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

Monday, May 6, 2019

Miscellany No. 4

In his recent book The Thing's Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales, 1923-1924, author John Locke reprinted Farnsworth Wright's poem "Self-Portrait," from Fantasy Magazine, April 1935. Wright began his versifying with these words: "The editor's a gloomy guy who fusses, fumes and frets." By the end of the poem, Wright had mentioned all kinds of monsters, including the zombie, here in reference to himself as editor: "A zombie he, undead, yet dead; immortal, and yet mortal." I guess that's one small piece of evidence to show how quickly the zombie moved into American popular culture in the 1930s. Once an obscure Haitian legend, zombies were referred to in common usage in America in less than a decade, from their first appearance in 1928 to Farnsworth Wright's poem of 1935.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Miscellany No. 3

Speaking of Behind the Flying Saucers by Frank Scully, there is mention of a teller of weird tales in that book. I have the Popular Library paperback edition of 1951, and there she is, on page 56. In a discussion of The Ether Ship Mystery and Its Solution by Meade Layne, Scully lists Layne's associates, Millen Cooke, John A. Hilliard, and Edward S. Schultz, all of whom contributed to the book. Scully would not have known it but Millen Cooke was an alias of Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea (1915-1995), who wrote a poem for Weird Tales, published in 1936. (Scully might have known it if he had asked Mulder, who has access to all connecting information, no matter how hidden and obscure it might be.)

I have never read Mead Layne's book, but by its title, he seems to have been holding onto an obsolete idea. I'm not sure how often these things have to be said, but there is no such thing as the ether, nor is there a dark side of the moon, nor spontaneous generation of life, nor inheritance of acquired traits. Likewise, carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound generated by nearly every living thing and essential for life on earth. It is decidedly not a pollutant. Nor can you become male or female merely by wishing for it, even if you wish really, really hard, like when you wished for a pony when you were a child. Nor is history a science, nor are there unicorns or engrams or a flat or hollow earth. All of these things and more are nonscientific, pseudoscientific, or anti-scientific. You can believe in them if you want, but they're not science, they're not true, and they're not factual. They are instead the stuff of fantasy or ignorance or even sometimes evil, which so often seems to be just a variation on fantasy (or delusion) and ignorance.

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Miscellany No. 2

Here is a quote from The Lurker at the Threshold (Ballantine Books, 1971, 1976), which August Derleth wrote mostly on his own but tried to pass off as a collaboration with his master, the recently deceased H.P. Lovecraft. The character Dr. Lapham speaks:
I often think [. . .] how fortunate most men are in their inability to correlate all the knowledge at their disposal. [. . .] If the common man were even to suspect the cosmic grandeur of the universe, if he were to have a glimpse of the awesome depths of outer space, he would very likely either go mad or reject such knowledge in preference to superstation. (p. 152)
This passage very obviously echoes the opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu":
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. [. . .] but some day the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open up terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
I guess Derleth loved Lovecraft's words so much that he wanted to make them his own. There are some problems with the thinking of both men, however. For one, we already "suspect the cosmic grandeur of the universe" and we already "have a glimpse of the awesome depths of outer space." After all, we have minds and imaginations. Moreover, we have eyes in which to look into the night sky, something we have done since the beginning of time. How little confidence Derleth, a man of faith, seems to have had in us. Likewise Lovecraft, a man of no faith, or, alternatively, of a faith in nothing. We don't actually go mad looking into the depths of space or contemplating the nature of reality or our place in the universe. We instead feel awe and wonder. We reach into the heavens and touch the infinite, the eternal, and the absolute. We come in contact with the great mystery. You could have seen that for yourself a few weeks back when the first photograph of a black hole came out. Here is a thing scarier than Cthulhu and bigger than our solar system, its accretion cloud like a fiery iris and the hole itself an immense pupil through which we might gaze into the essential facts of the physical universe. In contemplating this thing, nobody went insane. Instead we laughed and smiled and wondered and felt awe.

Conspiracy theorists think the same thing about humanity: that if we were to know the truth, we would go mad. And so the shadow government of their imaginations hides from us the truth about flying saucers. (I know of a Squatcher who believes the U.S. Army is hiding the truth about Bigfoot. Why would it? What would be the point?) I guess they imagine that we would react in the same way that listeners of Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" or the people in Earle Bergey's cover illustration for Behind the Flying Saucers by Frank Scully react, with fear and panic (the names of the moons of Mars). Again, I think these people underestimate us. After all, the one recorded signal that some people believe to have been evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization is called the "Wow! Signal," not the "Run For Your Lives! Signal."

