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 Western 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, 2023 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 DamnedCharles 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, 2023 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, 2023 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.

Newton Meade Layne
Born September 8, 1882, Viroqua, Wisconsin
Died June 12, 1961, San Diego County, California
Passport photograph from 1920.

Updated on October 30, 2022.
Copyright 2019, 2023 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, 2023 Terence E. Hanley