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


  1. My son has been driving a rental for the last couple of weeks because his car’s catalytic converter was stolen, and the replacement part is not yet available. I hope his car is not helping to usher in the age of the Humanoids.

    1. Hi, -> Ray,

      Sometimes I think it doesn't matter what we do or don't do. The age of the Humanoids is going to come anyway.

      Thanks for writing.