Anyway, there have been so, so many articles lately about flying saucers, extraterrestrial life, and aliens zipping around the universe, but, alas, nobody has showed up yet. I suspect nobody will anytime soon. Believers in Nothing and the religion of Scientism seem ready to cry about it. If only there were some comfort for them. I also think that we should consider the possibility that we are completely alone in the universe. I know that idea bothers a lot of people. In fact, it may be the more likely thing that would drive them into madness, a madness of despair. But are we really alone? Or do we feel awe and wonder and contemplate mysteries because we are not?

Text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Miscellany No. 1

Here is an item from "The Bizarre Mystery of M.K. Jessup and the Allende Letters" by Brad Steiger and Joan Whritenour in Flying Saucers Have Arrived!, edited by Jay David and published in 1970:
On June 11, 1958, the New York Herald Tribune carried a story that told of the results of a series of excavations conducted by archaeologists in Mongolia, Scandinavia, and Ceylon in which similar artifacts were discovered to those found among the Eskimos. The Smithsonian Institution, sponsors of the study, thereby concluded that ten thousand years ago the Eskimos inhabited Central Asia, especially the warm tropical paradise of Ceylon.
Why any people would want to leave a veritable Garden of Eden for the bleak northern wastes seems beyond comprehension. The Eskimos themselves, however, have had an answer for hundreds of years, which was always received a patronizing chuckle from anthropologists and missionaries. The Eskimo tradition says that they were "deported" to the frozen northland by a flock of giant metallic birds. Shall we continue to laugh at a "legend" of metallic birds today? (p. 175)
I'm not sure that the Smithsonian Institution ever concluded that Eskimos originated in Central Asia, and I'm really, really sure that Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, isn't anywhere even close to that part of the continent. Reading that item, though, made me think of "The Call of Cthulhu" and the nineteenth-century expedition of William Channing Webb to West Greenland during which he "encountered a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Eskimos" and looked upon their "fetish . . . . a very crude bas-relief of stone." This fetish bears a distinct resemblance to one recovered by Inspector John Raymond Legrasse in his later raid on a group of Cthulhu-worshippers in a swamp close-by New Orleans. It is here in the story that pieces of the Cthulhu puzzle are put together for the first time.

In the supposed nonfiction item above, the Eskimos are described as having been "deported" from their ancestral home. They would seem, then, to have been victims of a kind. And what were the giant metallic birds that did the deporting? Could they have been the Vimana of ancient Indian legend? (The Eskimos came from Ceylon, you know, which is slightly closer to India than to Central Asia.) Now in researching this posting, I find that eight American soldiers disappeared in a "Time Well" generated by a Vimana discovered in a cave in Afghanistan (which is in Central Asia) just like the men who got "stuck" after the unsuccessful Philadelphia Experiment, in which Morris K. Jessup was indirectly involved by his correspondence with Carlos Allende, aka Carl Allen. (1) This reminds me of the story of Fred L. Crisman, who claimed to have encountered Shaverian Deros in a cave in Burma (a cave which seems to have been by his description in Central Asia). Remember, too, that Lovecraft's Leng is also in Central Asia. I also find that Eskimo warriors wore laminar armor (pictured below) which seems to have had a delta-wing configuration, just like a Vimana. Could this configuration have been an evocation of a long-ago time when the Eskimo people were carried away on silver wings from their tropical paradise of a homeland in Sri Lanka into exile in the frozen north? I tell you, thinking about these things will wear out your brain.

Anyway, the Eskimo cultists in "The Call of Cthulhu" are obviously not victims, as they worship Cthulhu, who plans on stomping over the Earth like Godzilla on Tokyo. (Both are green and come from under the sea by the way.) But like the Eskimos who were deported, they have connections to faraway places, in this case to Louisiana and the South Pacific. And speaking of crude, H.P. Lovecraft once again demonstrated his crude racialism in casting brown-skinned non-northern Europeans as among his villains. I have written before about the idea that cultists, fanatics, and true believers tend to emanate not from the lower classes or peasantry as in Lovecraft's stories but from the middle class. Karl Marx came from the middle class and hated the middle class. Lenin and Mao were teachers. They hated the middle class, too. Hitler was an artist and the son of a minor government official. Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat were engineers. Writers, journalists, and pundits always seem surprised to learn these things. They were so surprised, I think, to find out that the Easter-worshipper bombers in Sri Lanka turned out to be middle-class businessmen and former university students. (The California Passover-worshipper shooter is very distinctly from the middle class.) I'll say it again: they are generally people from the middle class who become the terrorists and the political murderers, the tyrants and the totalitarians, I suspect because they despise what they have come from and wish to see it destroyed. (I feel certain that they also very often despise themselves and wish to see themselves destroyed.) Fancying himself an aristocrat, Lovecraft seems to have missed that insight. Today, fancying themselves aristocrats, too, journalists, pundits, politicians, and academics also miss it. It seems to be a simple thing, yet they miss it. But then they live by lies and are purveyors of lies, so why should they see the truth in anything? All I can say is that the Eskimos should be glad that they were carried away from Central Asia and Ceylon all those years ago because now they can live in peace way up above the murderousness, chaos, and destruction of our current culture.

(1) Here's a link to the article in which these things are discussed, "A five thousand year old ancient Indian VIMANA found in Afghanistan cave, eight American soldiers stuck in TIME WELL disappeared in attempt to remove it" by Sathish Ramyen.

The laminar armor of an Eskimo warrior in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), St. Petersburg, Russia.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, April 29, 2019

Easter Stories

The holiday is past us. Now people all over the world will have to wait until next year to worship Easter again. Hopefully their holy colored eggs and sacred chocolate bunnies will last for a while. In the meantime, there has been an attack on Passover worshippers in California. It happened on the seventh day of the holiday that they worship, about forty-eight hours after the New York Times published a cartoon showing the current prime minister of Israel as a dog leading our current president--depicted as a blind man wearing a yarmulke--wherever he pleases, I guess. And he's not just any dog. He's a dachshund. You know, a German dog. Isn't that so funny? Isn't the New York Times just the greatest? The really funny part will come when they try to condemn Jew-hatred after having perpetrated it in their own pages.

In all seriousness, the root of the problem before us is not so much that there are barbarians at the gates as that there are those inside the gates who wish to fling them open to allow the barbarians in. I suppose the reason is that the barbarians will do what the enemy already inside the gates wishes to be done, namely, lay waste to this city called Civilization. Only then might Utopia be built upon its ruins. The shooters and the bombers are without a doubt monsters, but the philosophers, inspirers, and facilitators of and apologists for mass murder may be more monstrous still and an even greater danger to all of us. A Jewish woman in California gave her life saving a life on the last day of Passover. More than two hundred Christians died in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. I would wager that the faith of no one is shaken by these things. It is likely only strengthened. The enemies that we have with us inside the City should know that, and they should know also that--despite any power, prestige, status, or fame they might have attained--they cannot win and that their grand ideas and schemes will be the ones to perish.

* * *

It's a little late for this year, but here's a list of weird fiction and fantasy stories with themes of Crucifixion and Resurrection. This list is by no means complete. Feel free to add to it in the comments section below.

  • "Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani" by William Hope Hodgson, originally entitled "The Baumoff Explosive" and published (posthumously) in Nash's Illustrated Weekly for September 20, 1919. Reprinted in Weird Tales, Fall 1973. I should warn you that this is a muddled story and one that relies in part on the obsolete notion of the ether, this in the same year in which Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was validated by the observation by astronomers of the bending of light waves during a solar eclipse. That was a century ago, in a seminal year and by Paul Johnson's estimation the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • "When the Graves Were Opened" by Arthur J. Burks, published in Weird Tales, December 1925. Reprinted in Weird Tales, September 1937. An unusual story of faith and time travel and one that attempts to puncture materialism by an encounter with the supernatural.
  • "Roads" by Seabury Quinn, published in Weird Tales, January 1938. The fourth most popular story, as judged by readers, in the period 1924-1940. "Roads" is also a Christmas story and a Viking story.
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, written in 1928-1940, published in an English (American) edition in 1967 by Signet. An extraordinary work from a Russian author who labored away under sickness and Stalinism but who continued to love and to hope.

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley