern Branch, in the 1920s. "[T]hose were the days," he wrote. They were indeed.

Happy Independence Day, America!

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Problems in Science Fiction-No. 1

A long time ago, I wrote about Fritz Leiber, Jr., and the problem of the weird tale. The problem was and is this: How do we write convincingly about the supernatural, the rural, and the irrational in a thoroughly materialist, urbanized, and (supposedly) rational age? Leiber tried to solve that problem and I think he succeeded. Part of his success comes from the fact that he recognized the problem straightaway and treated it directly in his work. You can see the results in stories such as "Smoke Ghost" (Unknown Worlds, Oct. 1941) and "The Hound" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1942).

Science fiction, too, has its problems. For example, as early as the 1950s, people began asking, Is science fiction dying? I have written about this problem, too. (See the label on the right.) If science fiction is dying, though, the dying is sure taking a long time. So maybe dying isn't a problem in science fiction after all. Anyway, the problems that I see in the genre are manifold, but in this series I want to cover just two of them.

* * *

Earlier this year, I read a short science fiction novel called The Ballad of Beta 2 by Samuel R. Delany (Ace, 1965). I like these short novels from the 1950s and '60s, the kind that you can read in an evening and that don't break the back of your bookshelf. Mr. Delany's novel is interesting and entertaining, but as I read it, a thought occurred to me. Not a thought so much as a problem. That problem shows itself right in the title with the word Beta. It's inside, too: Centaurian, Sigma, Gamma, Epsilon, Delta, Alpha. It's elsewhere in science fiction, too, especially in the original Star Trek.

So what is the problem?

These and so many more names and terms in the science fiction of the future are from classical sources, from the culture, history, philosophy, literature, and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome.

And how is that a problem?

Well, despite the fact that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were pagans (at least before the Romans became turncoats by converting to Christianity), they were white Europeans (1), most of the names we know today were those of men, and they together founded a now hated thing, Western Civilization. Our politically correct culture is against these things, of course, and though you might comfort yourself by thinking that the standards of political correctness are by definition ever-changing, you should also know that hostility towards the classical world as the root of Western Civilization (along with the Judeo-Christian tradition) is rampant not only in academia in general but also in classical studies themselves and among classical scholarsFor example, classical scholar Mary Frances Williams was recently giving a talk at a conference, one of her points being this:
It is important to stand up for Classics as a discipline, and promote it as the political, literary, historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and artistic foundation of Western Civilization, and the basis of European history, tradition, culture, and religion. It gave us the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy, which we should teach and promote. We should not apologize for our field [. . . .] (2)
when she was interrupted by a fellow scholar who heckled her with these words:
"We are not Western Civilization!" (3)
I don't know anything about Ms. Williams or her heckler, and I don't really know very much about this controversy except that it appears to be part of a far larger one that, like a great, black hole, has engulfed everything within reach, including the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. My purpose here is simply to point out that a prominent scholar of classical studies would shout these words and believe this idea:
We are not Western Civilization!

So what does any of this have to with science fiction?

Well, if we ignore the question of whether a navel-gazing culture like our own will ever go into outer space, then we're left with the likelihood that nothing out there will ever be named for a person or concept that has come to us from ancient Greece or Rome, or for that matter from any other period of the history of Europe or the United States or West Civilization in general. In addition, everything that is currently named for people or concepts from those periods will be renamed. Everything that we have will sooner or later be judged impure, and all of it will go into the memory hole. In other words, if, as a science fiction writer, you're going to make extrapolations into a fictional future, then you won't use any Greek or Roman names or roots or words or concepts in your work, as Samuel R. Delany and countless others have done before you. In fact, you won't use anything of real value from our past because all of it is or soon will be considered tainted by the sins of racism, sexism, imperialism, islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so on and on, seemingly infinitely, into areas of sin that we don't yet know about but may yet sense. In their stead, you might try naming things after undocumented transgender Muslims, gay indigenous atheist revolutionaries, gender-fluid Marxists of color, and other peoples dwelling or soon to dwell at the intersections of oppression and resistance. (And you can forget about naming things after women and feminists. After all, they want to protect themselves from the abuses and depredations of people higher up on the ladder of victimhood. What a bunch of oppressors they are.) We already have people talking about racial and gender diversity in a proposed real-life Mars colony. That is, after all, the most important consideration when you're planning on how to survive on an alternately deeply-frigid-to-scorching-hot planet with barely any atmosphere and almost no water. (4)

At this rate, we'll never reach the stars.

To be concluded . . .

(1) "White" can be a pretty loose term when applied to Mediterranean peoples. If you want white, look at an Irishman or Scotsman.
(2) These words are not--I don't think--taken verbatim from her talk but from her written summary of her talk.
(3) Source: "How I was Kicked Out of the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting" by Mary Frances Williams, dated February 26, 2019, and published on the website Quillette, here.
(4) Douglas Adams, who was, we have to admit, a numbskull of a different stripe, anticipated all of this when he wrote his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the last episode of the BBC-TV show, a population of numbskulls arrives on Earth in the distant past. When someone points out that their design for a a wheel--it's hexagonal--can't possibly work, one of them responds, "All right, Mr. Wise Guy, you're so clever, you tell us what color it should be."

The Ballad of Beta 2 by Samuel R. Delany (Ace, 1965), with cover art by Frank Kelly Freas (1922-2005), who of course did work for Weird Tales.

Text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Miscellany No. 5

Also in The Thing's Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales, 1923-1924, author John Locke reprinted an essay called "Writing the Fantastic Story" by Otis Adelbert Kline, originally in The Writer in January 1931. Remembering his childhood talks with his father, Kline wrote:
There was the great mystery of man's advent on this earth, which religion explained in one manner and science in another. We discussed these, and a third possibility, an idea of my father's, that some of our ancient civilizations might have originated by people come here from other planets--the science of space-navigation forgotten by their descendants, but the tradition of their celestial advent persisting in their written and oral traditions.
Kline was born in 1891; he would have been twenty-eight years old when The Book of the Damned, Charles Fort's first, was published in late 1919. The concept of what we now call ancient astronauts was almost certainly in the works of Charles Fort (I'm not sure where exactly), but those would seem to have come too late for Otis Adelbert Kline's father to have been inspired by them, assuming father and son talked about these things when Kline was a child. So who originated the concept? I'm not sure. An older concept, panspermia, is ancient in its origins, but who first imagined an extraterrestrial intelligence coming to earth in the distant past? H.G. Wells touched upon the idea of a far older and more advanced civilization in his opening paragraphs of The War of the Worlds (1897). (There are echoes of Wells' opening in H.P. Lovecraft's opening of "The Call of Cthulhu.") Wells didn't exactly say that Martians had been here before, though. (Or at least I don't think he did.) Morris K. Jessup, about whom I wrote the other day, was one of the twentieth-century originators of the ancient astronaut hypothesis, but it's clear that others thought of it before he did. So when did it begin?

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley