Friday, July 31, 2015

Science Fiction and Dystopia-Part Two

Science fiction, being a fantasy, is by definition escapist. Fans would probably prefer that real life not intrude upon their fantasies. They would rather escape. Nonetheless, reality intrudes, especially in the form of politics. Why is that?

There are two kinds of people in the world, those for whom everything is political and those for whom only political things are political. People in the second group can get along pretty well without giving much thought to politics. People in the first group on the other hand have to insert politics into everything. Their sense of outrage requires them to act, and by acting, impose their will upon everyone around them. They are the kind of people C.S. Lewis called moral busybodies, what we might as well call progressives. They simply cannot rest. They simply cannot leave things alone. The things they can't leave alone include science fiction.

As a fantasy about the future, science fiction has a built-in flaw, i.e., its tendency to become politicized. Left alone, science fiction is escapist fun, or, at the other extreme, big, ambitious, and thought-provoking. But science fiction won't be left alone for as long as there are moral busybodies at work, for they have carved out an exclusive claim to the future. The future once belonged to everyone equally, including writers and readers of science fiction. Now the future belongs only to progressives. If you don't agree with them, you are on the wrong side of history and will be banished from participation in the future. If that requires only your silence, good. If your silence comes only with your being eliminated, well, these things are sometimes necessary. It's as though the future has become simply an extension of history, and because history is known, the future can be known as well. And because history has become a science, explicable by materialist methods, the history of the future is predictable and controllable. It is a simple unwinding. (1)

The idea of history as a science seems to have come from Marx, whose philosophies have been relabeled as scientific socialism, dialectical materialism, and historical materialism. The idea that the future, as an extension of history, can be predicted by scientific means may have entered science fiction by way of Isaac Asimov, who was, incidentally, a materialist. The economist Paul Krugman, a progressive if there ever was one, was inspired by Asimov and his concept of psychohistory from the Foundation series. Here's a quote from "The Deflationist: How Paul Krugman Found Politics" by Larissa Macfarquhar from The New YorkerMarch 1, 2010
Krugman explained that he'd become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he'd read Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a "psychohistorian"--a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn't predict individual behavior--that was too hard--but it didn't matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. [Emphasis added.]
Note the dismissal of the individual, the materialist and collectivist "understanding of the mechanics of society," and the belief in "laws and hidden forces." I'll call on C.S. Lewis once again:
I have great hopes [writes the demon Screwtape] that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy [i.e., God]. . . . If once we can produce our perfect work--the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls "Forces" while denying the existence of "spirits"--then the end of the war will be in sight. (Ch. VII)
Note the use of the word forces in both quotes. Same word, same meaning.

Like Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis wrote science fiction (or science fantasy). Unlike Asimov and Marx, he was a man of faith. Unlike Paul Krugman, he was a conservative. Here is his take on the future, all from The Screwtape Letters (1942) and all in words of advice given by the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to win over his human "patient":
Don't waste time trying to make him think materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous--that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about. (Ch. I)
[W]e want a man hagridden by the Future--haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth--ready to break the Enemy's [i.e., God's] commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain one or avert the other. . . . (Ch. XV)
We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now . . . . (Ch. XV)
Of a proposed course of action He [i.e., the Enemy, God] wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible? Now, if we can keep men asking: "Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way History is going?" (2) they will neglect the relevant questions. (Ch. XXV)
We have trained them [i.e., men] to think of the future as a promised land which favored heroes attain--not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is. (Ch. XXV)
Here, then, is the Progressive, a materialist, "a man hagridden by the Future," one who believes that history is an unalterable force that merely extends into the future, one who believes that the future is attainable only by "favored heroes." His program is twofold. First, to prevent what he believes to be hell on earth by preventing people from being free and therefore some from being unhappy. (The disorder of freedom is a hated condition to the Progressive.) Second, to bring about his vision of heaven on earth, a utopia of perfect order and perfect happiness. Utopia, another word for Dystopia, requires perfect order because without perfect order, people will remain free and imperfect, thus human. In the mind of the Progressive, the future belongs only to him and shall be by his command Utopia. Because science fiction is about the future, it, too, must be utopian, belongs only to the Progressive, and must be made under his command.

To be continued . . .

(1) Our current president--Paul Krugman, too--likes to use that phrase, "on the wrong side of history," as if he and his coreligionists know the difference between right and wrong, as if they and they alone are capable of seeing how history unfolds. Here is another of the  president's claims to the future: In 2012 he issued a fatwa by pronouncing, "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." That one paid off earlier this year with the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Now, from Charlie Hebdo, there is silence.
(2) In other words, "Is it on the right side of history?"

Copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Science Fiction and Dystopia-Part One

So if science fiction is a kind of fantasy about the future; and if stories of utopia/dystopia, being about the future, belong in the realm of science fiction; and if every utopia/dystopia is about a perfectly ordered society of dehumanized people and is thus totalitarian in nature; finally, if the future belongs exclusively to people who call themselves progressives, in other words, to people who seek to create a perfectly ordered society, i.e., a dystopian society ruled over by a totalitarian leader, then science fiction may very well have within it a tendency towards totalitarianism or dystopia. And if science fiction is the extension of science into the realm of literature, then science itself may also have totalitarian or dystopian tendencies. Here is a bit of evidence:

You might think that this person, with his/her futuristic coiffure; pointy eyebrows; lifeless, android stare; high, stiff collar; and blue-sheen outfit is a character from a science fiction movie. In actuality, she is Christiana Figueres, a real-life global warming guru on the staff of the United Nations. To introduce one of her talks, she invoked Ixchel, goddess of reason. (Reason--the same master served by the numbers in We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.) Here is what she has planned for us:
This is probably the most difficult task we have ever given ourselves, which is to intentionally transform the economic development model for the first time in human history.
Translation: We--as in Zamyatin's We--will be required to conform to her utopian vision of the world, all so we can be saved from a gas that is: a) naturally occurring, b) generated by nearly all living things--including Christiana Figueres, if she is not in fact a robot--and c) essential for life on Earth. Here is her less evil twin:

Doctor Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris on Lost in Space. (Thanks to a commenter on the Internet for pointing out the resemblance.)

Here is one of her co-religionists:

Doctor Rajendra K. Pachauri, until earlier this year chair of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). His resignation from that august body came about after accusations that he had sexually harassed a twenty-nine-year-old co-worker. (Doctor Pachauri is seventy-four. Imagine for yourself the meaning of his hand gesture in the image above.) Doctor Pachauri claims to be a scientist, but a statement in his letter of resignation is illuminating:
I will continue to [work on climate change] assiduously throughout my life in what ever capacity I work. For me the protection of planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than my mission, it is my religion. (1)
I would use the word cult rather than religion, but you get the picture.

In 2007, IPCC shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, the high priest of Doctor Pauchari's religion, for their work. Mr. Gore was also of course vice-president under another alleged sex offender, Bill Clinton. Following are two images. One is of President Clinton's wife. The other is of Doctor Evil from the Austin Powers movies. See if you can tell which is which:

Like Christiana Figueres, Hillary Clinton (the one on top) has plans for us:
Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will, and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.
We will bend to her will whether we like it or not.

To be continued . . . 

(1) Click here for the source of the quote, "IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri Resigns" by Damian Carrington on the website of The Guardian, Feb. 24, 2015.

Copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Threescore and Ten-Part Three

Stories of utopia began in the Renaissance as a kind of fantasy of the present. As late as the nineteenth or early twentieth century, a utopia of the here and now was still plausible. No more. Stories of utopia have now become a fantasy of the future, in other words, a sub-genre of science fiction. For example, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a sort of King Solomon's Mines (1885) for women and set in the present, was published in 1915, before America's entry into the Great War. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopian novel of the future, was published just six years later, even as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip on Russia, even as Europe was in decline. Note how quickly visions of a perfect society became visions of a perfectly awful one, and how quickly utopia became dystopia. Now we can hardly imagine a perfect society of the future, at least in the literature of science fiction. That hasn't stopped some people in the real world from attempting to bring it about.

The religion of flying saucers has often been utopian in its vision, a belief that our space brothers are here to save us from ourselves and to help us create a perfect world. Scientology, too, is utopian in its way, reaching as it does towards individual perfection. Both came out of the science fiction of the 1940s, when the future looked so bright. The utopian vision of the future, exemplified in 1950s images of rocketships and flying saucers, has faded. Scientology of course has given us a glimpse of the totalitarian aspect of science fiction. Thankfully, that offspring of L. Ron Hubbard's diseased mind may be fading as well. (1) Marxism--so-called "scientific socialism"--Nazism, eugenics, technocracy, and global warming are other examples of beliefs that have passed from "science" (more accurately pseudoscience) into the real world. Each is essentially tyrannical, authoritarian, or totalitarian in nature.

So, stories of utopia and its supposed opposite, dystopia, now belong to the science fiction author. (2) The word utopia means, literally, nowhere. The word itself admits its own impossibility. We know that human perfection is impossible, yet there are those among us who still believe in the perfectibility of human society and will do anything to bring it about. That belief goes back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and has been the source of more than a little grief and suffering. Thinking people know that utopia is an impossibility, that in order to bring about a perfect society, people must be stripped of their imperfections, hence of their humanity. Witness the surgical operation in We, by which the protagonist, D-503, is cured of his "illness," that is, his possession of a human soul. In the end, every utopia--being a society of perfect, hence soulless, people--must be dystopian. So utopia is impossible, but dystopia may not be. In fact it may be a very real possibility.

To be continued . . .

(1) More on the totalitarian aspect of science fiction later in this series.
(2) Including Margaret Atwood, who doesn't like science fiction and doesn't count herself among the authors of that lowly genre.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was first published in 1915. That makes this year the centennial of Gilman's feminist utopia. I mentioned Margaret Atwood above. In 1985, she published a dystopia for feminists, The Handmaid's Tale, thus another neat and even anniversary year. Ms. Atwood is a bundle of contradictions. In one recent interview, she seems to have gone off the deep end:
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale is having a big moment on social media and elsewhere because of the various states in the United States who’ve enacted some quite strange legislation having to do with pregnant women.
Charlie Rose: Like what?
Margaret Atwood: Like if you are pregnant and you are even suspected of possibly not wanting your baby you can be arrested and chained up to your hospital bed until you have the baby. Tennessee has just enacted legislation like that. Texas has got it. A number of them have it. . . . (from Charlie Rose, Nov. 11, 2014)
More recently, she completed a novel that will not be published for another hundred years, not long before the bicentennial of Herland.

Captions and text copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, July 17, 2015

Threescore and Ten-Part Two

At age seventy, postwar science fiction has reached what we euphemistically call senior citizenship. Some of its peers--some parts of postwar culture--have died or are in decline. Why shouldn't science fiction share that fate? Take the example of flying saucers. After the war, from 1947 into the 1960s, flying saucers were a potent myth and a worldwide craze. Everyone knew what flying saucers were, a sizable number of people believed that they came from outer space, and many had actually seen them. That all went into decline in the 1960s and '70s--with the issuing of the Condon report in 1968, after the last big flap in 1973, with the passing of the first generation of aficionados. Science fiction helped to sustain the myth, but in the end flying saucers came crashing down the way the Martian ships in The War of the Worlds (1953) crashed. Now we know that flying saucers came from science fiction and not from other worlds. They served their purpose in their time, but that time has passed and people have moved on.

Born in 1947, the myth of flying saucers is now nearing its allotted age of three score and ten. We shouldn't be surprised at its decline or death. But what of the other real-life belief system that came out of 1940s science fiction? Dianetics is now sixty-five years old, Scientology a little younger. (1) Those misbegotten twins, born a few years apart, have lasted longer than a belief in flying saucers, but of late they have been displaying signs of decline as well. Every week and even several times a week since the showing of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (on March 29, 2015), there have been stories about Scientology under fire or under threat. L. Ron Hubbard would not have tolerated such a thing, but then times have changed. The genie is out of the bottle and won't be put back in again. Like Yogi Berra, I don't like to make predictions, especially about the future, but I can foresee a time when Scientology will go the way of the flying saucers (or for that matter the Soviet Union). That can be attributable to lots of things, but what if Scientology, like flying saucers and other parts of postwar culture, is simply running its course, eventually to meet its natural end? 

As a belief system, the religion of flying saucers is not hierarchical or authoritarian. You can pretty much do what you want and believe what you want about those fantastic spinning disks from outer space. Scientology is different. In fact, Scientology is a totalitarian organization, headed by an absolute and arbitrary ruler and held together by applications of force and the firm faith of the True Believer. As we have learned from history, an absolute ruler cannot afford to loosen his grip, for that spells the end of him and his regime. But a totalitarian system also depends upon ignorance and fear. Once the people are no longer ignorant--once they know something of the outside world, can communicate with it, and can escape from the system that holds them prisoner--the system cracks. Once they are no longer afraid, the system falls apart. Since Going Clear, Scientologists can see that others are criticizing, resisting, dissenting, escaping, returning to normal lives (if such a thing is possible for them). They can see that Scientology doesn't seem to have enough fingers to plug all the leaks. How much longer will it be before they go over the wall, the way East Germans went over the wall in 1989? How much longer before they wake up from history?

To be continued . . .

(1) Science fiction may be a belief system as well. I'll have more to say on that topic later in this series.

Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1945, the first issue (by date) of the postwar. The cover story is "World of Ā" (or "World of Null-Ā") by A.E. van Vogt. Note the atmosphere of decay that has descended upon the monumental architecture of the future. Note also the presence of an aircraft, what you might call an unidentified flying object were it not for the 1930s technocratic-gyrocopter look of the thing. An instructive quote from science fiction critic David Hartwell:
No one has taken van Vogt seriously as a writer for a long time. Yet he has been read and still is. What no one seems to have noticed is that van Vogt, more than any other single SF writer, is the conduit through which the energy of Gernsbackian, primitive wonder stories have [sic] been transmitted through the Campbellian age, when earlier styles of SF were otherwise rejected, and on into SF of the present [1984]. [Quoted in Wikipedia.]
Very shortly I'll come back to that key concept--Gernsbackian. Suffice it to say, this cover, by William Timmins, joins the Gernsbackian to the Campbellian, and the decay of the past with the bright future represented by science fiction.

A.E. van Vogt (1912-2000) was a Canadian author of science fiction. He also contributed to a late incarnation of Weird Tales. Further quotes from Wikipedia:
Van Vogt was always interested in the idea of all-encompassing systems of knowledge . . . .
[I]n his fiction, van Vogt was consistently sympathetic to absolute monarchy as a form of government.
Take those two things, throw in some childhood trauma and a kind of great-man or strongman theory of history, and you have a writer ripe for the plucking. Thus, in 1950, van Vogt, an associate  of L. Ron Hubbard, began subscribing to Dianetics.

Original text and captions copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Spacecraft Around Yuggoth

This week, on July 14, 2015, the spacecraft New Horizons, after a near decade-long journey, flew by Pluto, thus giving us our first close-up view of that distant world. Once upon a time, schoolchildren learned the mnemonic "My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pies," knowing that "Pies" stood for the ninth planet Pluto. In 2006, the same year in which New Horizons was launched, Pluto was demoted to the status of dwarf planet. You can imagine how the men and women who worked on New Horizons felt, knowing that their spacecraft was no longer on its way to a planet. Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), the discoverer of Pluto, would be fully justified in coming back from the grave except that part of him--about an ounce of his ashes--is on board the ship, now winging its way to the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto was found and named by young people, and young people have held the little planet close to their hearts. Clyde Tombaugh was twenty-four years old and working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, (1) when he first detected the new planet on a number of photographic plates. The date was February 18, 1930. Nearly a month passed before an announcement was made to the larger world. Venetia Burney, an eleven-year-old schoolgirl from Oxford, England, provided the name, which became official on May 1, 1930. (2)

At about the same time that Tombaugh was poring over photographic plates in search of the elusive Planet X, a writer was at work on a new story in faraway Providence, Rhode Island. The writer was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, then in his fortieth year and enjoying some success as an author of pulp fiction. His story progressed through the year 1930 and was finally finished in September. A year later, in the same month that Lovecraft turned forty-one, the magazine Weird Tales published "The Whisperer in Darkness." Lovecraft's story is now considered one of his best. In 2011, about halfway through the flight of New Horizons from Earth to Pluto, "The Whisperer in Darkness" was released as a feature-length movie. It included a new character, a girl named Hannah Masterson, who must have been about Venetia Burney's age.

"The Whisperer in Darkness" is about a struggle between men and Mi-Go, a race of crustaceous fungi from another world. The narrator explains:
The blasphemies which appeared on earth, it was hinted, came from the dark planet Yuggoth, at the rim of the solar system; but this was itself merely the populous outpost of a frightful interstellar race whose ultimate source must lie far outside even the Einsteinian space-time continuum or greatest known cosmos.
His correspondent tells more:
"There are mighty cities on Yuggoth--great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone like the specimen I tried to send you. That came from Yuggoth. The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light. They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples. Light even hurts and hampers and confuses them, for it does not exist at all in the black cosmos outside time and space where they came from originally. To visit Yuggoth would drive any weak man mad--yet I am going there. The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges--things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids--ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen."
"[T]he dark planet Yuggoth, at the rim of the solar system" would seem to refer to the newly discovered Pluto. Lovecraft is supposed to have suggested as much. Yet the concept of Yuggoth predates the discovery of the planet, for Lovecraft penned a series of sonnets, entitled "The Fungi from Yuggoth," between December 27, 1929, and January 4, 1930. It would not be the last time that an artist anticipated Pluto.

Robert E. Howard, born just thirteen days before Clyde Tombaugh, (3) also wrote about a planet on the edge of space. In his story "The Tower of the Elephant," published in Weird Tales in March 1933, the eponymous elephant relates his story to Conan of Cimmeria:
"I am very old, oh man of the waste countries; long and long ago I came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringe of this universe. We swept through space on mighty wings that drove us through the cosmos quicker than light, because we had warred with the kings of Yag and were defeated and outcast. But we could never return, for on earth our wings withered from our shoulders. Here we abode apart from earthly life. We fought the strange and terrible forms of life which then walked the earth, so that we became feared, and were not molested in the dim jungles of the east, where we had our abode."
An etymologist might identify Yuggoth and Yag as having come from the same root. So were they the same planet? Were the Mi-Go "the kings of Yag"? And did Howard anticipate the discovery of the solar wind? (4)

Finally, in 1979, space artist Don Dixon painted a portrait of the then-planet Pluto. The images from New Horizons, reaching our Earth this week, confirm the artist's vision. I have read some comments by Internet numbskulls saying they don't see a resemblance. I find the resemblance extraordinary. I also find it extraordinary that we can at last see the surface of Pluto--of dark, distant Yuggoth--so clearly.

(1) Established by Percival Lowell (1855-1916), the man who put Martians on Mars. His initials are the fist two letters of the name Pluto, a planet whose existence he postulated and which he called Planet X.
(2) Venetia Burney died one day short of that anniversary in 2009.
(3) It's interesting that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in his birth month and that "The Whisperer in Darkness" was published in Lovecraft's birth month.
(4) The Mi-Go also fly through space on wings. Theirs are weak in comparison to those of the elephants of Yag. Maybe that's why the elephants reached Earth first.

Text copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Threescore and Ten-Part One

Although I have written in the past few days about Earl Norem and whip-poor-wills in weird fiction, my main focus right now is on dystopia and a dying science fiction. I will keep visiting those topics on my way back to Weird Tales and fantasy fiction.

So far, the entries in this series are:
Today's entry is a continuation.

Weird Tales was the first American magazine devoted exclusively to fantasy. It began in 1923 when the Great War was still fresh in the minds of pulp readers. The shock, horror, and violence of the war had carried like an echo into the then-present. If fantasy and weird fiction look to the past and thus assume that we are living in a time of decadence, then Weird Tales suited the mood of the 1920s in some ways. But not in the main. The twenties may have been a time of decadence, especially in Europe, but for the main stream of American culture, it was a roaring time. We were busy, vigorous, with our eyes on the future and the past behind us. Something new and different was on the horizon. For readers of pulp magazines, that something new was science fiction.

The second American fantasy magazine of significance was Amazing Stories, first published in 1926. Amazing Tales was a science fiction magazine, the first of its kind here or anywhere. It came so early that the genre had not yet been properly named. The publisher of Amazing Tales, Hugo Gernsback, called it instead scientific fiction or scientifiction. Science fiction of course looks to the future. It is suited to a society that is vigorous, hopeful, and progressive in its outlook. (The word progressive has come to mean something far different in recent years than it did in the distant past.) When Amazing Stories came along, the Great War was still a recent memory, but the country had its eyes to the front. And even though the stock market collapsed and a great depression began just three years later, science fiction magazines proliferated into the 1930s and '40s. By the postwar period, science fiction was king, and though Weird Tales soldiered on, it finally reached its end in 1954.

To hear some people tell it, science fiction started dying sometime in the 1950s. Isaac Asimov claimed an end to its golden age in 1950. (Once a golden age ends--no matter what comes after it--by definition a period of decay sets in.) In her anthologies of the 1950s, Judith Merril argued in favor of the phrase speculative fiction instead of science fiction to describe the genre. In doing so, she may not have suggested that science fiction was dying, but when the terminology changes, especially when there are suggestions that a genre should become more literary, mature, or sophisticated, something--some kind of purity or innocence or just plain fun--is lost. Finally, in 1960, science fiction fan Earl Kemp published a fanzine called Who Killed Science Fiction?, a compilation and analysis of answers to questions he had sent out to the luminaries in his field.

Seventy-one authors replied to Mr. Kemp's questionnaire. Of those, fifty-five replied that, no, science fiction was not dead, although some felt that death was near. Eleven said that science fiction was already dead or dying. The reasons they gave included "dull, boring, and inferior material being published," changes in markets, problems with distribution, rising costs, a decline in the quality of the readership, and competition from comic books, paperback books, and television. In other words, the problems with science fiction, according to the seventy-one authors, could be attributed to publishers, editors, distributors, writers, readers, and fans. In other words, there was something wrong not with the genre of science fiction but with the people involved in it.

So, science fiction (like western civilization) has supposedly been dying or decaying for a long, long time. The question seems to me: How long is this going to take? If science fiction has been decaying since 1950 or dying since 1960, why isn't it gone by now? One possible answer is that the sorry state of science fiction in 1960 was, as I have said, due to problems exterior to science fiction--publishing, marketing, distribution, etc. If science fiction is dying now--or has been dying since 1980, for example--there could be a different problem, a problem with the genre itself. Maybe science fiction has some basic problem with its philosophy. Maybe it has reached its logical limits, as real life has caught up with or even surpassed it, or as the infinite futures promised by science fiction have been whittled down to a few not very promising futures (with dystopia and apocalypse on that very short list). Or maybe it's just that science fiction is at its natural end and nothing can be done to save it, for if postwar science fiction began in 1945, it has now reached an age of threescore and ten, all of a man's allotted years on this earth.

To be continued . . .

Copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Whip-poor-wills in Weird Fiction

I have been doing more research on Lee Brown Coye and have come upon something that might make a simple side note to the study of weird fiction. On the other hand, whip-poor-wills in weird fiction might have some significance. If they do, it might be one of the ways that Robert W. Chambers has had such an influence on the authors who came after him.

The whip-poor-will is a non-passerine bird, about the size of a robin or bluejay but with a slim body, long pointed wings, a long, fan-like tail, and a broad mouth used for catching insects on the wing. Whip-poor-wills are crepuscular, a nice word to add to your store. It means active at dawn and duskIn the evenings of spring and summer, as light fades into a smoky haze, you might have heard the ceaseless repetition of the whip-poor-will's mad cry from the darkening woods. If so, you are unlikely to have forgotten it, for it is a haunting sound, the sound of a kind of wildness that is disappearing from the world. 

Along with the chuck-will's-widow, the poor-will, and the nighthawk, whip-poor-wills are of the family Caprimulgidae. In everyday speech, the members of this family were once called goatsuckers for the belief that they suck milk from goats. That belief carries over into the Spanish word chupacabra, which is also now used for a cryptozoological monster. Another and less colorful word is nightjar, which refers to the nocturnal habit of the bird and its chirring or jarring call. Modern ornithologists--being scientists--seem to be a little squeamish about the word goatsucker, I suppose because of the folkloric (hence non-scientific) connotation. They prefer the more neutral nightjar.

Although they are in trouble today, whip-poor-wills would have been common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We think of them as birds of the wilderness, but you're more likely to hear them close to human habitation, in old-field woods or in woods that have been heavily cut over. In the day or in the evening, when there is still enough light, you might see them gliding soundlessly among saplings and poletimber, like a kite or like a toy on the end of a string. Their calling, their silence in flight, and their pattern of flight only add to the whip-poor-wills' ghostly qualities.

According to Clifton Johnson in his book What They Say in New England (1896), "If a whippoorwill sings near the house, it is a sign of death. Some say this is simply a sign of trouble." That superstition passed into weird fiction by way of "The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft, published in Weird Tales in April 1929. From "The Dunwich Horror":
It is vowed that the birds are psychopomps lying in wait for the souls of the dying, and that they time their eerie cries in unison with the sufferer's struggling breath. If they can catch the fleeing soul when it leaves the body, they instantly flutter away chittering in daemoniac laughter; but if they fail, they subside gradually into a disappointed silence.
Whip-poor-wills figure prominently in the story, so much so that they made a reappearance in a story by one of Lovecraft's circle, August Derleth. The story is called "The Whippoorwills in the Hills," and it was published in Weird Tales in September 1948. Lee Brown Coye was the illustrator.

According to Wikipedia, "Lovecraft based this idea [that whippoorwills capture the souls of the just departed] on information of local legends given to him by Edith Miniter of North Wilbraham, Massachusetts when he visited her in 1928." I have assumed that August Derleth drew on "The Dunwich Horror" for his story of whip-poor-wills, but a discussion on the Internet proposes that Derleth's true inspiration was the work of Robert W. Chambers.

Robert W. Chambers is a tough case for fans and students of weird fiction. Although he made his name as the author of The King in Yellow in 1895, Chambers wrote scads of conventional and ultimately forgotten popular fiction. In doing an Internet search for "Robert W. Chambers" and "whip-poor-wills" (or "whippoorwills"), I came up with numerous results, but searching through those results, uncovering the original works, determining whether they are weird fiction or not, and trying to puzzle out the significance (or insignificance) of whip-poor-wills in Chambers' stories would take time and resources that I confess I don't have right now. I guess the question is: did whip-poor-wills arrive in weird fiction by way of Robert W. Chambers? Or did Derleth get his inspiration from Lovecraft, who in turn got it from Edith Miniter and the folklore of old New England? And what of Edith Miniter (1867-1934)? Did she read Chambers, or did she go back to the folklore itself for her tale of the soul-swallowing whip-poor-will? 

Note: Where else are there whip-poor-wills in weird fiction or genre fiction? In "The Whip-poor-will" by James Thurber, published in The New Yorker, August 9, 1941, and reprinted in Alarms and Diversions (Harper and Brothers, no date). From that story: "Down where she came from, she said, if you heard a whip-poor-will singing near the house, it meant there was going to be a death." ("She" is Margaret, wife of the protagonist's butler. The protagonist, a man named Kinstrey, is being driven crazy by the cry of a whip-poor-will outside his window. There are indeed deaths in store for the Kinstrey household.)

In 1948, Weird Tales published "The Whippoorwills in the Hills" by August Derleth and illustrated by Lee Brown Coye. Coye was a very productive artist who did thorough research on everything he drew, but he often worked under tight deadlines. That might explain his use of imagery from the work of John James Audubon, including pictures of:
The Whip-poor-will, and
The Chuck-will's widow. Audubon (1785-1851) was an artist inclined towards natural history, what would then have been called natural philosophy, but he was also a Romantic with a capital "R." If he had written fiction, he might have found himself sandwiched between Washington Irving (1783-1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). American Romanticism was partly Gothic and gave rise of course to weird fiction and stories of supernatural horror.

Text and captions copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Earl Norem (1923-2015)

Earl Norem, cover artist on The Savage Sword of Conan for many years, died last month, on June 19, 2015. Born in Brooklyn on April 17, 1923, Mr. Norem was a U.S. Army veteran of World War II. In a career that spanned more than half a century, he created hundreds of cover illustrations and interior illustrations for men's magazines, comic books, and children's books. He also created designs for trading cards and program books. If you read The Savage Sword of Conan during the 1970s, you learned to recognize his style and his name. Few of his contemporaries could match his bravura handling of Robert E. Howard's warrior of Cimmeria. Rest in peace, Earl Norem.

Text copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

More Dystopian Television

Within the past couple of weeks, I have seen two dystopian television shows, one new and one more than half a century old.

My nephew and I like to watch Teen Titans Go! on The Cartoon Network. It's a very smart and funny show with good writing and attractive and colorful animation. The episode of June 29, 2015, is called "Beast Man." In it, Beast Boy changes into a middle-aged man, and for awhile the Titans have fun with his new identity. Then the identity takes over, and the adult Beast Boy trudges off to a soul-sapping job at a place called The Man, Incorporated, run by (who else but?) The Man. Beast Boy's new place of work is a kind of corporate dystopia, but it looks like Jonathan Pryce's government office building in the movie Brazil (1985). The Man himself is actually an onscreen, disembodied face, as in the classic Apple Macintosh commercial of 1984. (He also evokes memories of two American cultists, Morris Applewhite and Stephen Covey, as well as the villain in the 2002 film Undercover Brother.) Luckily for Beast Boy, the other Teen Titans follow him to work and rescue him from the clutches of The Man.

A few days later, we watched a Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy. By accident or design, Syfy showed the episode "The Obsolete Man" on Independence Day. "The Obsolete Man," originally broadcast on June 2, 1961, is an out-and-out dystopia, set in the future and probably modeled after 1984. Rod Serling wrote the script, an unsubtle but effective work showing just what is possible when people give themselves over to an all-powerful State. In his introduction, Serling speaks:
This is not a new world, it is simply a extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has its refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the superstates that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace. . . .
The story of "The Obsolete Man" is built around a trick by which an individual--a man played by Burgess Meredith--defeats his tormentor, a representative of the State played by Fritz Weaver. Weaver is defeated when--locked in a room in which a bomb is about to explode--he exclaims in desperation, "In the name of God, let me out!" Returning to the trial room, he himself is declared an obsolete man and is condemned to death. Last year, I wrote about the zombie as a monster of the twenty-first century. In the last scene of "The Obsolete Man," Fritz Weaver's character is torn apart by the zombie-like servants of the totalitarian State.

Teen Titans Go! is a cartoon. The idea of a corporate dystopia may very well be on the level of a cartoon. That's not to say that a tale of corporate dystopia can't be interesting and entertaining. In the end, though, it's probably just another kind of fantasy. The overarching State on the other hand represents a very real and potent threat to the rights and freedom of the individual. Rod Serling introduced "The Obsolete Man" as "not a future that will be but one that might be." That was fifty-four years ago. How close are we now to that future that might have been? Can we say that the State has begun forging its iron rule? Will the State one day declare the truth to be a menace? Or has that declaration already been made?

A scene from "The Obsolete Man," the last episode of the second season of The Twilight Zone. "It was vaguely reminiscent of some of the German films of the twenties," said director Elliot Silverstein, "and there was a certain amount of expressionism in the style of the performances and the sets." (Quoted in The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree [1992], p. 209.) In his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947; Princeton University Press, 1971), Siegfried Kracauer talked about the choice in Weimar Germany between tyranny and chaos. Silverstein's linking of German expressionism to the choice of tyranny in "The Obsolete Man"--conscious or not--was no mere coincidence.  

Original text copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley