Thursday, October 21, 2021

Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein, Part Two

Glory Road was published in 1963, halfway through Robert A. Heinlein's career as a professional author. He was fifty-six years old when Glory Road came out. By then, at least two golden ages had gotten behind him, his own as a reader and fan of science fiction, after that a Golden Age of Science Fiction, in which he had played such an essential part as a writer for Astounding Science-Fiction. There is an atmosphere of nostalgia, loss, and ultimately sadness in Heinlein's novel. His narrator and protagonist, Vietnam veteran Scar Gordon, seems brash and maybe a little cocky in the beginning. By the end, he is almost forlorn--stranded and abandoned and alone in both time and space. His predicament is the same as the youthful science fiction fan who has aged into adulthood and can no longer escape as he once did so easily into fantasy. Maybe we can count Heinlein in that group.

The tone in Glory Road is on its surface self-conscious and ironic, also conscious of the history and culture of fantasy and science fiction. "I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom," Gordon writes. "I wanted Storisende and Poictisme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, 'The game's afoot!'" (Emphasis added.) (p. 35) Again and again, there are mentions of and allusions to legends and fictions of the past: Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Prester John, the Golem, Umbopa, Tarzan, Conan, Hawk Carse, Buck Rogers, Lucky Star(r), Hobbits, Robin Hood and Maid Marian--on and on they go. There are writers, too, including Coleridge, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, and Kerouac. There are even publishers such as Playboy, Gold Medal books, and Olympia Press. As I wrote last time, Charles Fort, Ambrose Bierce, and Kaspar Hauser make their way into Glory Road. But no one, real or fictional, is more of a presence than is John Carter, no damsel more prominent than is Dejah Thoris, and no place more central than is Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels, Heinlein's protagonist journeys to his distant planet in a more or less random, magical-mystical way. There are all kinds of people and cultures on that faraway place, strange creatures, too, including an eight-legged, thoat-like mount, nicknamed a "long-horse." (As in Burroughs, there is also an interest in nudity.) Glory Road is not a Mars novel, though. In actuality, it's a Mars meta-novel: Scar Gordon doesn't want adventure so much as to enter into a fantasy of adventure. Thus the meta-. Thus also Gordon lacks a certain amount of self-consciousness and a sense of irony after all. In actuality, it is Heinlein who is aware of the irony of Gordon's situation and Heinlein who subjects him to sadness and loss and to an ultimate abandonment in time and space. I don't think we can avoid the conclusion that Heinlein felt like Scar Gordon and that the brashness and cockiness of both the author and his protagonist were mostly, if not entirely, a front.

* * *

There are innovations in Glory Road. As a quest, it's in a long line of quests going back to ancient times. But it's also a kind of precursor to role-playing games, namely Dungeons & Dragons, and video games or computer games in which one of the objects is to acquire and have with you the right kind of armor, clothing, weapons, gadgets, etc., for every possible situation. Of course you can't carry all of that stuff with you. What you need is a TARDIS-like carrier. And in Glory Road, Scar Gordon and his traveling companions have one. It's called a "foldbox," and it's a pretty marvelous invention on Heinlein's part. Two more innovations: an invisible fence (p. 157) and a gadget like the 3DBB from Tennessee Tuxedo (p. 173).

* * *

Heinlein put Utopia and democracy into Glory Road, too, neither very favorably:

This non-system [Star's home planet, of which she is empress] holds together by having no togetherness, no uniformity, never seeking perfection, no utopias--just answers good enough to get by, with lots of looseness and room for many ways and attitudes. (pp. 215-216)

[In other words: freedom, individuality, diversity, and tolerance--but also a kind of ruthlessness.]

[Nebbi, a "smooth oaf," speaks in regards to what he calls the American "Noble Experiment":] "I was speaking of the amusing notice of chatter rule. 'Democracy.' A curious delusion--as if adding zeros could produce a sum." (p. 261)

[That's one worth remembering: As if adding zeroes could produce a sum.]

[Scar Gordon's friend Rufo puts in his two cents' worth:] "Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is--so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group." (p. 262)

[I think "mathematicians" here means essentially the meritocratic elite, or what we might call heroes or the great men (and women) of history. And I guess Heinlein would have disagreed with the later concept of the wisdom of crowds.]

* * *

One more quote: Star, speaking of the monster Igli, says: "Igli can't be killed. You see, he is not really alive. He is a construct [. . . .] (p. 76) That reminds me of some other characters that we're going to encounter really, really soon.

Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein (1963) in the Berkeley paperback edition of 1970. Cover art by Paul Lehr (1930-1998). (There is something wrong with my copy of this book, all to do with printing, binding and trimming. There are also some problems with typography in the interior. I'll sum it up in one word: cheap.)

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 7-Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein

Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein was published in book form and serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, both in the same year, 1963. Although the decade was still young, Glory Road was at least the third of Heinlein's novels to be published since 1960 and one of three published in 1963. Heinlein had already put a lot of magazine writing behind him. One of his last short stories was "All You Zombies . . .", from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1959. And what a way to go out. He spent most of the rest of his life writing novels. My copy of Glory Road is the Berkeley Medallion edition from 1970 with cover art by Paul Lehr (1930-1998).

I'll start by speculating that Glory Road must have been one of the first science fiction stories (if not the first) to have treated the Vietnam War. Its narrator and protagonist, "Scar" Gordon, is a combat veteran of a war that was not supposed to have been a war when Heinlein wrote. Being a former military man, Heinlein must have been always on the alert for wars and rumors of wars. He must have recognized the expanding war in Vietnam as a jumping off point for his own explorations, however great or small, of the human condition.

At first you wonder about the setup of Glory Road. Halfway through, you're still wondering: What kind of book is this? And in the end, you still wonder: What has happened here? Has it all been a fantasy, worse yet a delusion? Is the narrator even sane? Or has he been driven into gentle madness by Heinlein's own nostalgia, the sense of the author's loss of the golden age of his own youth and of a better America? Has Scar Gordon suffered a psychotic episode of some kind? And if so, is it because of his war experience? Or is it because of the larger facts of his living in a certain version of twentieth-century America, with all of its isolation and alienation, its mindless conformity and commodification of everything, with the sense that we have all been cut adrift and are now utterly alone?

At first, Heinlein's book seems brash and clever and smart-alecky, a typical Heinlein product. Then you begin to see just how sophisticated and daring it is. Is it all over by the halfway mark? What can be left to tell? But it goes on, and under all of it is a growing and affecting sadness. Much of that sadness seems to be Heinlein's own, but it could be the sadness and nostalgia and loss experienced by any former childhood reader and fan of science fiction and fantasy: In July 1963, when Glory Road was first in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Robert A. Heinlein turned fifty-six years old.*

* * *

Charles Fort is in Glory Road, though not by name:

     Star went on, "Whatever the truth, there are leakages between worlds. On your own planet disappearances run to hundreds of thousands and not all are absconders or wife-deserters; see any police department's files. One usual place is the battlefield. The strain becomes too great and a man slides through a hole he didn't know was there and winds up 'missing in action.' Sometimes--not often--a man is seen to disappear. One of your American writers, Bierce or Pierce, got interested and collected such cases. He collected so many that he was collected, too. And your Earth experiences reverse leakage, the 'Kaspar Hausers,' persons from nowhere, speaking no known language and never able to account for themselves."

     "Wait a minute? Why just people?"

     "I didn't say 'just people.' Have you never heard of rains of frogs? Of stones? Of blood? Who questions a stray cat's origin? Are all flying saucers optical illusions? I promise you they are not; some are poor lost astronauts trying to find their way home. My people use space travel very little, as faster-than-light is the readiest way to lose yourself among the Universes. We prefer the safer method of metaphysical geometries--or 'magic' in the vulgar speech." (pp. 133-134)

There is more than just Charles Fort in that passage, though. There is also a clue to Scar Gordon's situation: The soldier experiences so great a strain on the battlefield that he "slides through a hole he didn't know was there." Or is it in fact a clue? Maybe instead it's just a red herring. The ending makes you wonder.

Ambrose Bierce is here, but then Bierce had previously been on Fort's mind, too. (Pierce may be a pun--the mysterious Bierce seems to have pierced a barrier between worlds and slid through a hole as well.) Maybe Bierce got into Glory Road by way of Fort, who speculated that someone in the universe is collecting Ambroses.

Kaspar Hauser, also mentioned in the passage above, is in Wild Talents (1932), Fort's final book and a chronicle of people with strange and unexplained powers and abilities (and a possible source for the science-fictional concept of psychic powers and the Superior Man). Rains of frogs, stones, and blood are in Fort, too, as are flying saucers, though not by name. Special, wild talents and visitors from other worlds--these form Science Fiction Plots #1 and #2 summarized in my previous entry in this series.

Like Spider Robinson after him, Heinlein read Charles Fort and inserted him into his book. My question is: Why? If twentieth-century American science fiction existed separate from the concepts of Charles Fort, why did its writers return to him again and again? Why did they draw from him, rely on him, resort to him, like a prop for their three-legged table? I'm not sure. If you have ever read Fort's writing, you know him to have been an eccentric, if not a crank. He wrote like a drunkard. His theorizing is kind of half or three-quarters crazy. (If he was a monist, does that mean he is in a category with Hegel and Marx? Now we're talking some crazy.) H.G. Wells referred to him as a damnable bore. (Maybe Wells, sensing a usurper, was jealous.) H.L. Mencken wrote that Fort seems to have been "enormously ignorant of elementary science." He called Fort a quack. And yet one science fiction author after another--authors of weird fiction, too--seem to have read him with relish and to have absorbed his myriad/monadic ideas. I guess in practical terms that makes sense: Here was enough material for an endless number of stories, constructed from endless permutations of Fort's "data." So were these authors merely opportunists? Or did they really believe in him? I can't say. In Glory Road, Heinlein, a science-minded man to be sure, seems to have followed the Charles Fort Road as well, making anti-science and science, magic (or metaphysics) and mathematics into one continuous thing: the damned and the not damned walk together down that endless road.

* * *

There is a larger influence in Glory Road. That comes next.


*In 1963, Heinlein was almost exactly halfway through his career as a published author of science fiction. At the halfway point of Glory Road, the narrator runs into a kind crisis: The fun and adventurous part is over; now something else begins. Could Heinlein have seen himself or recreated himself as his own protagonist? Was the fun part over for him?

To be continued . . .

Above: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July and September, 1963. The cover story is a serialization of Robert A. Heinlein's Glory Road. The artist was Emsh (1925-1990).

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Brandon Fleming (1889-1970)

Charles Brandon Raincock Fleming

Journalist, Author, Playwright, Screenwriter, Producer
Born April 27, 1889, Streatham, Surrey, England
Died October 1970, Kensington, Greater London, England

Charles Brandon Raincock Fleming, known as Brandon Fleming, was born on April 27, 1889, in Streatham, Surrey, England. In the census of 1911 he was head of his household, which included his widowed mother, and employed as a freelance journalist. He had already begun by then signing his name as Brandon Fleming.

Fleming wrote dozens of short stories published from 1910 to 1941 in The Blue Magazine, The Corner Magazine, Detective Fiction Weekly, The Novel Magazine, Pearson's Magazine, The Red Magazine, The Story-Teller, The Strand Magazine, and other titles. He had just one story in Weird Tales, "The Ruby," from January 1933. That story had previously been printed in The Grand Magazine #332, dated October 1932. "The Ruby" is the only story by Brandon Fleming listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. He may have written others, but it would take a reading of many British pulp magazines and story magazines to find out. This might be a job for someone located closer to the source.

Brandon Fleming was also a playwright, screenwriter, and film producer. He wrote the source material and/or screenplays for thirteen movies, from The Eleventh Commandment (1924) to Music and Millions (1936). The Internet Movie Database has more than one Brandon Fleming in its lists of credits. A second of these Brandons wrote and produced movies that were released between 1954 and 1963, including a horror movie called The Woman Eater (1958), which might be added to the Botanical Fiction Database. I'm pretty sure these were the same Brandon because Brandon Fleming the magazine writer had a story called "The Flaw" in Detective Fiction Weekly (Mar. 19, 1932), and Brandon Fleming the screenwriter wrote the scenario for a crime film called The Flaw, released in 1955.

The fact that Brandon Fleming's credits ended in 1941 and didn't pick up again until 1954 makes me think he was engaged in the war effort, possibly afterwards in government service or journalism. In any case, Brandon Fleming lived a long life and died fifty-one years ago this month, in October 1970, in Kensington, Greater London, England. He was eighty-one years old.

Brandon Fleming's Story in Weird Tales
"The Ruby" (Jan. 1933; originally in The Grand Magazine #332, Oct. 1932)

Further Reading
None that I can find, although a search for back issues posted to the Internet might yield some of his stories. Also, Fleming's stories are listed on The FictionMags Index, an invaluable source for fans of pulp fiction.

The Story-Teller, a British magazine, with Brandon Fleming's name on the cover, September 1927.

A poster or lobby card for The Woman Eater, released in 1958 with a screenplay by Brandon Fleming. The coconut-half claws of the tree-monster remind me of the claws of the creatures created by H.P. Lovecraft for "The Shadow Out of Time," the cover story of Astounding Stories, June 1936. You can see similar images in my blog entry called "Trees and Other Plants on the Cover of Weird Tales," dated February 11, 2014, by clicking here.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, October 15, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 6-Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson

The club story is not really a genre but a type. There are club stories in science fiction and fantasy, but they might just as easily be in any genre. Think of "The World of Commander McBragg" on one end of the spectrum and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899) on the other. There is another club story of sorts coming our way in this series, so stay tuned.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson (Ace Books, 1987) is a collection of club stories set in just one place, the interior of a fictional (and fantastical) bar in the author's native Long Island. Many or most of these stories appeared originally in Analog magazine, then edited by Ben Bova (1932-2020). It is to the late Mr. Bova that Spider Robinson (b. 1948) dedicated his book. The original publication in book form was in 1977.

We think of Mary Shelley or Edgar Allan Poe or Jules Verne or H.G. Wells as being the originator of science fiction. Weak or strong, a case could be made that Charles Fort (1874-1932) actually played that role. Without a doubt, Fort's name came up again and again in science fiction and pseudoscientific writing in the twentieth century, maybe more often than the names of the others I have listed here. Fort's name occurs not once but twice in Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. These occurrences are set on two foundation blocks laid down by Charles Fort, blocks upon which so much science fiction has been constructed in the years since he first wrote.

Before being called science fiction, everyone's favorite genre was sometimes referred to as pseudoscientific literature. Before he researched and wrote The Book of the Damned (1919), Charles Fort was a science fiction writer. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an entry on pseudoscience, giving Fort his due (or "dew"--see Callahan's, page 61). "The two areas of his theorizing," the encyclopedists write, "that have most influenced [science fiction] are ESP/Psi Powers and the notion that we are being secretly observed, and perhaps controlled, by mysterious intelligences." Spider Robinson covers both of these areas, to wit:

  • On page 61, referring to mutants who possess so-called psychic powers, a character says: "You've probably heard of them, maybe seen one on T.V. or read about 'em in places like Charles Fort."
  • On page 151, another says: "No, my friend, Charles Fort was quite correct: you are property, and on the whole not very bright property."

So, Science Fiction Plot #1: Endowed with hidden, latent, or unrecognized powers (and by extension, with his own special knowledge, or gnosis), the Superior Man struggles until, realizing his powers, triumphs, meaning, of course, that he is recognized for his superiority, and all of humanity gives way. We have in the real world men and women who believe themselves to be morally, intellectually, or racially (thus physically) superior to the masses of humanity. They believe it only right that we yield to their superiority. (Sometimes they even write books about their struggles.) Carried to its logical conclusion, Science Fiction Plot #1 may mean the establishment of Utopia. That Utopia may be societal--i.e., the typical Progressive Utopia, also known as Dystopia--or personal, i.e., perhaps the Conservative Utopia, as in the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In the real world, the Superior Man Plot leads either to Dystopia, as in the late Soviet Union, or Apocalypse, as in the final days of Nazi Germany.

And, Science Fiction Plot #2: Superior races or species from other planets own us, or aspire to own us or our world, and so they invade Earth to take what they own or wish to own. Unfortunately, the results are the same, i.e., either Dystopia (as in Stephen Baxter's sequel to The War of the Worlds, The Massacre of Mankind, from 2017) or Apocalypse (as in Robert Bloch's sequel to "The Call of Cthulhu," Strange Eons, from 1978).

I'm sure there are other possibilities--we want other possibilities, or at least I do. Maybe I have blinders on right now because of the current topic. Then again, maybe we are driven by our nature to perish either in fire or ice, at least whenever we live at the extremes of our nature.

* * *

Science fiction from mid century and after in which so-called psychic powers play a part, usually as a lead-in to the "superior man" kind of plot, can be pretty tiresome. I begin reading, and then I think, "Oh, no, here we go again." Psychic powers are not scientific. At best they are pseudoscientific. Incorporating them into a science fiction story immediately turns it into a non-science fiction story. Using psychic powers in a story limits its appeal. It invokes boredom in the reader. It demonstrates a lack of imagination on the part of the author by providing him or her with an easy way out of the difficulties of plotting his or her story. Psychic powers are a twentieth-century version of magic--and just as baseless and arbitrary as magic--all gussied up in the clothing of science. (They have even found their way into the mythology of flying saucers, thus a fusion of Charles Fort's two foundational ideas.) Maybe all of that was under the influence of John W. Campbell, Jr., Campbell who seems to have believed in the concept of the superior man. Maybe the insecure man, the man who believes himself actually to be inferior, is drawn to the idea that if only he can cultivate his latent powers--if only he can get everyone to see how truly great he is--he might jump over his fellows in a kind of moral, intellectual, or physical/racial game of leapfrog. Yeah, that'll show 'em, all of those people who made fun of me, stood in my way, frustrated my ambitions, failed to recognize my superiority. Maybe he imagines that once he's on top, like Yertle the Turtle, he will be happy. Yes, only then will he be happy. And maybe there are similarities between the Inferior/Superior Man of science fiction and the True Believer of Eric Hoffer's--and John W. Campbell's--time. And not just of their time but our own as well. (1, 2)

* * *

Anyway, Charles Fort was on the minds of science fiction writers during the twentieth century. I wonder now whether they wrote largely under his sway, whether there was any escaping him, or even whether there would have been a twentieth-century American science fiction as we know it without him. Fort will show up in the next book I will write about in this series. Edgar Rice Burroughs, another founder of our science fiction, will also make his return.


(1) The Campbellian Golden Age of Science Fiction, 1938 to 1950, is inclusive of the arc of War, the perpetrators of which were the immediate subject of Hoffer's analysis.

(2) The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer was published in 1951, the year after "Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science" by L. Ron Hubbard appeared in Astounding Science Fiction (May 1950). The science fiction author is of course a man (or woman) of words and not of action. But in his fiction, the man of words can make of himself a man of action: he can turn himself into his own hero. Maybe science fiction is after all an adolescent power fantasy in the same way that socialism and similar beliefs are such fantasies--one difference being that science fiction writers don't typically murder great masses of their fellow men.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson (Ace Books, 1987), with cover art by Vincent DiFate (b. 1945).

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 5-Strange Gods, edited by Roger Elwood

Strange Gods is an anthology of science fiction stories about religion. The editor was Roger Elwood (1943-2007). The cover artist was Charles Moll, about whom it's hard to find much of anything on the Internet. The book was published in 1974 by Pocket Books.

There are twelve stories in Strange Gods. The thirteenth at the table is an introduction by George Zebrowski (b. 1945). My favorites are the opening story, "High Priest" by J.F. Bone (1916-2006); "The Director" by James Howard (possibly a pseudonym); and the closing story, "Musspelsheim" by Richard A. Lupoff (1935-2020). "High Priest" is a post-apocalyptic story. "The Director" is dystopian, the other side of the Apocalypse-Dystopia (or fire-and-ice, or circle-and-arrow) coin. "Musspelsheim" is something different.

Barry N. Malzberg (I wrote about him last time) is represented twice in Strange Gods, once under his own name and again under his pseudonym K.M. McDonnell, which is Mr. Malzberg's tribute to C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Virginia Kidd (1921-2003) is here, too, with a poem. She was married to James Blish (1921-1975) for a time. You have seen his name in this blog lately, too.

I'll write only about "Musspelsheim" by Richard A. Lupoff. The late Mr. Lupoff is known for his work on Edgar Rice Burroughs, but his story in Strange Gods is obviously in the mode of  H.P. Lovecraft. The prose style is different, and that's good. No one should try to write like Lovecraft. His style was his and his alone. Nonetheless, "Musspelsheim" is Lovecraftian in tone and structure. There is even a a list of books, obscure and not, arcane and not, perhaps real and not, in its pages (pp. 186-187). "Musspelsheim" takes place in the then-modern day of the 1960s or 1970s. It involves technology, specifically sound technology. That might be a Lovecraftian touch as well.* There is fascinating detail here on a topic that might otherwise have been mind-deadingly dull for the reader: this is science fiction for audiophiles, and it reads almost like nonfiction, like an article from Rolling Stone or The New Yorker. (There is a description of a rock group in Mr. Lupoff's story. Could they be the Rolling Stones?) The ending is also Lovecraftian, though perhaps more positive, being suggestive of a positive transcendence.** I would not call "Musspelsheim" a great science fiction story, but it is an interesting story. You might even call it extraordinary. And if you want to call it a pastiche, it was at least done in the right way.

*"Musspelsheim" makes me think of Lovecraft's "Cool Air" or "The Statement of Randolph Carter."
**On the other hand, the subject of the story, named Poletsky, may have just gone off the deep end. And it occurs to me now that "Musspelsheim" has similarities to The Great Gatsby, too: Poletsky as Gatsby.  

Strange Gods, edited by Roger Elwood (1974), with cover art by Charles Moll, illustrating "High Priest" by J.F. Bone.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, October 8, 2021

Summer Reading List No. 4-The Engines of the Night by Barry N. Malzberg

I had planned on finishing this series before the end of summer. My Internet non-provider had other plans though. Call it (this series) now obsolete. But maybe not quite, for it will end with books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and an imitator of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and so I'll be back to the previous series, which may also be, if not quite obsolete, at least late in arriving.

* * *

Before getting to Barry N. Malzberg's book, I'll bring up another book I read more recently, Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins (1980; paperback edition, 1981). It's a crazy, funny book, full of crazy, funny, and inventive expressions, similes, metaphors, and other turns of phrase. Reading it is likely to color your own thoughts and words for a time. It did mine. First, I'll offer you the opening paragraph of chapter one:

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, at a time when Western civilization was declining too rapidly for comfort and yet too slowly to be very exciting, much of the world sat on the edge of an increasingly expensive theater seat, waiting--with various combinations of dread, hope, and ennui--for something momentous to occur. (p. 3)

So even in the late 1970s when Mr. Robbins was tapping out his story on an "all-new Remington SL-3," decline had set in. I can't say whether we're in the same curve now--maybe we climbed out of it somewhere along the line, at least for a while--but signs of decline are all around us. The image that came to me while I was reading Still Life with Woodpecker is that we live in an elaborate and carefully constructed world, one like a great palace--except that it's made of sugar. And the rains have started to fall. Things might be okay where you are, but over here, there is already pitting, like acne scars or astroblemes, in the surface of this sugar-palace of a world. Things might be okay where I am, but over there it's starting to melt and crumble. Soon the melting might look like the acid-blood of a face-sucking alien burning through the decks of the Nostromo, threatening the whole ship with destruction. How long can it hold?

Although Still Life with Woodpecker is not really a genre work, there is talk of UFOs, ancient aliens, pyramid power, and other outrĂ© subjects in its pages. (The book is divided into phases, like the moon, and so "the last quarter" of the opening sentence carries with it a double meaning.) You might call the whole book outrĂ©. But in seeing what has happened in our world over the past year and a half, and in witnessing what is happening now, I wonder whether we might be headed for some kind of science-fictional situation, something previously only imagined and not really foreseen. Maybe something momentous will occur after all, and we will no longer be, in our everyday lives, bored and tired. We will live in interesting times.

* * *

In August, I read The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties by Barry N. Malzberg (Bluejay Books, 1984). It's a good and interesting book, but I wish there were more detail in it. The subtitle is misleading, for Mr. Malzberg copyrighted his book in 1982; the Bluejay edition is from September 1984. In other words, less than half of the decade had passed by the time The Engines of the Night was published; there is no mention of William Gibson and his Neuromancer.

There are some interesting discussions of science fiction during previous decades, though. More than once, Barry Malzberg referred to science fiction in the late 1940s as "dystopian." I think he used that word in a general, less precise way, meaning pessimistic or negative, dim or dark. He didn't really provide examples, and I don't know enough about science fiction to say, but if it's true that the genre was dystopian in the late 1940s, it's no wonder that science fiction writers--Raymond A. Palmer and L. Ron Hubbard specifically--came up with more hopeful or positive or affirmative visions. Maybe that's how the religions of science fiction were born.

There were of course seeds of dystopia in Hubbard's belief system. He seems to have been afflicted with a totalitarian personality and riddled like a disease with totalitarian impulses and ambitions. So his vision became spoiled soon enough. The flying saucer vision, though, was more hopeful and positive. These were, after all, our space brothers, and they were bringing to us messages of peace, love, and salvation. It was not merely by chance that The Day the Earth Stood Still was released in 1951, four years after the first sighting of flying saucers and a year before the great flap of 1952.* In contrast to Dianetics and Scientology, the more freeing and hopeful vision of the flying saucers endured . . .

But only for so long. Remember that The Thing from Another World was also released in 1951. It provided an alternate version of the visitation-from-outer-space story. Its giant walking carrot was no space brother. By the mid fifties, certainly by the end of the flying saucer era in 1973, the hope represented by a belief in flying saucers had been replaced with fear, paranoia, conspiracy, even madness and despair.** Maybe it's no coincidence, either, that science fiction again became more negative or dystopian in the 1970s. Barry N. Malzberg was there to write some of it and to write about some of it in The Engines of the Night.

* * *

Mr. Malzberg has been canceled, or something like canceled. I don't have anything to say about that controversy. I'll just point out that in his essay "The Cutting Edge," he listed his choices for the ten best science fiction stories of all time. His top two are by women, "Vintage Season" by C.L. Moore (1946) and "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon; 1974). I have never read Alice Sheldon's story, but I won't argue with anybody who says that "Vintage Season" is the greatest science fiction story ever written.


*In Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins continued: "Something momentous was bound to happen soon. [. . .] But what would it be? And would it be apocalyptic or rejuvenating? [. . .] A change in the weather or a change in the sea [. . . .] or a UFO on the White House lawn? (p. 3) That image, of course, is straight from the movies (but before Independence Day [1996]).

**Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers were both released in 1956. In the real world, UFO investigator Morris K. Jessup, a troubled man to be sure, killed himself in 1959. The supposed first alien abduction case, with all of its dark overtones, came two years later, in 1961, when Betty and Barney Hill were taken aboard a flying saucer, reliving in the process the experiences of General Hanley (no relation) and the police officer in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. As I have suggested before, things happen in science fiction--and in the works of artists--before they happen in the real world.

The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties by Barry N. Malzberg (1984), with cover art by Wayne Douglas Barlowe. The title is suggestive of something dark or dystopian. Mr. Barlowe's illustration depicts that kind of darkness.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Again, After a Break . . .

My Internet went out again and is now back again. I feel like the man in the movie who notices little things here and there, things that aren't quite right but also don't add up just yet. After a while he realizes: these things are indications of something greater--something more ominous and sinister--afoot in the world. But what is it? What exactly is happening? The post office refuses your mail. Your phone and Internet go out. The lobbies at fast food restaurants are closed because there aren't enough workers to keep them open. Even when you go into the lobby, no one is there to take your order. You hear of shortages of school bus drivers in the United States, fuel truck drivers in the United Kingdom. Shortages of electrical power in China. Shortages of natural gas in Europe forecast for this winter. Forget global warming. How many people will die this winter because of the cold? On the opposite end of serious situations, there are shortages of comic book bags and backer boards. If it's cold and dark, at least you can light a candle and wrap a blanket around yourself. But comic books must be protected. How do we save civilization if we don't save all of the elements of civilization? Anyway, these are the situations our elites have created for us. More bad things are on their way. We can all be sure of that. Those same elites would have us believe that they know what they're doing, that they know better than we do--or Nature does, or Reality does--about how the world should run. Pride goeth before the fall.

* * *

I have been reading a lot lately. I still have my series on summer reading to complete. First this break, which follows a break.

One of the books I found this year at Half Price Books is Abyss by Kate Wilhelm (Bantam, 1973), a collection of two novellas, "The Plastic Abyss" and "Stranger in the House." First, I should say again what a good writer Kate Wilhelm was. Her prose is full of colors, moods, feelings--full of emotion, sensitivity, and introspection--relationships, too, especially mother-to-child relationships. (She had two children of her own.) In these things, she was a worthy successor to C.L. Moore (except that Catherine died childless). Some people consider C.L. Moore to have been a feminist or at least a proto-feminist author. I'm not so sure about that. But I think feminists will find something of interest in Abyss, especially in the title story, "The Plastic Abyss," which ends in a kind of transcendence of the lead character, a writer named Dorothy.

"The Plastic Abyss" is a work of real sophistication in science fiction. Originally published in 1971, it followed on the heels of a decade of sophisticated works in that genre, a good example of which is "A Bit of the Dark World" by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (1962). Like Leiber's story, "The Plastic Abyss" is almost phantasmagoric or psychedelic in places, though not to the same extent. There are some genuinely weird and eerie events in Kate's story. She handled these things to perfection. I wonder if she could have been influenced by A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920).

"The Plastic Abyss" is in some ways a weird tale. As in other weird tales, there are sensitive characters and there are hard-edged materialists. Dorothy is a sensitive and perceptive person. She is open to possibilities. Being young and not fully formed, her stepdaughter Jo is also open and sensitive. Their friend Tony, a young, visionary painter, completes their trio. Dorothy's husband, Gary, is her opposite. There is friction between them for different reasons, one of which is his lack of sensitivity and openness. Like materialists elsewhere in genre fiction, he is unable to cope in his confrontation with the nonmaterial or supernormal. His wife--significantly, I think, a woman--seems to reach a transcendent state--to make a leap into a new state of consciousness or existence or power. He--significantly a man--is left behind. It would seem, then, that Kate Wilhelm was a non-materialist, for that is where her sympathies so clearly lie in these two stories. But was she also a believer? We still don't know.

(One more thing about "The Plastic Abyss": it seems to have forecast the arrival of a new kind of stealth technology in which an object might be hidden by projecting images not of itself. It's a story of surfaces versus layers or depths.)

* * *

I have asked the question before: Is there or can there be a gothic science fiction? If Frankenstein was science fiction, the answer is obviously yes, for it is also a gothic work. Fritz Leiber attempted to treat the problem of gothicism in the twentieth century. William Gibson is a more recent practitioner of gothic science fiction. In "Stranger in the House," Kate Wilhelm had a go at that mix of seemingly opposite genres. Fans of weird fiction will find in it another story that they might well enjoy.

As I was reading, I thought that "The Plastic Abyss" had a TV-movie quality to it. "Stranger in the House" is actually structured and reads like a teleplay. I could easily imagine it as an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. That made me wonder about the differences in generations of science fiction writers. Some were born in and grew up in the years before there were movies. Their storytelling often reflects that. Others saw movies but not television during their formative years. That influence shows, too. Still others were young enough to have been influenced by the first generations of television shows from the 1950s and '60s. I wonder if Kate Wilhelm--who was born in 1928--was among that younger generation of writers. (Today, writers seem to be influenced by nothing but television and movies, or worse, video games and computer games. It's this kind of stepping-down in culture that leads so easily to decline and decay and dissolution.)

"Stranger in the House" begins like a typical gothic romance, as a married couple moves into an old house with a secret history. The woman, Mandy, begins experiencing strange and seemingly malign things. Her husband, Robert, another materialist, is skeptical that these experiences indicate anything out of the ordinary. He believes his wife is mentally ill. (Where do all of these numbskull materialists come from, not just in fiction but in the real world as well?) The house, though, is not haunted by a ghost or a demon or a crazy woman locked in the attic. The haunter--the stranger--is actually an alien. (I'm not giving anything away by telling you that. You'll find out soon enough as you read the story.) The alien lives under the cellar. He is called the Groth. Take away the "r" and of course you get . . .

Two young people quickly figure out that an alien is responsible for all of the strange things going on. How I'm not sure. It speaks to the period that no one considers a cryptozoological creature as a possible culprit. Anyway, there is a kind of SETI scene that takes place in the cellar, an interesting development for this blog considering that I have written so recently about The Listeners by James E. Gunn. "Stranger in the House" also shares some elements with the movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). I liked "The Plastic Abyss" more than "Stranger in the House." It's a tighter and more pointed work, I think. But both are good and if you have a chance you might delve into Abyss.

* * *

Now that I have read Abyss, I would like to read more of Kate Wilhelm's writing but also more science fiction from the 1960s and early 1970s. I send best wishes to all of you in your own reading adventures.

Abyss by Kate Wilhelm (Bantam, 1973) with cover art by Lou Feck (1925-1981). The title of this collection goes to its first story, the almost typical gothic romance cover illustration to its second.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley