Thursday, February 25, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-The Story So Far

My series "Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales" grew out of the previous series of quotes from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and the Parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. After writing so much about Utopia/Dystopia, I wanted to circle back to Weird Tales, but I didn't have any examples of either genre drawn from the pages of "The Unique Magazine." In other words, I started something without knowing where it would go--or if it would go at all. I think I have an idea now, a thesis that I hope will hold up and carry me through to the end of this series.

Weird fiction and its related genres would seem to have little to do with Utopia/Dystopia. The former are more nearly popular or traditional genres, while the latter seems higher, more intellectual, more philosophical. Weird fiction very often takes an old form--the tale, hence the title of the magazine. Utopia/Dystopia is newer, more contrived it seems to me. It is or can be considered within the realm of science fiction; both parts of that term, science and fiction, are developments of the modern world, I think, more particularly the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The combined term science fiction didn't appear in print until 1929. Weird Tales by then was already six years old, and the phrase weird tales had been used in the titles of books for more than forty years.

People try to intellectualize weird fiction, but that might not be as easy a task as intellectualizing science fiction. There have been myriads of studies and examinations of science fiction, and if I calculate correctly, far fewer--at least until recently--of weird fiction. I might be stretching ideas here, but I don't have to go very far with that in order to get to where I'm going with this series.

Anyway, here are the parts so far:

I have touched on related topics in some of the things I have written since December--Mars, H.G. Wells, Orson Welles and the Panic Broadcast of 1938, maybe some others--but these four numbered parts are the main ones, and I'll stay on this line until the end.

One of the problems with starting before you know where you're going is that you have to stop along the way to do all of your reading, thinking, and research. I have had to stop along the way, but I have found some good sources and my thesis has been a-building. I think I have a thing figured out. I would like to think that this is an original idea, but we should all remember--especially the utopian thinkers among us--that, as Ecclesiastes said, there is nothing new under the sun.

One unexpected source--one that is turning out to be essential in all of this--is the writing of Jack Williamson (1908-2006). Last evening (Feb. 20, 2021), I read his short story "With Folded Hands" (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1947). It's a dystopian story but one completely within the realm of science fiction. As a pulp-fiction story, a genre-fiction story, it stands tall and maybe only a step below other great dystopian stories. It's also truly terrifying. When I read it, I thought: The Humanoids are now! Williamson's story is an extraordinary vision of what was to him the far future but is to us our present and near future.*

One more thing: I read "With Folded Hands" in A Treasury of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin (1904-1968) and published in 1948. Conklin mentioned stories of Utopia in his introduction, adding, "today we have few such tales." This was the postwar after all, and anyone imagining Utopia before it would surely have been disabused of his or her ideas and visions by the end. Nonetheless a Utopia-like story appears in Conklin's collection. It's called "Flight of the Dawn Star" (Astounding Science-Fiction, Mar. 1938). The author was Robert Moore Williams (1907-1977), a contemporary of Jack Williamson. Williams' story was pre-war. That might make a difference of a kind. "Flight of the Dawn Star" reaches towards Utopia, but I'm not sure that I would call it utopian. I think I would call it an idyll instead. Anyway, it's in strong contrast to "With Folded Hands." It reminds me of The Time Machine only without Morlocks: there is no serpent in this garden of the future.

-----
*Earlier in the day, I heard on the radio a story about people stealing catalytic converters because of the high price of palladium. Palladium and its related metals figure pretty prominently in "With Folded Hands." After reading the story, I thought: Could someone today be working on a rhodomagnetic super-science project?

Next: Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Five: The Utopia of Lost Worlds & the Lost Worlds of Europe

The Humanoids, Jack Williamson's sequel to "With Folded Hands." This is the book version, a Lancer edition from 1966 with cover art by the great Ed Emshwiller (1925-1990).

I'm waiting again for another source, but it seems likely to me that Williamson had read Yevgeny Zamyatin's We before writing "With Folded Hands," for he included in his own story a surgical operation that "cures" people of their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their enslavement. Jack Williamson had certainly read We by the time he wrote his doctoral dissertation, published as H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress (1973), for he mentioned We in his book. Anyway, everyone should beware, for . . .

The Humanoids Are Now!

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, February 22, 2021

Les Baxter (1922-1996)

I wrote the other day about Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and his suite The Planets from more than a century ago. Listening to his music and looking into the covers of recordings of his music made me think of two topics related to genre fiction. Both involve Les Baxter. If you haven't listened to Les Baxter's music, I would urge you to as soon as you can. There is so much there for fans of popular culture, especially Exotica and what I think of as one of its progenitors, the genre of Lost Worlds.

Leslie Thompson Baxter, called "the Godfather of Exotica," was born on March 14, 1922, in Mexia, a small city in east-central Texas. His parents were Jesse Elliott Baxter (1890-1955) and Leta Thompson Baxter (1890-1964). Both were native Texans and the families of both originated in the Upper South. Les Baxter had one brother, James Edward "Jim" Baxter (1913-1964), an author, playwright, composer, and lyricist who worked with Les in the 1950s and '60s. Les Baxter married just once, in 1953. He and his wife, Patricia C. Baxter, had two children together. Tragically, she died at age thirty-four, after they had been together for just seven years. Les Baxter raised their children on his own after that. So, at the height of his musical career in the 1950s and '60s, Les Baxter lost his parents, his brother, and his wife. Things are given while others are taken away.

Les Baxter's father, Jesse Baxter, worked as a stenographer, bookkeeper, and realtor, but his family included more than one prominent preacher. His brother, Batsell Baxter (1886-1956), was a preacher, writer, and college president. (More on that below.) Batsell Baxter was the father of Batsell Barrett Baxter (1916-1982), also a preacher, writer, and educator. He started Herald of Truth Bible Hour, a TV show that lasted for decades.

Jesse Baxter's sister, Anna Lee Baxter Hockaday (1892-1970), was married to a preacher, too. He was William Doniphan "Don" Hockaday (1888-1958), a second cousin, twice removed of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). If you look at a picture of Don Hockaday, you might see a resemblance to the Great Emancipator. Don Hockaday's daughter-in-law died just last month. We send condolences to her family. We also find that an important idea is once again affirmed: History is alive in this moment. What we think of as being dead and in the past still lives.

Les Baxter was a musical child prodigy. He started playing piano at age five and as a six-year-old won a scholarship to the Detroit Conservatory of Music. The 1940 census indicates that in 1935 the Baxter family lived in Detroit. That would have been about the time, I think, that Jim Baxter attended Wayne University (now Wayne State University). Jim Baxter went on to write the Western novel The Circle on the Plain (1961) and the play Next Case. He also collaborated with his brother Les and songwriter Karl A. Suessdorf (1911-1982) on the songs "Rovin Gal" and "Calypso Boogie" (both from the movie Bop Girl Goes Calypso [1957]), "A Gun Is My True Love" (from the movie The Dalton Girls [1957]), "Shooting Star" (from the album Space Escapade [1958]), "Black Sheep," "Destination Honeymoon," and "Memories of Maine."

Les Baxter studied at Pepperdine University, an institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ. Baxter's uncle, Batsell Baxter, served as the first president of Pepperdine from 1937 to 1939. I suspect that Les Baxter was in attendance at about that time. In the census of 1940, Les, aged eighteen, did not have an occupation listed, but in 1942, when he filled out his draft card, he was employed by Central Casting in Hollywood. By age twenty, then, he had begun working in show business. 

Baxter worked as a concert pianist and joined Mel Tormé's vocal group, the Mel-Tones, in or about 1944. The other singers in that group were Betty Beveridge, Ginny O'Connor, and Bernie Parke. Some combination of them appeared in two motion pictures, Pardon My Rhythm (1944) and I'll Remember April (1945). (Baxter played a singing sailor.) Ginny O'Connor soon after married Henry Mancini (1924-1994), another sometime composer of Exotica. (Be sure to listen to his "Lujon.") Les Baxter also played saxophone in Freddy Slack's big band.

Les Baxter was not only a singer and musician but also, of course, a composer, arranger, conductor, and producer of music. He wrote more than 250 scores for radio, television, and movies, including music for the Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello radio shows. I won't go into his list of credits except in the bullet points and record covers shown below. You can easily find his credits on your own on other websites, including on the Internet Movie Database (here). But I wanted to tell you a little more on the life of this extraordinary composer of so much exotic, evocative, and atmospheric music of the postwar era. I also wanted to tell about his influence upon and connections to the old pulp genres of science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction:

First, as a maker of Exotica, Les Baxter helped to carry some of the moods and forms of more nearly classical music into popular realms of the 1950s through the 1970s. He did this chiefly, I think, by his use of African-influenced percussion, impressionistic woodwinds and strings, and soaring, wordless voices, these first with the Peruvian coloratura singer Yma Sumac (1922-2008), later in other albums of his own. (He produced and composed the music for her first studio album, Voice of the Xtabay, in 1950.)

If you listen to Gustav Holst's Planets (1914-1916, 1918), specifically "Neptune, The Mystic," you will hear wordless voices, but they are in other early twentieth-century compositions, too, such as in Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (1912). You can hear the influence of Ravel--Debussy, too--on Les Baxter, but then these two French composers had a large effect on American popular music, especially film scores, in which seemingly every ocean-going movie for decades quoted from Debussy's La Mer. (Be sure to listen, too, to the angelic wordless singing of Edda dell'Orso [b. 1935], who worked extensively with Ennio Morricone [1928-2020] on his own film scores.)

The wordless singing and rapid-fire percussion of Exotica found their way into the main title theme of Star Trek, especially in the first season opening. The music was by Alexander Courage (1919-2008) and I think very much influenced by Les Baxter's Exotica. All of these voices remind me of the high, sweet, otherworldly, vocal group- or choral group-type singing in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Remember that Les Baxter started out in a vocal group, singing with a man nicknamed "the Velvet Fog." Talk about atmosphere.

Second, Les Baxter also used the theremin early on, an instrument that is kind of a science fiction instrument anyway but also became one of the essential elements of the science fiction movie soundtrack of the 1950s, such as in Rocketship X-M (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and The Thing from Another World (1951). Here's a chicken-and-egg question: Did science fiction movies use the theremin because of Les Baxter, or was it the other way around? Or maybe both discovered the instrument at the same time.

Third, Baxter composed music drawing from or meant to evoke the genres of Lost Worlds and science fiction (see the record covers below), but he also wrote scores for every kind of genre movie, including: The Invisible Boy (science fiction, 1957), The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (Western and Lost Worlds, 1958), Goliath and the Barbarians (sword and sandal or heroic fantasy, 1959), Master of the World (scientific romance or Vernian science fiction, 1961), Reptilicus (monster movie, 1961), Tales of Terror (weird fiction, 1962), Panic in the Year Zero! (post-apocalypse, 1962), and many others, plus plenty of beach-party and motorcycle exploitation movies.

Fourth, he also wrote the score for The Dunwich Horror (1970), the first movie based on a work by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) that also shares its title with the original source. (I think.) So if a movie score is a kind of program music or a kind of adaptation, then Les Baxter might get credit for the first musical adaptation of Lovecraft's work on film. However, the first film adaptation of a work by Lovecraft was actually The Haunted Palace (1963), a film based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927, 1941, 1943). The author of that score was Ronald Stein (1930-1988), whose list of credits might be indistinguishable from Les Baxter's, for these two men wrote music for all of the same kinds of movies. Anyway, Ronald Stein should probably get credit for the first recorded musical adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's work, assuming, like I said, that a movie score is a kind of program music and therefore an adaptation. (See my article "The Other Forms of Lovecraft," dated October 2, 2018, by clicking here.)

Well, this article has gone on pretty long and it might be time to wrap things up. I'll close by letting you know that Les Baxter died on January 15, 1996, in Newport Beach, California. He was seventy-three years old, but in departing he left behind music that I hope we can listen to forever.

Further Reading

  • "Les Baxter" on the website Space Age Music Maker, here.
  • A website called Les Baxter at this URL: Lesbaxter.com.
  • The Exotic World of Les Baxter, a website accessible by clicking here.

The "banned" record cover of The Planets by Gustav Holst, which I showed the other day, reminded me of this one, for Space Escapade by Les Baxter (1958). The rocketship in the background might be a little phallic, but it also reminds me of the Flatwoods Monster.

Here's the reverse side of that album. I don't know who the artist is, but he or she knew something about science fiction imagery. And talk about a phallic rocketship.

In Music Out of the Moon (1947), Les Baxter collaborated with composer Henry Revel (1905-1958) and theremin player Samuel J. Hoffman (1903-1967). New things with this album included not only music of the theremin but also the full-color cover and the scantily clad model (actress Virginia Clark). One old-fashioned thing about it: it was released on three 78 rpm records. One real-world application: Neil Armstrong played Music Out of the Moon--on the moon!

To me, Exotica is related to the Lost Worlds genre of literature but perhaps filtered through the overseas experiences of servicemen and women during World War II. Think of South Pacific with its "own special island." Whatever its origins, Exotica was very popular during the 1950s and '60s. Here is an early recording in that genre, Le Sacre du Savage or Ritual of the Savage by Les Baxter and his orchestra, from 1951.

The cover artist was William Chapman George, Jr. (Aug. 10, 1926-May 25, 2017), who for some reason is not very well identified on the Internet despite his having been a very accomplished illustrator over the course of a very long career. As an example of his talent, the late Mr. George painted this picture when he was just twenty-five years old. He went on to paint interior illustrations and covers for men's magazines, paperback books, especially Westerns, and packaging for He-Man toys of all things. There is an interview with him in Illustration #8, from 2003. On the other hand, there is very little of him on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. I hope someone will correct that oversight soon.

A few years ago, I was at a Bigfoot conference in Ohio and stopped at the table of the Explorers Club. One of their promotional items, a flyer or postcard, showed William George's cover for Ritual of the Savage but missing all identifying information. In other words, I think they swiped his artwork and violated somebody or other's copyright. But these are the things people do to the work of the artist. Anyway, I'll have more to say about the Explorers Club in a future article.

Speaking of swipes, here's a movie poster for House of Usher (1960), for which Richard Matheson (1926-2013) wrote the screenplay and Les Baxter wrote the music. The swipe is from Harry Clarke's illustration for "The Premature Burial" by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). (Click on the previous sentence to see it.)

It's strange to think that Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln were born less than a month apart.

By 1970, when The Dunwich Horror was released, H.P. Lovecraft had name recognition. Moviemakers didn't have to hide his story behind Poe's byline as they had done just seven years before in The Haunted Palace. I wish I had the name of the cover artist here: he or she deserves some credit for this full-color illustration of a story that had seldom--or maybe never--gotten this kind of treatment before.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Mars on the Mind

Tonight (February 16, 2021), I heard on the radio a story about the 100-year anniversary of The Planets by the British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). I'm not sure why the story was on tonight. Holst wrote The Planets in 1914-1916, and it was first performed in 1918. The first performance of the entire suite took place on November 15, 1920. That's still more than 100 years ago.

Anyway, Holst began his work by composing "Mars, The Bringer of War," the intended or eventual first movement of The Planets. Holst didn't bring on the war in his composition of "Mars," but it came anyway, war that is, on July 28, 1914, just a few months after he had begun. The Planets made its premiere on September 29, 1918, just a few weeks before the war ended.

Mars was on people's minds in those years. It all began with Giovanni Schiaparelli's observations of what he called canali on the surface of the Red Planet in 1877. Percival Lowell picked up the ball and ran with it in the early 1890s with his own observations of an intricate webwork of canals, as well as other features on Mars. He wrote about these things in three books, Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). His visions of Mars endured for generations, even into the 1960s and '70s.

H.G. Wells carried Lowell's interpretation to a logical and terrifying conclusion in The War of the Worlds (1897, 1898). Finally there came along a lowly pulp story, "Under the Moons of Mars" by Norman Bean, aka Edgar Rice Burroughs, serialized in The All-Story beginning 109 years ago this month, in February 1912. His story was published in book form as A Princess of Mars in 1917. Since then, gazillions of young fans have wanted to be his hero, John Carter, and have fallen in love with Burroughs' princess, Dejah Thoris.

Gustav Holst was influenced by astrology, not pulp fiction, but that hasn't stopped anybody from giving his record covers the science fiction treatment. Here are a few of them. I saved the most science-fiction-y--and the only scandalous one among them--for last.

That looks enough like Mars in the background for this image to earn its place as first in this series. In the foreground is an aerial view of the current state of Texas.

I like these highly stylized versions of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. The faces of Jupiter and Mars look almost like those of living beings. And Mars here is the Mars of the popular imagination, Percival Lowell's Mars with its canals and oases. 



Here's a version done by the great space artist Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986). Entitled Saturn as Seen from Iapetus, it appeared in the book The Conquest of Space by Willy Ley (1949) and before that in Life magazine. The difference is that the image here is flipped for some reason, maybe to make Saturn read better in visual terms: as your eye drifts across the image, it can ride the ramp of Saturn's rings to reach the title "The Planets."

This is a pretty small picture, but I can still detect a swipe . . .

The picture on the right is by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, that on the left by Margaret Brundage. I've showed this juxtaposition before in "Brundage and Ingres," dated April 4, 2019, and accessible by clicking here.

Chesley Bonestell seems to have swiped Ingres' painting, too. See the endpapers of The Art of Chesley Bonestell by Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III (2001) for that and for another depiction of Percival Lowell's Mars.

This version of The Planets is supposed to have been banned. You can kind of see why. Comic strip fans will recognize the more fully dressed of these two figures as a repurposed Flash Gordon. Here's another one: 

On the cover of the hardbound edition of The Best of C.L. Moore (1975). The figure on the left is the Shambleau from the story of the same name. If you haven't read "Shambleau" yet, you should. Those who have read it know that it takes place on Mars, the Red Planet and Bringer of War. Anyway, one of these images was banned while the other was not. Go figure. The art, by the way, is by Chet Jezierski (b. 1947). 

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Miraculous Expressions & Equations

Last week, commenter Iberdot left an excellent summary of the argument in favor of intelligent life in the universe. I'll quote him or her:

Here is how you "prove" the existence of intelligent ET life. List the number of stars in the universe, then come up with a percentage with planets (any number will do--doesn't matter), then continue inventing percentages with favorable conditions and so on. Due to number of stars, you can come up with any number you want and people will believe it.

I think his or her allusion is to the famous Drake Equation, developed by Frank Drake (b. 1930), which, truth be told, can be used to "come up with any number you want":

(From: We Are Not Alone: The Search for Intelligent Life on Other Worlds by Walter Sullivan [McGraw-Hill, 1964].)


I think the Drake Equation is an exciting and thought-provoking idea, but it can't really be thought of as a way of reaching a surefire answer. And I don't think it was meant to. I think it was meant only as a jumping-off point for discussion. Anyway, as soon as I read Iberdot's comment, a cartoon by Sidney Harris (b. 1933) leaped into my mind. Here it is:


Science is not supposed to be about miracles or counting on miracles, nor is it supposed to be about wishing or faith or superstition. And yet we have so-called "science" and scientists doing just those things, not just about stars and extraterrestrials but about all kinds of things. Anyway again, a lot of astronomers, astrophysicists, planetologists, cosmologists, and just plain laymen and -women seem to believe in these magical expressions: insert a miracle into the Drake Equation and you have proof that there are other intelligent species in the universe. They sound like a lot of emotional teenagers, telling themselves in the dark, "It has to be true, it just has to be true, my life won't be complete unless it's true . . . "


Maybe someday I will be proved wrong and we will discover that there are other intelligent species in the universe. That would be an exciting thing, too. But until there is proof, I think that every science-minded person has to remain skeptical on this question. Or, as Carl Sagan (1934-1996) said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." You can have faith, but that goes somewhere else, in a different box not called science.


Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Remember with Me . . .

I have written about artist Dwight Boyce (1910-2003) before. Since then I found an illustration by him from an old magazine, though not so old as Weird Tales. The magazine is called Good Old Days and it's still being published in my native state of Indiana, Berne to be exact. As you might guess, Good Old Days is a magazine of nostalgia. The article that Dwight Boyce illustrated and that I have now in front of me, called "Remember with Me . . .", is also nostalgic. The boy in the picture is every boy who ever read stories of adventure, mystery, romance, and terror while lying in bed at night. He reminds me of Little Nemo. The author of the article, from January 1986, is Alan Sanderson.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, February 12, 2021

Tell Us, Great Encyclopedia, Why and How!

I have one more possible innovation in Robert A. Heinlein's novel Beyond This Horizon (1942). I'll begin with a quote from the Signet edition (no date, p. 125). It concerns an ongoing project in the book called the Great Research, which has within it several major subsidiary projects . . .

The distribution of life through the physical universe, for example, and the possibility that other, nonhuman intelligences existed somewhere. If there were such, then it was possible, with an extremely high degree of mathematical probability, that some of them, at least, were more advanced than men. In which case they might give Man a "leg up" in his philosophical education. They might have discovered "Why" as well as "How."

Those words were written nearly eighty years ago, and yet the idea is alive today: a full faith that there are intelligences superior to ours in the universe and that these intelligences have discovered--or at least might know something about--the nature, purpose, and meaning of the universe. I think that by extension a superior intelligence would also know about the nature, purpose, and meaning of human (or sentient) existence. I'm not sure that Heinlein took the next step, though, which is that we, because we are not superior intelligences, are not able to figure these things out for ourselves; that we might actually be a danger to ourselves because we are not able to figure them out; and that if we don't reach these extraterrestrial intelligences (ETI) and learn from them, we might only destroy ourselves. There may have been a writer and thinker of the next generation, though, who took that step.

* * *

Not long before I read Beyond This Horizon, I came across an article in a magazine I had never heard of before. The magazine is called Salvo and it's published by The Fellowship of St. James. The article is "ETI in the Sky: What the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Life Means for Us," and it's by Hugh Ross (Spring 2016, pp. 34-37). I remembered Dr. Ross' article as I was reading Heinlein's novel because of the subject of the article, which is Carl Sagan and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to which Sagan devoted so much of his career and which has continued since the 1960s.

Hugh Ross was a graduate student at the University of Toronto during the latter part of that decade when he took a summer course taught by Dr. Sagan. SETI came up in discussions in and out of class. It was one of Sagan's driving passions at the time of course. Mr. Ross writes:

Sagan finished the course by listing over a dozen currently existing problems on earth that could bring about the end of human civilization. He then pointed out that the nations of the world had failed to develop, or even propose, a single viable solution to even one of the problems on his list. Therefore, he asserted, mankind's only hope was to get counsel from an ETI civilization far more advanced than ours. Such a civilization, he was sure, would have produced something on the order of an Encyclopedia Galactica, which--as he was also confident that the civilization must be benevolent--it would be motivated to broadcast to beleaguered planets like ours. (p. 35)

I have always liked and admired Carl Sagan, but he, like anyone, had his shortcomings. One is here on display: a lack of faith and confidence in humanity and in our ability to solve our own problems. Instead, he placed his faith in a purely hypothetical intelligence residing somewhere else in the universe. Sagan seemed to be saying, There is where our salvation lies--mine, too.

That idea seems to me utopian in its way: somewhere out there is perfection, or something like it. It may also be related to Heinlein's concept of the superior man. More than that, though, I think that it's an essentially religious idea, one perhaps specially made for scientists, materialists, and, yes, atheists. There are still those among us who yearn--so yearn, the way a child yearns for a pony--to come into contact with those superior intelligences, to learn from them, perhaps most importantly of all, to draw from their existence the meaning and purpose of our own. I sense that yearning among astronomers, astrophysicists, and others whenever I read about their efforts. So many of them seem to have an emptiness inside of them which they are not willing to fill with anything we might know or believe here on earth. It also seems to me that they seek spiritual salvation by material means. What they may not be considering--what they cannot even countenance--is the possibility that there are no other intelligent species in the universe, or that if there are, that we may be, as C.S. Lewis posited, under quarantine for our "bent" nature, and may not reach them. (1)

* * *

Carl Sagan was not only an astronomer, astrophysicist, and planetologist, he was also an author, including of science fiction. He of course wrote the novel Contact (1985) and co-wrote the story for the film version. I have written about Contact before. I mean to circle back to it, pun or no pun intended. The movie is one thing. The book is another. I'm not sure that many people realize that it closes with the very strong implication that the universe is a product of design.

* * *

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was younger by a generation than Robert Heinlein (1907-1988). He was born during a decade of science fiction, the same decade in which Heinlein had his first story published ("Life-Line" in Astounding Science-Fiction, Aug. 1939). Even as a child, Sagan had a science-fiction imagination. When he was ten, a friend introduced him to the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. At age twelve--what we know to be the golden age of science fiction--he discovered Astounding Science-Fiction, a magazine for sale in a local candy store. "With some effort," Sagan remembered, "I managed to scrape together the purchase price, opened the magazine at random, sat down on a bench not 20 feet from the store and read my first modern science-fiction short story, Pete Can Fix It by Raymond F. Jones, a gentle account of time travel into a post-nuclear holocaust." (2, 3) Sagan's interest in science fiction continued into his college years. While at the University of Chicago in the mid 1950s, he was president of the Astronomical Society and a member (or president?) of the Science Fiction Club. His yearbook picture from his graduation year, 1954, appears below.

So did Carl Sagan come across the idea of superior intelligences from which we might learn to save ourselves in the writings of Robert Heinlein? Or did he develop it on his own? I'm not sure that it really matters. The idea was there, and it seems to have shaped his thinking not just for a time but perhaps throughout his life. In SETI, Carl Sagan went looking in the library of the universe for an Encyclopedia Galactica. Unfortunately the librarians were out to lunch.

Like Sagan, Hugh Ross believes that "our only hope is to take counsel from the Encyclopedia Galactica." Unlike Sagan, he writes: "It seems that we really are alone." Dr. Ross concludes his article with these words:

When Sagan waxed eloquent about the great text during the course he taught at the University of Toronto, I nudged some of my fellow students and commented, "Don't we already have an Encyclopedia Galactica? And it isn't Carl's problem that he refuses to read it?" They all knew, of course, that I was referring to the Bible." (p. 37)

That is Hugh Ross' take on the idea. I won't call it my own. What I will say, though, is that I think we already have in us what we need if we are going to solve our own earthly problems. We don't need people from other planets to do these things for us. And I think it's a pretty risky thing to place our chances at salvation on people who may not even exist, or if they do, on people we might never know.

Notes

(1) And before you say that it is almost an impossibility that we are the only intelligent species in the universe, please provide your evidence, mathematical or otherwise, that we are not.

(2) From "The Real Sci-Fi Freaks Should Read" by Carl Sagan in the Miami Herald, June 18, 1978, pp. 271-273.

(3) "Pete Can Fix It" by Raymond F. Jones was in Astounding Science-Fiction in the issue of February 1947. Sagan had turned twelve in November 1946. In his article, "The Real Sci-Fi Freaks Should Read," he seems to have had his timing mixed up, as he wrote that he had encountered Jones' story during a summer when he was presumably eleven years old.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Robert Bloch in Peril!

The circle keeps turning . . .

In July 1951, Fantastic Adventures published Robert Bloch's story "The Dead Don't Die!" The cover illustration (below) by Robert Gibson Jones (1889-1969) shows a woman in peril. If you want to see a man in peril, you have to look inside. That's where you'll find Virgil Finlay's illustration and a likeness of the author:



Twenty years later, in its summer issue of 1971, Weird Mystery magazine reprinted Bloch's story and part of Jones' cover illustration. The whole issue, I think, is made up of reprints. After all, the dead don't die.

Artists sometimes insert themselves or people they know into their works. Authors do it, too. H.G. Wells did it, but I can't say that he was the first. Maybe he provided the inspiration for his countryman Alfred Hitchcock, who made cameo appearances in most of his own films. Robert Bloch inserted H.P. Lovecraft into "The Shambler from the Stars" (Weird Tales, Sept. 1935). Lovecraft did it back to him in "The Haunter of the Dark" (Weird Tales, Dec. 1936).  Anyway, I have created a new label for entries like this one. It's called Authors Depicted in Art.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, February 8, 2021

Panic in America!

On the evening of October 30, 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air presented a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (1897, 1898). Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Howard Koch were the scriptwriters, but Koch seems to have gotten sole and final credit for what his later book (1970, 1971) called "The Panic Broadcast."

Nearly nineteen years later, on September 9, 1957, the CBS television show Studio One presented the story behind the story in "The Night America Trembled." As it happens, the screenwriter for that live broadcast, Nelson S. Bond (1908-2006), was also a teller of weird tales: from 1940 to 1944, he had seven stories published in "The Unique Magazine."

Another eighteen years passed before ABC-TV broadcast another version of the story behind the story in the film The Night That Panicked America. The date was October 31, 1975. The screenplay was by Nicholas Meyer and Anthony Wilson. Mr. Meyer has his own genre credits, including entries in the Sherlock Homes, Star Trek, and James Bond franchises. He also wrote the screenplay for Time After Time (1979), which is about--of course!--H.G. Wells in his pursuit of Jack the Ripper across time.

Sherlock Holmes has also gone up against Jack the Ripper in this or that pastiche. So did Captain Kirk, believe it or not, in the Star Trek episode "Wolf in the Fold" (1967), written by Robert Bloch (1917-1994) and based, I think, on his earlier story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," originally in Weird Tales in July 1943. As for James Bond--well, there's still time.

These are not lines. They are circles.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Two Thoughts on Flying Saucers

A few days ago I saw an old article about the American economy that grabbed my attention. It's called "The U.S. Economy Will Never Have Another Golden Age," and it's on the website of Marketwatch, dated September 1, 2017. The author has the perfect name for a journalist who writes about economics and finances: Howard Gold.

What grabbed my attention is Mr. Gold's first sentence: "It was the Golden Age of the U.S. economy, the quarter century between 1948 and 1973, when the U.S. reigned supreme, manufacturing flourished and the American middle class prospered." Those dates jumped out at me: 1948 to 1973. Add a year on to the beginning and you have the brackets of what I call the Flying Saucer Era, 1947 to 1973.

Now, there isn't necessarily correlation, causation, or significant association among these kinds of things, but I wonder if there's a way of explaining why "the Golden Age of the U.S. economy" and the Flying Saucer Era were coincident. A conspiracy theorist might notice that 1973 was also the year that the United States went off the gold standard. Another coincidence? Ask Mr. Gold.

* * *

Last year I wrote about Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein (1942). While I was reading, I made a list of possible innovations in Heinlein's futuristic (and vaguely dystopian) novel. These include:

  • Waterbeds
  • Sperm banks
  • Ringtones
  • Fax machines
  • Autopilot
  • Welfare
One of his innovations interests me especially. In a passage about the possibility that there are aliens superior to us in intelligence in the universe, Heinlein wrote:
It has been pointed out that it might be extremely dangerous, psychologically, for human beings to encounter such superior creatures. (Signet, p. 125)
Heinlein should apologize from the grave for his use of the passive voice, for how are we to know who did the pointing out? Anyway, that idea--that people can't handle knowing that there are aliens out there in the universe or even here on Earth--has become a cliché, an unquestioned pseudo-fact that everyone simply knows to be true. It has also helped for decades to fuel conspiracy theories.

So who says that people can't handle this kind of knowledge? Where did that idea come from? Was Heinlein in fact the originator of it? And why 1942? Well, if we're looking for explanations, maybe we should look at dates, events, and the state of the world at the time. For one, there literally were aliens threatening the American people and our way of life in the form not only of the Axis Powers but also of communists and socialists, who had been at their dastardly (there's an old-fashioned word) work for at least a couple of decades before World War II began. There were also perceived threats presented by resident aliens, recent immigrants, or people who just happened to look different or who had foreign-sounding names. In times of national stress, people often lash out at what is called "the other" in their midst. But . . .

The simplest explanation might be that there had in fact been a panic involving space aliens only shortly before Robert Heinlein wrote. It happened on October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre radio company presented a semi-journalistic version of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1897, 1898). Two years later, Princeton University Press issued a study of the phenomenon in The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic by Hadley Cantril (1940). I'm beginning to suspect that the broadcast and its aftermath is where the idea originated, and an unquestioning culture of conspiracy has swallowed it whole and then regurgitated it nonstop for the last eighty-two years. And they have glommed on to the idea that the U.S. government knows all about it and is hiding that knowledge from us. My questions are these: Have conspiracy theorists never worked in government? Do they not know by now that most--nearly all--of the people who make up an organization, maybe especially a governmental organization, are essentially incompetent in carrying out any great thing? People are not very good at running conspiracies or keeping secrets--probably not at all good at it across generations--especially when it involves what would surely be one of the biggest stories of the century (other than what is President John Gill's favorite flavor of ice cream). The idea of a decades-long U.S. governmental conspiracy with hundreds, if not thousands, of people engaged in covering up the existence of aliens is pretty ridiculous when you think about it.

Anyway, I suspect that most people wouldn't have any problem at all learning that there are intelligent aliens out there, and I think that most would just go back to whatever they were doing before, which is looking at cat videos and playing computer games.


Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Jack Matthews on HPL--and Other Topics

I have been reading and thinking on my topic Utopia and Dystopia in Weird Tales, looking for sources, too. As Adam Strange would say, "I'm getting an idea." I can tell you that I'm not where I started in all of this. I confess that when I started, I didn't exactly know where I was going. But if you keep at it, you can usually figure these things out. I'm on the track of a couple of sources with intriguing titles. If these pan out, then maybe my thinking is right and something will come of it all. But it will still be awhile.

* * *

I found out yesterday that composer and pianist Harold Budd died on December 8, 2020. He was eighty-four years old. As far as I know, Mr. Budd had nothing at all to do with science fiction and fantasy, but his atmospheric music could easily be the soundtrack that plays on another planet, distant and lonely, with stars circling its night sky. He was a true artist, and if he ever made an artist's statement, it might have been this:

"In the best of all worlds, I'd like to reacquaint myself, and by proxy, other people, with feelings that they've forgotten, and to recall them with hallucinating clarity. Because it's important for me, and I don't know why. Because it touches on some aspect of my being that I remember fondly but can't dredge up or something like that. [. . .] Those kinds of moods and those kinds of feelings are paramountly important to me as an artist." (From an interview with Carl Stone on his radio show Imaginary Landscapes, 1998)

 * * *

I am always on the lookout for books by Jack Matthews (1925-2013). I recently have received a copy of his book Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure & Profit. I have the paperbound edition from 1981. In it there is a chapter called "Detective Novels, Science Fiction and Fantasy," and believe it or not, Mr. Matthews devoted two paragraphs to H.P. Lovecraft. An excerpt:

     Lovecraft was an extraordinary man, a member of that long tradition of Anglo-Saxon eccentrics that includes John Dunton, William Blake, Erasmus Darwin, Jeremy Bentham, Johnny Appleseed, and Bertrand Russell. It is no wonder that Lovecraft--with his morbid inventiveness, eccentric manner, and odd name--should become a cult figure. [. . .] In a way, Lovecraft appears never to have outgrown his childhood . . . .] But if he remained something of a child, that child was a febrile, "eldritch" (a Lovecraftian word) creature [. . . .] For many readers, the grotesque inventions and lugubrious fantasies of H.P. Lovecraft are a bit much; but for his disciples and defenders--and they are many and of an interesting variety of temperament and background--he is the creator of dreams and fantasies that are powerful and unique, and his morbidity--like that of Poe--is simply the obverse of genius. (pp. 184-185)

And then in the next paragraph, Jack Matthews went to where I'm going in this series, or at least to one of my two destinations: "Unquestionably the two great modern masters of adventure fantasy are Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. Rider Haggard [. . . .]" (p. 185)

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley