the sunport vista:

September 2016

Thought for the day...

2016 September 30th:  A rambling entry today, focused upon the cultivation of the site rather than on abstract ideas: 

Being a webmaster is a bit like being a gardener.  Now that I've made a link from the silicon life page to The Crimson Courts and My Martian Dreams - following a prompt from Dylan - I reflect upon the many little cumulative enrichments of this sort which increase the fertility of my OSS "garden" over time.  I also intend to do a link from the home page's acronym section to pages on which GAWI (which started out as a semi-joke) is discussed. 

Mixed reports from the Saturn front.  Great to have a new chapter of The Arc of Iapetus at last - and let me say, at the risk of annoying some fans, that I actually prefer this tale to the vastly more popular Archives of the Moon.  I'm not knocking Archives, but I reckon Arc is better written - I wonder what others think?  Of course, Archives is part pastiche, whereas Arc is written in the author's own individual style.  On the other hand, I can understand that Archives fills an urgent gap in the literature of the ancient inhabited Moon.  But then, isn't there a gaping hole in Saturn literature too?  And that reminds me -

Philip Latham's Missing Men of Saturn, which I ordered from the US, was shipped on 9th September and I still haven't received it.  Due no doubt to some dastardly interplanetary plot I am being deprive of news about the Saturn system.

Going back to my excitement about Arc of Iapetus -

I remember in my young days doting on a few copies of a movie-magazine called Spacemen.  It was part of the same "stable" as another mag called Famous Monsters.  I think they were both edited by Forrest J Ackerman.  I remember an interview with Ray Bradbury in Spacemen.  Bradbury chatted about various sf movies - remember this was ages ago, long before the ground-breaking 2001 - A Space Odyssey.  I suppose that at that time (early Sixties) the best sf movie so far was Forbidden Planet.  Or at any rate, one of the best. 

Spacemen, and Ackerman's editorial style, was my first experience of happy-go-lucky good old American hype.  For instance he introduced Bradbury with the remark, "The Illustrated Martian himself!" - conflating "The Illustrated Man" and "The Martian Chronicles" in a way that temporarily confused my slow-witted young self.

What say you readers - shall I go for hype?  Shed my stiff upper lip?  (Or if I do, some of you might say, what's new, Zendexor?  The way I go on about Clark Ashton Smith, for instance...)

2016 September 29th:  My theme today is that of changing one's mind.  Drastic revisions of one's opinion about a particular author or book.

I have mentioned, somewhere or other, that I got to like Asimov's Nemesis much more on second reading.

A rather sad example of the opposite is my lessened regard for Philip K Dick's The Penultimate Truth, the last time I read it.  It was when I began to notice the ragged holes in some of Dick's plots.  Truth to tell, I can no longer remember what my objections were - only that they seemed strong at the time.  But doubtless I shall re-read the book and my opinion may swing round again (especially when taking into account the fact that the downswing was partly caused by my great admiration for that author, and consequent over-high expectations for his every work).

But what I'm leading up to is the most amazing case of change-of-mind in my career as a reader.  It concerns an author whose stuff I didn't like at all, at first.  It actually depressed me!  I thought it was creaky, claustrophobic, verbose, horrid in a suffocating rather than an awesome sense....  I am talking about one who is now one of my favourite authors, whom I keep re-reading and who makes me yearn fruitlessly for more...  none other than -

the great Clark Ashton Smith!!!!

I must have undergone a conversion experience.  A click from not getting it into getting it.  It would be interesting - to say the least - to pin the moment down, and to understand the process.  Fat chance, I suppose.

2016 September 28th:  I have decided to implement a recent suggestion made by the Archon of Mars.  The idea is to include a "do-it-yourself anthology" page on site.

I think this would go naturally alongside the Tales Unwritten page.  Following on from that thought, I have decided to put both of them together in their own section on the navigation bar - a new section called PROMPTS.  Prompting action by publishers and writers, you see.

Changing the subject now: it often happens that I get dis-satisfied with the previous entry in this Diary and wish I had also said such-and-such.  This is the case with my remarks on neologisms - particularly with reference to Uranian Gleams.  I ought to have pointed out that the unisex pronoun nen is by no means the most important neologism in that book.  It contains at least a couple of others, far more interesting than nen.  I would draw the reader's attention to lremd and arelk, for instance.  There may be more, but those two are the ones that stick in my mind, and tell us important things about Uranian politics and society.  I hope we'll see the sequel before too long (says I in nagging mode again).

Changing the subject again - and hoping I have not said this before:

Two zones exist within the Solar System, where the distinction between the Old and New literature breaks down.  These areas, where OSS and NSS fuse, are -

(1) the Sun, and (2) the Periphery, or Outermost Reaches.

I say the OSS/NSS distinction breaks down because our knowledge is so patchy that our imagination remains in more or less sole possession of the field (this applies to the Periphery) or because no new knowledge can alter the radical nature of life in such an environment (this applies to the Sun).

Therefore if the hard-science devotees are ever to share a common frontier with us OSS fans, I suggest we know the two zones where this frontier is most likely to be located.

Asimov's Nemesis comes to mind.  I must do a page on that, sometime.  As I may have said before, it belongs to his late, verbose period, but I have grown to like it much more on my second reading, and it gives us an unforgettable world.

2016 September 27th:  During the past 3 months I have written so much in the OSS Diary that I'm starting to wonder how long I can go on before I begin (unwittingly) to repeat myself.  In case that happens, I apologize in advance.  Of course, the repetition may not be exact; it may simply mean a return to a topic which wasn't fully dealt with on a previous occasion - but what could be embarrassing is that I might announce it with an excited fanfare as though it had just occurred to me for the first time...

Anyhow, in the hope that this really is new, here goes:

Robert Gibson has reported some mixed feedback regarding Uranian Gleams from the OSS readership: in the form of, "I really like the stories, but I can't stand the unisex pronoun nen meaning he or she, which is used by the Terrans of the 41st century."

What does anyone else think?  Anyone irritated by nen?  My own view is that it is would be a relief to have such a word - it would enable us to avoid the illogical misuse of plural they as a singular pronoun.  (I get similarly annoyed when feminists pompously use "patriarchy" to mean "male-dominated society".  They don't know, or don't care, that "patriarchy" means "father-dominated".  Ancient Rome was a patriarchy - fathers had huge authority over other members of their families, both male and female.  A more fitting general term for male-dominated society would be "virarchy", if you don't mind mixing Latin and Greek roots.) 

But let's have your views, please, on nen and perhaps on the issue of neologisms in general. 

Some invented nouns are hardly neologisms at all, of course.  Burroughs' panthan, meaning Barsoomian soldier of fortune, just adds colour to the books without significantly enlarging our semantic range.

In Man of the World we get the ominous Sparseworld - a condition of reality, a decomplexification, which may have no exact parallel in other works - although there is the "regression of forms" in Philip K Dick's Ubik.

In Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land we have the famous grok.

One can foresee that too many neologisms in one book will overstrain the reader, but it's not clear where to draw the line...  Frank Herbert sure gets away with a lot, in Dune.

Gene Wolfe, on the other hand, in The Book of the New Sun tetrology, has gone on record that he deliberately avoided inventing new words.  Instead he ransacked the language for obscure existing words, to remarkable effect.

2016 September 26th:  Rule Britannia!  My country has edged up to 7% of users of this site this month, surpassing that OSS superpower, the Czech Republic, which has dropped from 7 to 6%.  We Brits have replaced the Czechs in third place.  (USA in first place, 56%; China in second, 11%.)

I might mention also that yesterday was a record for site use, with 106 users (previous record 102, for 11 September) making 155 visits (previous record 147, for 18 September).

Seriously, I do wonder why the British don't use the site nearly as much, per head of population, as the Americans do.  I know the USA is hot on space travel and space research - hotter than we, anyhow - but why should that make them hotter on the literature?

Perhaps it's those wide open spaces and dark skies...  I know we hear a lot about light pollution, but even so there are some huge areas in the US (thinks I, who have never been there) where the night sky must be breathtaking.  And many great observatories in the continental US too... they aren't all in Hawaii (or Chile).  I wonder - if we ever get to the deindustrial future depicted by John Greer in Star's Reach - how the observatories such as Flagstaff and Mt Hopkins and Mt Wilson and Mt Palomar might be seen.  Mighty, mysterious domes.  An intriguing thought, how such artefacts might accumulate legends.

2016 September 25th:  The post is always late round here, and Something From Mercury arrived yesterday after I had written in the Diary.  The book is a good buy, though not for the reason I ordered it.  It's actually not an anthology of Old Mercury tales but a collection of stories by John Russell Fearn, and only the title story is about Mercury - or rather, about a creature brought back from that planet.  A memorable life-form.  The book also contains a tale set on the asteroid progenitor planet - which thus gives me some more material I can use. 

Fearn appears to have written a multitude of sf books.  Dozens, in fact.  Looks like we OSS literary archaeologists are far from having exhausted the field.

And now, a confession.  Yesterday I was going on about shitese, and Stid barged into my Diary with a pointed objection: my complaints are all very well but what is an author supposed to do when people really do talk like that?  And I dodged the question.  I confess, I didn't really think it through.  Here, now, is what I hope is a better answer.

An author may indeed have reason, if he is writing about a certain milieu, to reflect, in his diary, the bad language of that milieu.  But though his characters may talk in shitese, we shouldn't have to read about them thinking in shitese.  See what I'm getting at, Stid?  Whereas the following may be acceptable, albeit distasteful -

"Shit!  The Martians are coming!  We'd better haul our asses out of here!"

- it's quite another matter to have to put up with

Shit, he thought to himself, the Martians are coming; we'll have to haul our asses out of here.

Stid:  Why is the second so much worse than the first?

Zendexor:  You're just testing me, Stid, aren't you?  Surely you see that if thought - which is represented by verbalizion but is always more than the verbalization - is conveyed in shitese, that elevates shitese to the status of primary concept.  And we don't want to do that, do we?  Nod, please, and say "no", please!

2016 September 24th:  More on "geophysical romance": it's time I mentioned The Hab Theory (1976), by Allan W Eckert. 

It's a long, 700-page novel, excitingly though not brilliantly written, with a political fascination to it: giving an answer to the question, "suppose you knew of a terrific threat hanging over the world, how would you get the authorities to listen?"  The protagonist does get the authorities to listen, convincing the President by somewhat drastic means.

The idea underpinning the book is that the Earth's axial tilt periodically tips through ninety degrees, so that what were two points on the equator become the poles.  This happens because the polar caps are bound to increase steadily in weight as more ice condenses onto them.  The literal tipping point must come, when the planet's spin has to adjust.

The flaw in this theory, it seems to me, is that it considers the Earth to be a perfect sphere.  In actual fact, the equatorial diameter surpasses the polar diameter by 27 miles, and this bulge round Earth's middle surely must far outweigh any accumulation of snow and ice at the poles.

However, given its false premise, the book is interestingly worked out, in particular because of its evidence for previous civilizations which were obliterated by the catastrophe.  Real evidence, too.  It was the first time I'd heard of the mysterious Piri Reis Map.

I'm not sure if I'll ever reread The Hab Theory, but I'm not sorry I read it once at least.  I forgot to mention another point in its favour: as far as I can recall, it's not written in shitese - you know, that dialect of modern American thrillers in which sh-- and fu-- and -ss occur in every other line.

Stid:  Watch it, Zendexor, remember two-thirds of your readers are American.

Zendexor:  Yes, and they deserve better than books written in shitese.  The great Americans are never vulgarians, anyhow - Burroughs, Vance, Simak, Asimov, Heinlein, Harness, Kuttner, Moore, Laumer, Gallun, Clark Ashton Smith, Cordwainer Smith, Hamilton, Brackett, Bradbury etc etc etc - are free of the scourge. 

Stid:  Yeah, but what do you do when real people actually do talk like that, and you want to write about them?

Zendexor:  You get round it somehow.  You bury it in oblivion.  You write about something else.  I don't know.  All I know is, shitese withers my interest in a book and its characters.

2016 Septembr 23rd:  Yesterday evening I located the tale Hot Planet by Hal Clement (it's in one of the Spectrum anthologies, ed. Amis and Conquest).  It's an OSS story by virtue of its depiction of the tidally locked Mercury - maybe one of the last stories to do so before the 1965 revelation that this scenario was not true.

A dry tale, but interesting.  A hard-sf speculation as to how Mercury might periodically develop a temporary atmosphere, due to volcanism and outgassing caused by the tidal forces which in turn are due to the eccentricity of the planet's orbit.

Such a theme might be developed in less realistic fashion by a soft-sf Neo-OSS writer who wants a world with a temporary breathable atmosphere.  You'd have to invent a reason why the gas released was oxygen...  but once you'd got past that difficulty, you'd have a fascinating scenario in which cultures have to live in cycles, periods of life on the surface interspersed with aeonian "hibernation" or a retreat to the underground.

It might lead to an epic on the scale of Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy.

I wonder if there's a term for the kind of story which is based on vast "secular" (in the time-sense) geophysical changes.  Geophysical Romance?  I don't know.  I leave it to the readers.  It brings to mind (from what appears so far) the threat of that condition called "Sparseworld", in Gibson's Man of the World.  I'm thinking now of cyclic changes.  Of course, far-future stories tend to have one-way change - there's no going back from The Night Land.

I've just remembered - going back to changes of atmosphere - that in the film Total Recall, Mars develops a breathable atmosphere within minutes... can't quite remember how.  Now that's what you could call efficient planetary engineering.

2016 September 22nd:  Bilbo Baggins' birthday today, I believe.  Not that he's OSS, but from one sub-genre to another we can wish him many happy returns.

Now here's a stream of consciousness for you: how do we get from Bilbo to Mars and Callisto?

Easy.  Here goes.  (Read slowly down the page to prolong the agony...)

Bilbo >> riddle-battle with Gollum >> riddles posed by me on this site >> like the following question: what connects Mars, Callisto and bio-engineered forms of transport?

Well, what does connect them?

Answer: an overlap of ideas between S M Stirling and John W Campbell.

Stirling's Martians (see In the Courts of the Crimson Kings) use cyborg-type living vehicles.  Campbell's Callistans drive cars which are part-alive - as Penton and Blake discover.

I shall be returning to the topic of those Callistan cars.

2016 September 21st:  On this site I have written a lot in praise of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but there's one point in his favour which I don't remember having discussed.

It's his remarkable consistency.  Over a writing career spanning over three decades, he more or less maintained the same quality, neither markedly improving nor noticeably deteriorating.

Actually one could argue that the last of his tales to be published in his lifetime - Skeleton Men of Jupiter (1943) - was one of his very best, and therefore that he did improve overall, especially as his final spurt included the four excellent novellas in Llana of Gathol.

On the other hand, consider how good his early stuff was: for instance Tarzan of the Apes, The Gods of Mars, At the Earth's Core, and The Moon Maid.  It seems to me that from the start he climbed onto a plateau of quality and remained there for his entire career.

Contrast that with some other great and famous writers.  Could you say the same about Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Simak...  all of whom seemed to suffer from prolixity and a loss of edge in their later careers?  Hamilton was different in the opposite sense - he continuously improved, during an even longer career than ERB's (well over forty years).  Russell was different in that he suddenly stopped writing.  Laumer deteriorated but that was caused by drastic and sudden ill-health.

In a strange sort of way I feel that ERB's consistency is at one with his peculiar talent - that of tapping into a well of wonder, as if his function were merely to release the gusher and let it spout forth.  It's either turned on or it isn't.  There are no gradations.  In a way I am saying that ERB was a "medium" - though rather than contact with the spirit world, his was contact with the essence of Story, whatever that may be.

2016 September 20th:  I am in the process of building a "normal" page for the discussion "Author Heaven".  When that has been done, you readers will have a choice between the current HTML version, which is where your comments are added, and a new LULU (Lined-Up Linked-Up) version on a "normal" page. 

If you just want to read the latest comments, or add new comments, just carry on using the old HTML page you've been using up to now.  Since the latest comments go to the front of the queue, you get to view them quicker there.

But if you want to read the whole thing, and follow the thread of discussion in chronological order (which on the HTML page entails having to go to the end and read the entries in reverse order), the LULU page will be much more convenient for you.  Also, it'll have links to other pages.  Links are easy for me to do on Blockbuilder, whereas it's such a lengthy pain to do them in HTML that I hardly ever bother.

I also plan to do the same for a few of the other HTML pages in due course.  Building the different version involves considerable donkey-work and takes quite a bit of time, which is why it hasn't been done up to now, but for the more popular and lengthy discussions I think it will be well worth the trouble to go LULU.

[Later:]  It's done.  Readers: you can get to the new page, and to future LULUs as they appear, via Debates in the navigation bar.

Contributors: all you need do is continue to add your comments to Author Heaven exactly as before; the only difference is that from now on I shall then make sure that your words of wisdom appear also on the LULU, Author Heaven Plus.

2016 September 19th:  I could call this entry "When the Bough Doesn't Break", for it's about a tale which doesn't try to cram too much in, and so doesn't collapse of its own weight.

Comparing Edmond Hamilton's A Conquest of Two Worlds (1932) with his Mutiny on Europa (1936):

The 1932 tale is ground-breaking, ambitious, brilliant.  It's about a conflict of loyalties, and of the hero's moral decision to resist imperialism and fight for the freedom of the native peoples of Jupiter against his own kind.

The 1936 tale is shorter, slighter, and though it has the same loyalty-theme, its scope is restricted to a conflict between a desire for personal justice and a wider loyalty to the Space Service.

Mutiny on Europa focuses on a revolt of human convicts.  Conflict with the natives of that jungle moon is part of the accepted background to the tale.  There is no hint of moral opposition to Earth rule.  That's not the issue at all.  All that bothers the hero is that he himself has been a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Now, my point is, that from an artistic point of view, I suspect Hamilton was right not to try to tackle the anti-imperialistic issue in the shorter tale, as he had so successfully in the longer.  Mutiny on Europa succeeds only because of its intense focus on the theme of personal vengeance versus esprit de corps. There just would not have been room for the brotherhood of beings as well.

Mind you, it's just as well that I had read A Conquest of Two Worlds first.  So I knew the author's heart was in the right place.

2016 September 18th:  Yesterday I discussed the great nostalgia value of the old space program.  That moves me to mention another topic which often gives us a window on the more dignified and decent Earth culture of yore (I realize I'm being controversial here).  That other topic is - alien invasions from our OSS neighbours.

In particular I'd like to mention Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell.

The novel was published in the mid 1950s but the tale is set in 1980.  The plot gives us an invasion from Venus, a secret invasion by a... well, I won't give too much away. All you need to know is that it's an unputdownable novel, powered by the Russell narrative verve.  But the reason I mention it here, is to do with EFR's 1980 having preserved a 1950s atmosphere.

Russell gives us a decent, ordinary, straight-talking America populated by normal folk whose very existence gives me a lift to the heart, just as the Brits in John Wyndman's 1950s novels do.  They're good and bad, they're human - they're not creepy or disgusting or weird.  Not that Russell or Wyndham make a point of any of this.  It's a case of unconscious wholesomeness - the only kind that's any good.

I'm not asserting that society was really like that in the 1950s, or that there has ever been a decent culture in all of human history; but sometime a breath of it suffices to condense into the tone or atmosphere of a literary work. And when it does, I want the humans to win and the invaders to lose.  Otherwise - to borrow the most useful line from the movies: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

2016 September 17th:  Re the recent coup by Dylan - I suppose I could have discovered that Mercury anthology myself, but one reason why I'm less use than D as a researcher, is that I start out from the assumption that I'm not going to find anything.  I expect there's a moral in that somewhere.

Mercury is the odd one out among the planets, as far as the OSS/NSS boundary is concerned, in that whereas for most of the planets it's an issue of life-versus-non-life, in the case of Mercury it's primarily a case of the world's physical nature: i.e. whether it is tidally locked to the Sun or not, and thus whether it's eternally baked on one side and frozen on the other.

Of course, that can involve the question of habitability, and in most OSS Mercury stories that is the case, but it need not be a question of life.  The lifeless Mercury of Brightside Crossing is an outstanding scene in Old Solar System literature.  Life, in that example, is shown to be not by any means essential, in order to give character to a world.

To some extent this theme of "lifeless but full of character" can be extended to Earth's Moon.  There, the OSS aspect can involve memorable lunar physical phenomena, such as in Isaac Asimov's The Singing Bell.

But also, because the Moon is so much closer to the Earth than other Solar System bodies, it can get involved in evocative tales of the old space program.  These stories, with every year that passes, become classifiable more and more as tales of a wonderful alternative Earth history; in other words they are as much about our world as they are about space.  And to a less frequent extent this applies to the exploration of the inner solar system in general.  I am thinking now about Hugh Walters' juveniles, at least the early ones, to do with the Moon, Venus and Mars.  Later on in his series - to judge from the disappointing Mission to Mercury (in which the crew might as well have stayed at home) and Passage to Pluto - his books became less interesting.  (I haven't read his other alliterative titles - Journey to Jupiter, Spaceship to Saturn or Nearly Neptune.  But I'm not hopeful.)  However I can recommend all the early ones up to and including Destination Mars.  In particular, Operation Columbus - about the first Moon voyage - is top-notch.


I have just spent some money in a good cause, i.e. my literary education.  I have ordered the following from (whom I thoroughly recommend):

Something From Mercury, ed. John Russell Fearn; Star's Reach by John Greer; The Daedalus Incident, The Enceladus Crisis and The Venusian Gambit by Michael J Martinez.  The total cost including shipping came to just over £50 which, for five books, is not bad.

2016 September 16th:  One task for a rainy day, or rather rainy month, would be to compile a general index of the stories in all my anthologies, so that I can locate any story I want.  I know full well that this will never get done, but right now it would be nice to know where I could lay my hands on the Mercury tale Hot Planet, by Hal Clement.  I'm 95% sure I've got it somewhere.

I read it ages ago and didn't think much of it, but this could be one of those cases where one's attitude and appreciation changes. Anyhow, even if it's not much in itself, it would give interesting points of comparison with Alan Nourse's Brightside Crossing. Those are the two main hard-sf tales about the OSS rotationally-locked Mercury.  I realize that no amount of attitude-change will ever make Hot Planet seem anywhere near as great a story as the Nourse tale, but I have made a note to investigate - the anthology it's in is probably somewhere in the ancestral home I visit every few weeks (there's not room where I actually live for more than about a third of my sf collection).

Thinking about the format of an Old Mercury collection, I reckon it might be arranged something like this:

Introduction regarding the belief in the Twilight Belt - then kick off with The Immortals of Mercury, then contrast that with the lifeless but equally vivid world of Brightside Crossing, then back to Mercurian intelligences with Shannach - The Last (via the theme-link minerals >> silicon life);then perhaps something about what the scientists were saying all this time - extract from Antoniadi's book on Mercury (showing his map of the planet) - and then Hot Planet, and then maybe back to native Mercurian life with an extract from Valeddom, if copyright allows. After that, one could have Hamilton's Sunfire! to show the connection Mercury has had with ideas of solar life. After that, some odds and ends, lesser tales. One might even have more than one Brackett tale set or partly set on Mercury, though Shannach is the only one I've read.

2016 September 15th:  Following on from John Greer's comment in "Author Heaven" about the joys of hard sf - the "delight in the game of taking known science and using it to construct the improbable": 

That side of it - the opposite pole to the preoccupations of this particular site and its subgenre - is indeed a great thing.  It's a type of creativity that's reserved for experts, such as Hal Clement and Robert L Forward, but also it's stupendous fun for any reader whenever it also succeeds as a story, as it does in Clement's Mission of Gravity and Forward's Dragon's Egg

One might object that in those two works the realism does not extend to the mentalities of the aliens; at any rate, the insectoid-shaped inhabitants of Clement's high-gravity world and of Forward's even higher-gravity neutron star seem mentally quite like us.  But is this really an objection?  Who knows? - who am I to pontificate on what sort of mind an alien should have?

In my capacity as unifier, or searcher after a United Field Theory of sf appreciation, I might try to imagine how the opposite poles of "hard" and "soft" sf could eventually meet, so that the good old OSS takes its place alongside its fellow subgenres as a component of one literary super-force.

If it's ever done, this'll be done - I predict - by subsuming the scientific approach as one adventure among others. 

Science, after all, is more an adventure with power than a search for objective truth. 

My justifications for this naughty heretical thought are legion, far too many to go into properly in this little space.  Let me list two key points. 

One: science has no procedures for the qualitative aspect of reality - values, aesthetics, morals.

Two: science is full of assumptions, axioms, and philosophic bias, e.g the isotropic principle (or prejudice against irregularity), monism (the assumption that everything is part of the same reality system, which excludes supernaturalism)... It also gets hung up on procedures, so that it's scientifically "wrong" to believe something before it's been proved and then suddenly becomes right to believe it afterwards. The discovery of sea-floor spreading made Wegener right about continental drift, but before then he was wrong... because he offered no clue as to how the drift could happen.

To reiterate: science is brilliant - as an adventure and a means to power.  Science discovers how things work - it doesn't tell us what they are.  And procedurally, science can be a bit of an ass sometimes.

2016 September 14th:  My thoughts of yesterday re "gawiology" led me to remember C S Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism, which is regarded as a classic attack upon evaluative criticism - that is to say, an attack upon the purely textual approach.  Lewis' point is that what matters is how a book is read.  He explores the different ways of reading books; the different attitudes a reader can have.  His essay is full of memorable comparisons.  For example he points out that some people, after reading a book once, never feel inclined to re-read it; to them it's henceforth as useless as a "burnt-out match".  To such people, "reading" can't possibly be the same experience as "reading" is to a literary person, and it's misleading to use the same verb "read" for both.

Of course one may object that this is all very well but that some books encourage more profound or valuable reading than others do, and so we thence get back to considering the textual contents, and so we're back to evaluative criticism after all.

However, Lewis' point, I think, is that to consider the matter primarily from the point of view of the reader is the truer approach.  He is concerned - I suspect - to support imaginative literature, sf and fantasy, against the disapproval of critics who downgrade it in favour of "realist" works.  His real targets are a certain kind of literary snob.

I suppose this concern is in some way related to my recent insistence upon the primacy of results - in other words, "gawiology" insists that when analyzing a story, we work back from the subjective results rather than forward from the objective text.  If the story is founded upon nutty premises and should not work as it does - then, tough!  The only point of importance is that it does work.

This approach does of course lay me open to the charge of negativity, or irrationality, insofar as it leads me to reject logical analysis whenever it conflicts with emotional truth.  But then, that may be merely because the science of gawiology is in its infancy.

2016 September 13th:  Further thoughts on the unexplored science of "gettingawaywithitology", or "gawiology", which I mentioned today in discussion with John Michael Greer.

Though the science is still in its infancy, with no international congresses or peer-reviewed papers yet having appeared, one might try at least to list the factors governing the strength of the GAWI field which enables a tall story to Get Away With It.

One factor is the one I mentioned in my earlier comment to John - the tone or style of the work.  Clark Ashton Smith's style-driven GAWI field is remarkably strong in the denouement of The Monster of the Prophecy, with its serenely successful love affair between the Terrestrial narrator and the multi-limbed Ambiala of Sattabor.  Smith's typewriter must have been emitting gawions like sparks from a forge as he hit the keys.

But in some tales the gawion emission is also due to a second factor, namely, the balance of ingredients in the story.  I would suggest that the interplanetary romances in Burroughs' Barsoom and Amtor series, for example, succeed thanks to his ability to create worlds which don't apologize for themselves - if I may put it that way.  The vividness and colour of the tales are self-justifying.  It's too late to ask awkward scientific questions, once the reader has been transported into the Barsoomian or Amtorian milieu - and this isn't simply a matter of being overwhelmed or bamboozled by the action.  Burroughs actually doesn't overdo the physical action; there is plenty of reflection and description in his tales.  That's what I'm getting at in my emphasis on the "balance of ingredients".  He instinctively hit upon the formula, the ratio of action : description : reflection, which causes the necessary bamboozlement for strong gawion emission.

Further research to isolate the gawion particle, and perhaps to fix the gawi constant, would doubtless involve the minute dissection of Burroughs tales alongside those of his unsuccessful imitators.

Now then - am I just fooling around, you may ask, or is there something in all this?

For what I seem to be saying, or almost saying, is that successful stories can have a real self-sustaining life independent of logical justification - that they can trigger something virtually equivalent to the mysterious life principle which chaps like Dr Frankenstein might find in their bubbling retorts on a stormy November night.

Well, it ain't only me that's way out.  Think of "quantum tunnelling".  Think of the "strong anthropic principle".  Think of Schrodinger's Cat.  Compared with all that stuff, is my claim for the primacy of the imagination, the self-justification of story, all that outrageous?

As a sidelight on this issue of what one might call "mentalism", I refer you to the Kroth trilogy, in which the reader finds that scientific regularity depends upon the support of its believers.  Once that is undermined - by a successful experiment in telekinesis - the reality itself is undermined too.  Then the universe changes.

Maybe I should be more careful what I put in this Diary...

2016 September 12th:  I want to mention an anthology which influenced the contents of my mental furniture profoundly.  I can't imagine my childhood without it, in fact.  It's The First Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, edited by John W Campbell.  I still have my tatty old copy, a Four Square edition of 1964.

Out of its eleven tales - Blowups Happen, Hindsight, Vault of the Beast, The Exalted, When the Bow Breaks, Clash By Night, Invariant, First Contact, Meihem in ce Klasrum (a jokey one about spelling reform), Hobbyist and E For Effort, three are Old Solar System classics:

Hindsight by Jack Williamson; Vault of the Beast by A E van Vogt; and Clash By Night by "Lawrence O'Donnell" (Henry Kuttner and C L Moore). 

Hindsight (which takes us to a pirate chief whose lair is in the Asteroids) is very short, and yet so good that it reminds me that the sooner I can do a Jack Williamson page, the better.  Normally he's not a particularly good writer in the stylistic sense, in fact some of his stuff (the Seetee books) is so clunky I haven't managed to get through it, but when his imagery dominates he can make one forget such considerations.  The problem in doing a Williamson page is knowing what to read and where to get it.  His life and writing career were unusually long and I suspect a lot of his work is insufficiently recognized.

Vault of the Beast is classic Golden Age van Vogt, notably dramatic even by his standards.  Part of it is set on Mars and to me it's remarkable how much Mars dominates the story by pure ideas, rather than by detailed evocation.  To see what I mean you'll have to read it if you haven't already.  This story is also quite short, and a model of how to pack stuff in so that you forget about the scanty word-count.  It goes on echoing in the mind like the aftermath of a great gong.

Clash By Night is the longest of the three - and it's what introduced me to the Kuttner-Moore Venus.  It's a prequel to Fury, but as a child I didn't know that; it was ages before I obtained the novel.  The civilization of the Keeps and the Free Companions - with its vivid contrasts and ironies - stayed with me as an example of what Golden Age writers could do; it distended my assumptions about the sub-genre - heightened my expectations. 

Anyone else like to comment about a beloved anthology?

2016 September 11th:  Apologies from your OSS Samuel Pepys - no diary entry yesterday.  An anniversary celebration plus The Last Night of the Proms proved to be too much of a combined demand on my time.

But if you threaten me with the sack I can appeal to ACUFIC - the Amalgamated Cosmic Union of Fictional Characters, of which I am a member thanks to my imaginary alter egos Harlei and Stid.

ACUFIC is a powerful union, especially active in the Old Solar System where it enforces highly romantic standards of employment and protects its members against the forces of realism. 

Whenever the forces of realism look like posing a threat to the handsomeness and decency of the heroes, the beauty and purity of the heroines, or the improbability of the plots in the OSS, ACUFIC threatens an all-out strike.

Strike action means that the management - the literary critics etc - have to bring in non-union labour in the form of modernistic anti-heroes and generally grubby characters, who cannot bring life to pulp fiction.  Whereupon the whole show collapses.

2016 September 9th:  I'm greatly enjoying re-reading Philip K Dick's The World Jones Made.  It was his second novel, and one of his best.  As usual with Dick there is a sub-plot - and in this book it concerns adapting humans for life on Venus.  The degree of OSS involvement is therefore unusually high for a Dick novel. 

He was no doubt a fan of traditional sf, though his own output was unique and far from the mainstream - he's as distinctive as Bradbury.  And come to think of it, like Bradbury he used traditional sf tropes as props for his tales, rather than for their own sakes.  Neither of them cared a fig for scientific realism; it was social and psychological realism they were after.  And their tales are revelations rather than what are normally thought of as adventures.  "What the heck is going on?" is the question they answer, rather than "What is over the next hill?"

In both cases, though, one can think of interesting exceptions to the rule.  Bradbury's The Long Rain comes to mind - a tale of pioneering endurance.  And with Dick there is the pioneering element in his first two books: the quest for the Flame Disk in Solar Lottery, and the Venus venture in The World Jones Made.  And these exceptions are each of them superb.

2016 September 8th:  Prompt reply from Dylan tells me the Bradbury story I mentioned yesterday was The Exiles.

Now a note regarding a long-term project for the site:

The contributions by readers, and the blog posts by me, are in HTML, which makes the forging of links a laborious task.  The "main" pages, on the other hand, are in something much more convenient called "Blockbuilder", which makes it easy to do links and other reader-friendly formatting.

I intend, over time, to convert the most lengthy reader-debates and discussions into Blockbuilder pages, "normal" pages as it were.  Also, in doing so, I shall rearrange the order of the contributions, so that they can be read in natural mode from start to finish, instead of the most recent being at the front as they are in their current form.

The current form - with the most recent comments first - is naturally best for fresh ongoing debates, but once the discussion is finished, or at any rate once it has reached a certain point, it's ripe for being re-arranged "the right way round", flowing from start to finish as in an article or a book.

The discussions in Humanity's Place in the OSS, for instance, will benefit from this treatment.  As will the various exchanges concerning The War of the Worlds

Of course, I shan't delete these old-style blogs (that would be madness), and extra contributions to them will always be welcome.  I'll simply run the two versions in parallel.  The blogs will remain as vital as ever - it's just that they'll also have their rearranged versions, reachable via the Debates link on the navigation bar.  When I get round to doing the changes, that is.

2016 September 7th:  A Ray Bradbury story (the name of which I've forgotten) has as its characters the shades of great authors of imaginative fiction.  These shades are all living on Mars, for some reason.  And their degree of realness, of solidity, depends on how many readers they have on Earth; so they come a-cropper when their readership declines.  It's a way-out plot.  To some extent it overlaps in theme with an Edmond Hamilton tale called Wacky World, likewise set on Mars.

It's not often I get to use the verb "to hypostatize" - to attribute concrete reality to a concept - but today's Diary is one of those rare opportunities.

Just as Bradbury and Hamilton hypostatized literary phenomena in the stories mentioned above, so I in my interplanetary knock-out page am hypostatizing the page-hit results of my site into actual world-teams playing against each other in the Old Solar System.  So there's my excuse - I'm just taking my humble place in a tradition. 

I'm glad of the precedent, glad of the excuse, as I was in danger of feeling a bit silly.  But as a matter of fact, the results show I needn't have worried - interplanetary knock-out is the eighth most popular page at the moment, close to the top of the chart.

(If anyone can tell me the title of that Bradbury story, I'd be grateful.)

2016 September 6th:  The results for the first round of Interplanetary Knock-Out are in.  It's great fun (for me at any rate) to see how the competition is shaping up.  It's all imaginary, but then, what isn't?  Think of how people get fanatically loyal to a collective abstraction called a football team - it would be easy to "deconstruct" that phenomenon philosophically.  Easy but pointless.

The readers who collectively look at the Ceres page, for instance, insofar as they share in a certain stream of ideas, are a team.

I am toying with the idea of an additional, parallel competition, based on author-pages instead of world-pages.  It will only be possible when I have 32 author pages - that means I need five more...

Another three chapters of Man of the World to be displayed soon, and then, so I'm told, that's it - no more; the book itself will be out soon.  It will have 37 chapters, the last two of which are called "Apocalypse" and "The Silver Stain".

I have finished the Penton and Blake stories and intend to do a page on them.  It needs to be carefully done: it would be wrong to over-estimate them - but equally wrong not to capture the spirit of them.  In my view the best of them is The Tenth World, which gives us a fascinating trans-Plutonian planet.

2016 September 5th:  I'm in favour of the unashamed, no-excuses-necessary approach to neo-OSS writing; for example, if you want to set a story on a Jupiter with a solid surface, go right ahead and to Space with the scientific objections.

Nevertheless, it is also true that there's no harm in adding an excuse or two, as icing on the cake, as it were.  Let's think about that Jovian solid surface.  How could we "justify" it in pseudo-scientific terms?

Well, a surface, I suppose, is a discontinuity caused by a boundary between two phases of matter; e.g. between gas and liquid (the surface of an ocean), between liquid and solid (the floor of an ocean), or between gas and solid (a land surface under atmosphere).

Alien perceptions, translatable into human perceptions, might also see other discontinuities as surfaces analogous to the above, and which could be depicted in human terms since they'd be perceived analogously to the way we perceive - such as:

A boundary between degenerate and normal matter (the surface of some layer inside a star - see Proof by Hal Clement, about life on the Sun); a boundary between different phases of ice (in the crust of a gas giant planet); a boundary between mantle and core material (inside any reasonably large planet)...

For that last example I could refer the reader to Arthur C Clarke's short story The Fires Within...


More news and four new chapters from the author of Man of the World: it seems the book's publication will occur within the next couple of months, in all probability, and in the run-up to this event I am being given the opportunity to put four more of the chapters as a preview on site. I would like more authors to do this; they and I can help each other.

I must admit I am amused by the portrayal of women as utter mysteries in Man of the World.  Women - this author tells me - are so important that they even exist in Universe Six, the simpler universe prior to ours, where they are not yet biologically necessary.  A foreshadowing of complications in store...

2016 September 4th:  Nobody answered yesterday's diary's riddle so I'll without more ado say - the book is a collection of John W Campbell's "Penton and Blake" stories.

There are five of them, and they appeared during 1936-8, a few years after Weinbaum's tales.  Campbell's worlds are nothing like as well-evoked as Weinbaum's but he does one thing Weinbaum doesn't do - namely he creates technical civilizations with creative emphasis on the strangeness of the alien technology. 

My grumble, that Campbell doesn't give scenery, must now be partly retracted: he doesn't do it for Mars, Ganymede or Callisto (except for some orange grass on Callisto), but now that I'm on the fourth tale I must admit he does evoke the frozen landscape of the Tenth World.

Also, both on Mars and on the Tenth World, he gives interesting dilemmas in the mental worlds of his aliens.  His Martians are faced with the same sort of problem that the Antarctic outpost has to deal with in Who Goes There? - but their solution is different.  As for the beings of the Tenth World, their minds have evolved a problem with their own volition, which rivals the plight of the intelligent Venusian vegetables described by Weinbaum.

I am reading the stories in a collection of them called The Planeteers.  I recommend it for the ideas and for a certain early OSS exhuberance, though I wish the themes had been handled by one of the better writers of those years - maybe Hamilton or Simak...

2016 September 3rd:  Here's a riddle for you.  I'm following the adventures of a team of space pioneers who, in the course of the book, visit Mars, Ganymede, Callisto and the Tenth Planet.  The tales are strangely lacking in scenery - you have to fill it in with your own imagination - but they are chock full of amazing alien technology, including biotechnology.  The Ganymedeans appear to have independently bred Lovecraft's shoggoths - their name for them even begins with "sh" - and the Callistan bio-cars are really something.

The reason the space pioneers are able to rove through the Solar System is because they've discovered - wait for it - Atomic Power!!  Atomic Power is great stuff.  Once you've got that, well, you can more or less immediately take off for Mars!  Gee whiz!  It's so simple!  I wonder what's keeping us?  Why doesn't the government get on with it?

Can anyone guess what I'm reading?

(I obtained the book via Amazon from Fantastic Literature Ltd, whose website is - the first I'd heard of it; seems well worth a browse.)

2016 September 2nd:  A long, long time ago, when I was a little boy, I often amused myself by inventing imaginary tournaments with imaginary teams competing for an imaginary trophy.  (I would obtain the results of the matches by random means such as counting the numbers of letters in words on the left edge of lines of print.) 

Now in my second childhood I plan to do the same thing on a vaster scale.  I shall concoct a Solar System Knock-Out Competition, a 5-round tourney in which the matches occur every 5 days, on the 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th of the month.

Conceivably, the exercise may turn out to have some market-research value, but to be honest the main motive is just to have some fun.

You readers may object that the time I spend on this fooling around would be better employed in adding more proper pages to the site, and writing the next episode of Mission to the Tenth Planet.  However, it's not a case of "either-or", but of a balanced mental diet.  Once an idea gets lodged in the Zendexor brain, it has to be worked out, so that normal life can then resume.

2016 September 1st:  Phew! Finished the August stats and updated Page-View Winners.  Not much energy left for this Diary except to make a point or two about the stats.

Suddenly 7% of the site's visits are from the Czech Republic.  I have no idea why.  My few student friends there surely can't account for it.  Stream-of-consciousness association: one of the greatest names in sf has a surname from that country - namely, Simak.

Now that the number of users of the site is approaching 1000, and I have three major contributors, I wonder if that tells me the ratio I can expect: 333 users = 1 contributor.  If so, I'd better set about attracting several thousand users...  but how many OSS fans are there in the world?  One in every million of population?  That would create a niche of maybe 7000... One in every hundred thousand?  A niche of 70,000.  That sounds not too bad!  210 major contributers!  I might have to start hiring staff!

>> OSS Diary August 2016