Get a drink and a snack. This is a long one.
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Nearly a decade ago, I began a series called "Rivals of Weird Tales." In the first two installments, I covered Golden Fleece Historical Adventure, which was in print in 1938-1939. I wrote about many more titles in installments that followed. What I didn't consider at the time is that these magazines were not really rivals of "The Unique Magazine," for Weird Tales had already won that war and various publishers had already come over to its side by putting out their own magazines of weird fiction. The real rival of the weird tale or of weird fiction may actually be science fiction.
There are beliefs or belief systems behind both weird fiction and science fiction. They stand in opposition to each other, I think. As I have written before, I believe weird fiction to be conservative and about the past. It is based in a belief that that we are faced with limits beyond which we may not go, that there are things beyond our knowledge and control. One of those things is fate, also called weird. No one knows what are its true workings. Fate may also act as destiny, chance, fortune, or even doom. It may be a supernatural force. There may be other supernatural forces at work in the universe, too. And we are at their mercy. Fate punishes those who attempt to exceed the limits imposed upon us by the universe. There can be no exceeding these imposed limits and no escaping from fate.
Science fiction on the other hand is progressive and looks to the future. In the science fiction imagination, there aren't any limits. Donald A. Wollheim wrote that science fiction is based in "a belief in human infinity." What is required in science fiction and by science fiction--among writers, readers, and fans alike--is faith in an infinite future. Nothing is out of reach for us. We will do whatever we imagine. If there is Fate, she is only in our favor. Beyond that, at its extremes, there is no such thing as the supernatural in science fiction. A supernatural science fiction is a contradiction in terms. And yet Donald Wollheim used the word belief. In my discussion of his ideas, I have tacked on the word faith. Fate and faith may be similar in appearance and pronunciation, but they are evidently unrelated words. Faith and science are also unrelated.
Jack Williamson developed a concept in which he contrasted the Greek hero with his Egyptian-Hebraic counterpart. In Williamson's formulation, the utopian tradition is based in the culture and ideas of ancient Greece. In contrast, the anti-utopian or dystopian tradition comes from further east, from Egypt and the Levant. Williamson applied his concept to science fiction, putting forth the idea that H.G. Wells availed himself of both traditions during his writing life. Williamson also placed the writers of the New Wave of the 1960s and '70s in the anti-utopian or Egyptian-Hebraic tradition. That seems right to me. The New Wave seems to have been a reaction to the Superior Man-type story, or at least the typical science fiction story of the Golden Age. Williamson gave Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke as examples of authors who chose "to show men solving problems to make things better," implicitly towards a more perfect future, perhaps a future without limits.
Not long ago, I began associating in my mind the New Wave-type hero with the heroes or protagonists of weird fiction. The typical science-fictional hero--better (or worse) yet, the typical hero of space opera--is more or less a superman. Nothing is beyond his manifestly superior abilities. He is also a simple character, untroubled by moral, ethical, philosophical, or spiritual doubts or dilemmas. Very often he is a cardboard cutout. Lack of character development is one of the main literary offenses in science fiction in fact. Very often created by physical scientists, technologists, and engineers, the stereotypical science fiction hero functions like a machine. The weird-fictional hero may not be very much different in that way. After all, writers of pulp fiction aren't always the most accomplished of artists. However, the weird-fictional hero is flawed. He suffers. He is punished, humiliated, and defeated. Sometimes he is even killed. In short, he is vulnerable to fate. There are only limits for him, only finitude. If he fails to recognize limits--if he believes he can stride over the world and goes about trying to do it--he is soon brought down. He meets his fate: his weird befalls him.
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If science fiction and weird fiction are rivals, and if the New Wave-type hero is something like the weird-fictional hero, then maybe weird fiction won the war and defeated its rival science fiction, at least in the 1960s and '70s. And then William Gibson's Neuromancer, a Gothic science fiction, came along in 1984 and extended the winning streak (or losing streak, depending on how you look at it) of the Egyptian-Hebraic or anti-utopian or weird-fictional hero into the 1980s and beyond. Are we still living in an era of weird-fictional heroes as the protagonists of many science-fictional milieux?
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These aren't perfect parallels, but maybe weird fiction or the weird tale is ultimately an Old World type, as opposed to science fiction as an American type. We don't believe in limits in America. There is always room for 10% more growth this year, always a need and a drive for more and better. You could say that we have faith in the infinite future. Europe on the other hand is constrained. It is almost everywhere hopelessly mired in the past. It is up against limits and has to satisfy itself with small things, minor things. In our football, one team beats another by a score of 65 to 7. In European football, the final score is 1 to 0 . . . in a game that lasts two hours . . . on a playing field the size of a small country.
I was being a little facetious there, but it seems to me that there is an American-type hero and a European-type hero and almost never the twain shall meet. In The Great Escape (1963) Steve McQueen's character is held in a German POW camp. He escapes, along with scads of other prisoners. Yeah, he gets captured--he's literally snagged at the border--but it's only a matter of time before he tries again. Maybe next time it will work. And in the meantime, he plays at the quintessential American game, baseball. His Old World captors are utterly baffled by it and by him.
In contrast, in The Prisoner (1967-1968), Patrick McGoohan's character, a British secret agent, is taken prisoner and serves time in a not completely unpleasant place called the Village. Every week, or almost every week, he escapes. And every week he is returned to his prison. (He's like the British Gilligan.) In the end, it turns out he can't escape at all, for he has constructed this prison for himself. In one way at least, No. 6 is like Kaspar Hauser: although he has escaped, ultimately he is a victim of himself.
We should note that both Steve McQueen and Patrick McGoohan were native-born Americans--Steve McQueen is from my native state of Indiana. The difference here is that Steve McQueen played an uncomplicated American taken prisoner by an Old World system, while Patrick McGoohan played a much more complicated Briton who was part of an Old World system. The lesson might be that the true American doesn't fall for and can never be captured by European complexities. Marxism and similar intellectual or pseudo-intellectual systems might appeal to the European mind. To us they're trash.
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The American-type hero is like the science-fictional hero, while the European-type hero is like his weird-fictional counterpart. In The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942), the hero is driven inexorably to commit his crime. There is no escaping before he commits it, and there is certainly no escaping afterwards. The book ends with Mersault contemplating his end from within the walls of his cell. Europeans remain in their cells. Americans escape from them, like Tim Robbins' character in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Clint Eastwood's in Escape from Alcatraz (1979), or Paul Newman as the title character in Cool Hand Luke (1967).
(By the way, an alternate title for The Stranger is The Outsider. Fans of weird fiction, specifically of H.P. Lovecraft, should chew on that for a while.)
In the Italian film Mafioso (1962), Alberto Sordi's character, named Antonio, returns for a visit to his old hometown in Sicily so as to introduce his northern-born wife to his family. (He has moved away to Milano, where he works in a car factory.) While in Sicily, he is tasked by the local don with the killing of a rival mafioso. Antonio can't refuse, of course. He is bound by the past. The twist is that the rival is in New York City. And so Antonio is packed into a crate and flown to the New World--America. He now has an appointment with fate.
In an American movie, the hero would find a way out. In fact, there are hints that Antonio might escape his fate as he is on his way to carry out the hit. A man stops him in the street. He is delayed. Will he figure out how to get out of this? No. He impatiently pushes the man away. He walks into the barber shop. There is his target. He carries out his task. He meets his fate, as does the man in the chair. And Antonio's life is forever afterwards changed.
Our expectations as American viewers is that Antonio will in fact escape. For the European protagonist, though, there is no way out. He is fated--or doomed--and must go on. He must carry out his task. This was, I think, a smart and intentional move by the moviemaker: to place his European protagonist into an American setting, juxtaposing the culture of the past, of that sense of obligation and fate and trapped-ness, against the uniquely American ability and freedom to escape. Or to believe that you can escape. Or to die trying, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The impossibility of escape is written right into the title of Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, from 1944. I have never read or seen a performance of that play, but reading a synopsis of it makes me think of the short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison, first published in IF: Worlds of Science Fiction in March 1967. Yes, it's science fiction, but Ellison's story is also dystopian and post-apocalyptic. You could make a case that "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is almost weird-fictional, or a conte cruel. It was written and published during the New Wave era. It seems to fit with stories of that type and time.
In contrast to Harlan Ellison's story and its no escape, there is After Utopia by Mack Reynolds (1977), about which I wrote not long ago. After Utopia is also a post-apocalyptic and mildly dystopian story. Like The Stranger, Reynolds' story is set in North Africa. Unlike Mersault, the hero, inexplicably named Tracy, escapes--into the future. Like the characters in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," he is faced with a problem that seems unsolvable. But he solves it near the end. He escapes his intolerable life on Earth and sacrifices himself to make things better for all of humanity. (The last living character in Ellison's story also sacrifices himself but in a terrible way. And the people he saves are saved only by death.) In this and other ways, Reynolds' hero is a classic science fiction-type hero rather than his weird-fictional opposite. In his role as a great man, he alters human history and takes on an almost Christlike quality. A curious development from a socialist author.
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In After Utopia, there is a science-fictional fantasy of escape. In this case, the fantasy is an escape into the future--an obvious absurdity fit only for the escapist imagination. In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce (1890), there is another fantasy of escape, but the protagonist is literally snapped back into reality. Bierce's tale is ultimately weird-fictional--and devastating in its hewing to real human experience and real states of the imagination. In the end, the protagonist meets his weird. But does he deserve it? Probably not. Perhaps Bierce's tale is a conte cruel after all. And what of Bierce? We don't know his fate. Maybe he went out like Butch and Sundance.
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There is no escape in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) either. Written by an Old World writer and taking place in an Old World setting, George Orwell's bleak novel ends in the bleakest possible way. Its hero, such as he is, is utterly humiliated and defeated. In the end, nothing and no one is saved.
In the current Airstrip One, the real-world country formerly known as the United Kingdom, there is also no escape. A few years ago, an infant named Charlie Gard was kept prisoner in his home country and not allowed to leave to receive medical care. The idea, I guess, is that we are all the property of the State and only the State gets to say where we can go. A few weeks ago, a woman named Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested in Birmingham, England, for praying in her own head. She committed a literal thought crime. She could be imprisoned for it. Maybe her jailers will turn the rats loose on her like O'Brien did to Winston Smith. That'll show her. Anyway, Orwell warned us. Instead of taking it as a warning, though, we're using Nineteen Eighty-Four as an instruction book.
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You can make a case that Superman is a science-fictional hero, whereas Batman is weird-fictional. Both are threatened in their youth, and while Superman escapes his fate--destruction with his parents and planet--Batman does not. He must forever remember the murder of his parents. He must forever seek vengeance after them. He is so fated. Superman is literally superior. His creators were inspired by science fiction. Batman on the other hand is a mortal man. I feel certain that he rose out of the pulp-fiction, weird hero-type stories of the 1930s. Superman wears bright colors and flies out of lofty skyscrapers. He rises up to become himself. He's ready for a Technicolor world. Batman dresses in gray and black and lives in a cave. He descends in order to take on his bat-identity. Film noir is the place for him.
Superman inhabits a science-fictional world. His city is Metropolis, a name straight from the Greek. In contrast, Batman lives in Gotham City, a dark and gloomy place (in the movies it always rains there), a name from the Dark Ages and most recently from the Old English. Gotham City is named for a people who sacked Rome, that pinnacle of antiquity. Gothic is a word often used to describe weird stories. The Gothic romance was a reaction to eighteenth-century onslaughts of reason and rationality. Batman has come out of passion and murder. Superman, on the other hand, is a product of science and reason.
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In Star Wars (1977), Carrie Fisher, a thoroughgoing American, played an Old World character, complete with a faux-British accent. She may be a senator, a title used in a republic, but she isn't addressed as senator. Instead she is the subject of an empire and is called by an Old World title, Princess Leia. Her tormenters bear Old World-sounding titles, too, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. Princess Leia is languishing in her cell without hope for escape when two rough-and-ready Americans arrive. One is a farmboy from some podunk place.* The other is a worldly rumrunner in a souped-up spaceship. (In American Graffiti, Harrison Ford drove a hotrod. In Star Wars, he drove an even bigger hotrod.) They rescue her of course and their escapades begin. You could say that Princess Leia starts out in Star Wars as an Old World character. Over the course of the movie, she becomes more American. By the end she's in open rebellion. The two suns of Tatooine will soon set on the Galactic Empire.
*Like Clark Kent, Luke Skywalker is from the hinterlands. Later films reveal him to be a kind of Superior Man, like Superman, with hidden powers and a hidden personal history. Rescued from destruction, he was placed in the care of two bucolic characters. Like Superman and Batman, he is orphaned. Unlike them, he is twice orphaned.
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Science fiction allows for escape. In weird fiction, there is no escape, or no permanent escape. Outer space is the usual medium of science fiction. Originally pitched as "wagon train to the stars," Star Trek begins in its prologue with these words: "Space--the final frontier." The title of Gerard K. O'Neill's book from 1976 is The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. Wagon train to the stars, the final frontier, the high frontier, the far frontier: we think of outer space in terms of our own history, of exploring and going beyond frontiers. In Europe, frontiers are borders between countries. You have to wait there while the man studies and eventually stamps your passport. In America, frontiers and borders are of the imagination. They are meant to be pushed outward or crossed outright. You don't have to wait. You just go.
If things go wrong in America, we can always escape, we can cross our borders and frontiers into new places. Things will be better there, or certainly no worse than they are here. John Dillinger (another Hoosier) was famous for his escapes. He always had his eye on the nearest state line. Dillinger tried to escape in the end. He came out of a Clark Gable picture and made a run for it. The FBI shot him and he died ignominiously, facedown in an alleyway. Bonnie and Clyde were always on the run, too. They were shot to pieces, significantly in their car. Will Rogers famously quipped, "We'll be the first nation in the world to go to the poor house in an automobile." It's either that way or the Bonnie and Clyde way--or the Thelma and Louise way. In Paper Moon (1973), there is a race near the end to cross over into Missouri. In contrast, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn wants out of the place. With outer space available to us, we can do like Huck did and "light out for the territory." Science fiction, with outer space as its medium, is perfect for the American imagination and the American way of life. It's the road novel and the road picture of the future. Through it and into it, we can escape--or at least we think we can.
Or maybe escape is a childish fantasy. Maybe the Europeans have it right after all. Maybe we all must run up against limits and face our weird.
C.S. Lewis wrote his famous Space Trilogy. Regarding childish fantasies, the last book is subtitled "A Modern Fairy Tale for Grownups." Despite that word space in the title and despite the trips to other planets made inside, I would submit that Lewis' trilogy is not really science fiction, or at least not mainly science fiction. We might better think of it as a reaction to science fiction, especially the naïve progressivism and utopianism of H.G. Wells. In Things to Come (1936), written by Wells, men reach for the stars, seek to escape to and conquer the stars. In The Space Trilogy, the stars and other planets are off limits. No escape is permitted, for humanity--Earth, the Silent Planet--is under quarantine. We are confined here because of our fallen nature. C.S. Lewis' word for us in our fallen state is bent. Remember now that our word weird comes from a presumed Proto-Indo-European root *wer-. It means "to bend."
|Batman vs. Superman, World's Finest #143, August 1964.|
Text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley