the sunport vista:

october 2016

Thought for the day...

2016 October 31st:  Continuing the Young-OSS theme: suppose we now consider a new approach to Mars.  Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon is a great tale of the Martian past but it is not quite the sort of thing I mean.

In that book, we are always aware that it is describing a trip from now into the past.  The kind of story I had in mind would be a story actually set and rooted in what we'd call the past, its chronological viewpoint being that that time is the Now.  Chronologically speaking, a sort of Clan of the Cave Bear saga except that we'd be reading about Mars and about a high civilization.

I suppose the Martians in that tale would have to be humanoid (though I hope the author would avoid the COMOLD explanation).   The author could easily let us know, without having to use the anachronistic name "Mars", that this nevertheless is it, by references to its being the fourth planet and having two moons.  The reader could thrill at the steadily revealed scenario of early Mars: references to a planet still existing between the fourth planet and the largest, giant planet, maybe - in other words, the asteroid progenitor is still around.  Perhaps its catastrophe could occur in the story.

And perhaps we could see the beginning of the building of the Martian canals?  Decisions, crises, which lead to the building of them.

There could also be a blurry, garbled "future vision" available to the Martians, which with plenty of dramatic irony would mean more to the reader than to the protagonists.  For instance it might depend on the sense of touch: stroking an object which will play a part in their future (which is our present) might give them ambiguous Sibylline clues as to what the future holds in store.

One interesting point: since Mars has no plate tectonics, Martian geography doesn't change as Earth's does.  So the sense of touch, of future-vision, might hint to our Martians where the Viking landers are going to touch down, for instance, millions of years ahead.  Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia change their surface conditions over time, but their topography remains by and large the same.

2016 October 30th:  Sorry about no entry yesterday - I was travelling and working rather too hard.  Now, back to thinking about the very early Solar System (the "young Old Solar System, or YOSS, as it were), and the planet Jupiter in particular:

Let's think of ideas for stories set on an early Jupiter.  Does anything suggest itself, arising out of the themes we already have for Jupiter?

Here we could use an analogy with ancient Earth myth: the myth of Atlantis, which can be used as a "punch line" in a certain type of tale; for instance, the sort of plot where we're not told it's Atlantis until the mad scientist causes the continent to begin to sink and you suddenly realize where this is...

How, you may ask, could this be related to Jupiter? 

Well, you could have a "punch line" story which causes the reader to give a start of recognition at the end of it, as follows: some story of a great war on Jovian soil, with a bomb that fractures the fragile young crust and releases the magma underneath, creating "the Fire Sea", and you then realize this is.... the birth of the Great Red Spot.

In fact you could have a collection of OSS tales in format vaguely analogous to Kipling's "Just So" stories, where instead of "how the leopard got its spots" and "how the elephant got its trunk", etc, you could have "how Jupiter got its Great Red Spot", "how Saturn got its Rings", "how Uranus got its tilt" etc.  All YOSS tales set in the dawn of the Solar System.

Following Kipling's example, you could invent your own picturesque explanations which have nothig to do with the real ones.  e.g. supposing you wrote "How Jupiter got its Trojan Asteroids": instead of the reality of Langrange points naturally collecting odd bits of rock, you could have it that the powerful Jovians installed the asteroids 60 degrees ahead and behind the giant planet's position in its orbit in order to survey and monitor the spacelanes and preserve Jupiter's paramountcy in the Early Solar System.  Intrigues, space battles, espionage - all sorts of derring-do could accompany this project.

2016 October 28th:  Having entered a phase of chatting about the giant planets, today I wish to discuss Jupiter. 

Yesterday, I listed Anderson's Three Worlds to Conquer as the major Jovian novel; I might add that this status would doubtless have been shared by ERB's saga of John Carter on Jupiter if it had been completed.  Anyhow, where do we go from here?  What could be done about Jupiter, in the neo-OSS field?  The possibilities are tremendous.

Assuming a fair amount of "costume-science", or "science-as-excuse", we have an interesting choice of excuses for a warm, well-lit, life-bearing Jovian system.  An interestingly binary choice: one in the distant past, the other in the distant future.

(1) The distant past: when Jupiter was still hot, and radiated this heat to its young satellites.  Liquid water on Europa, and perhaps temperate conditions all the way out to Callisto.  On Jupiter itself, seas of fire, with igneous flame-beings, plus occasional solid islands on which life of another sort could exist.  Clashes and contrasts between the two kinds of life and between them and the life on the satellites.  Possibilities of interaction, of colourful empire...

(2) The distant future: when the Jovian system is thawed out by an expanded red-giant Sun.  Possibilities of life arise, just as in the distant-past scenario, with perhaps an added bonus in the form of the possibility of the re-awakening of the earlier life!  Thus the Solar System's end in some respects comes full circle to meet the beginning...

I am reminded of Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique where he imagines a far-future Earth in a sense coming full circle back to its magic-haunted early days.

The above comments regarding Jupiter could also apply, naturally, to the other outer planets, right out to Pluto, whether or not a solar-mass star in its giant phase really could create warm conditions at such long range, because with costume-science it's the idea that matters, not the precise figures.  It's qualitative, not quantitative.

2016 October 27th:  Taking stock of the site's coverage of the giant planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (I don't want to call them "gas giants" because in OSS literature they have solid surfaces, though the atmospheres are still often notably deep) - I reckon we've reached a point where each of them can boast its own major work.

Jupiter has Poul Anderson's Three Worlds to Conquer.

Saturn has Donald Suddaby's Prisoners of Saturn.

Uranus has Robert Gibson's Uranian Gleams.

And Neptune has Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men.

The problem is the last one, Neptune.  For the Last Men are only Neptunian by reason of having immigrated there from the inner solar system.  Admittedly, the time scales involved are so vast, that it takes millions of years for the Neptunian Men to discover that their remote ancestors came from another world closer to the sun - a world now vanished in a cosmic catastrophe.  But still, they are not natively evolved Neptunians.  They are not even products of the Neptunian system at all - whereas Suddaby's Saturnians, which likewise did not evolve upon the world with which they are associated, did at least arrive there from somewhere in its own satellite system.

Therefore, in a sense, we are still lacking a properly Neptunian Neptune embodied in a major work, though I must stress that the civilization of Stapledon's Last Men is superbly imagined.

Let's all keep a look-out, then, for some shy neglected masterpiece that might give us a Neptunian Neptune.  Alternatively, you neo-OSS authors, here's a gap for you to fill.

The very syllables of the name "Neptune" have a magical sound, do they not?  And the blue planet, close to the outer frontier of the solar system, is as beautiful in real-life images as it could ever be in fiction.  It has ever so much going for it.

For starters, the OSS fictional approach could do something with that blue colour.  Phosphorescent waves, perhaps...

2016 October 26th:  Am three-quarters of the way through The Daedalus Incident by Michael J Martinez.  Finding it enjoyable, though not in any centrally OSS sense - the space-sailing dimension is too far removed from our traditional Solar System.  Also, the worlds themselves are not the focus of the creative effort.  They aren't so interesting to me, as are the characters - the eighteenth-century ones, that is.

Stid:  Are you going to resume your grumble about more modern characters lacking dignity?

Zendexor:  Grumble?  I?  On the contrary, Martinez's book provides a beautiful illustration in one volume of the contrast I've noted elsewhere between books.  In other words, he makes my point for me with extra effectiveness, because he juxtaposes dignity and modernity in the same book!  The eighteenth-century characters talk in normalese, the modern ones in s--- and f--- -ese.  And guess which of the two sets of people is the more interesting!

Far be it from me to grumble.  I don't even have to argue.  I just lift my finger and point.  The contrasts in the tale are there for all to see.

Mind you, I do care somewhat for Shaila, the modern woman protagonist who gets told off so often.  That's because of the intensity of the drama.  But as people, give me the earlier lot every time.

Stid:  You're a gloomy old codger, Zendexor.

Zendexor:  Thank you - I try.

2016 October 25th:  Spent most of the day trying to do justice to Prisoners of Saturn, and eventually published the new page this evening.  Hasn't left much space in my head for the Diary.  So this will be a bit skimpy, I'm afraid.  Actually the new page is still going round in my head; I want to add an extra illustration or two... 

I remember a couple of entries back I was going on about a 123-year unit of historical time, the Calmentad as I called it, and also I mentioned a 41-year periodicy in American history.  But what I didn't notice at the time was that exactly three 41-year periods make a Calmentad!

And what, you may ask, has all this got to do with the Old Solar System?  Well, any picturesque quirk of Earth history is all part of the big colourful picture, surely.

I like the dating systems used on the seventh planet, as described in Uranian Gleams.  I reckon it's the best coverage of that theme in OSS literature, and I'd like similar detail for the other planets.  But it's just occurred to me that some writer might create a date-sequence of a still higher order.  Suppose we imagine a super-race capable of constructing a time-viewer, which gives access to film of the entire history of the Solar System.  That civilization could far outdo Gibson's Uranians - could draw up an unbeatable timeline, dating from literally the Year Dot, or the Moment Dot, the instant of Switch-on when the condensing solar mass ignites fusion in its core...

2016 October 24th:  Whoops, no entry yesterday.  I simply forgot!  I hereby issue myself with a free pardon for the misdemeanour.

Today the November issue of National Geographic arrived on my doormat, showing a big picture of Mars on the cover, with caption: "Race to the Red Planet".

Now, why do I get impatient and irritated with all this going-to-Mars talk?  Surely, as a space enthusiast, I ought to jump up and down with eagerness at the evidence shown by various authorities, that they are envisaging a Mars trip?

Maybe I should, and yet, I don't.  Instead, I am impatient for explorers to return to the Moon and set up a proper base there.  That's the idea that really excites me.  Mars, for me, can wait.

Partly it's that I feel the planners haven't read the right books.  They should know from the literary heritage - see the old space program - that you're supposed to establish a Moon base first and then, and only then, reach for Mars.  To do things in the wrong order kind of spoils the effect.

But also, I kind of warm to the realistic Moon in a way that I don't warm to the realistic Mars.  And there is a good reason for that.  The realistic and the literary Moon are much closer to one another, than are the realistic and the literary Mars.

Think of it this way: the lifelessness of Mars is more detrimental to its former image, than is the lifelessness of the Moon.

To be sure, it would have been nice to find life on the Moon, and the few tales of lunar life are treasures of OSS literature.  But there is also a fine literature of voyages to the Moon for its own sake: voyages, that is, to a Moon which lures us despite or even because of its sterile, inorganic beauty.  Heinlein's Delos D Harriman years for the Moon simply because it is the Moon.

I don't think it's so easy to acquire that attitude to Mars.  I would love to join the Mars colony in Clarke's The Sands of Mars, for that "WOM" version of the Red Planet does have its life-system which, though struggling and marginal, makes all the difference qualitatively.  But a lifeless Mars (all right, we don't know it's lifeless, but it's not looking good that way) seems wrong.

2016 October 22nd:  More about date-magic.  Yesterday I picked on 1893 not just for its own sake, but (as I didn't get round to mentioning) for its relation with 2016. 

We in 2016 are 123 years on from 1893.  So what, you may ask; what's special about a period of 123 years?  Well, here's how this particular stream of consciousness flows:

The longest human life-span of which we have documentary proof is that of Jeanne Calment, who lived to the age of 122.  Since I don't know how many days she lived beyond her 122nd birthday, I say to myself: "123 years covers it.  123 years is the safely beyond-one-human-lifetime-no-matter-how-long period.  A Calmentad, let's call it.  Once you have that jump of 123 years, you are sure to have jumped more than a lifetime ahead."

So next you imagine making that jump from the year 1893, which for reasons I gave yesterday has a web of associations to do with rootedness, with the New World accumulating a history layer.  Go on, jump, 123 years from 1893 -

The jump lands you on 2016.  The exercise helps to make this year seem special.  A "Calmentad" beyond the rootedness-year, makes this an extra-rooted year, hinting at some extra futuristic depth.

Of course there are many many other mind-games to play with the years of American history - as with British history, of course.

The most remarkable, to me, is the US' 80-year periodicity: 1781 Yorktown, 1861 Fort Sumter, 1941 Pearl Harbor, 2021 - ?  We shall see in 5 years' time if any further epochal event occurs to maintain the rhythm.  It's nothing short of fantastic how the whole atmosphere of a country can so change every 80 years.

Then there is a pretty good 41-year periodicity: 1763 Peace of Paris, 1804 Burr-Hamilton duel plus Lewis and Clark setting off, 1845 Texas joins the Union, 1886 Haymarket bomb, 1927 Lindbergh's flight, 1968 Apollo 8's flight round the Moon plus all the crises of that extra-stressful year, 2009 inauguration of first black president, 2050 - ?  Some of these events are more weighty in themselves than others, but all can carry a burden of symbolism and act as an entry to the exploration of the period.  Quite a few of us will be around in 2050 to see how the sequence is kept up.

What about other worlds' history layers?  In fiction and reality?

The Moon was first touched by Man in 1959.  The pieces of Lunik 2 which impacted the Moon in that year are of course lying there now, waiting to have a monumental inscription erected beside them and then, no doubt, a visitors' centre for tourists.  123 years on from 1959 brings us to 2082.  Some of us now alive will be alive then.  That's reality.  As for fiction...  well, perhaps the game becomes too open-ended to play - see the little sample on the fictional dates page...

2016 October 21st:  Linking recent reflections on the growth of haunting, the character of a world: let's go rambling into the synchronicities of American history.  Let's take one particular year, the year 1893.

Three strands or linked trickles in the stream of consciousness meet in 1893.

The publication of the Turner thesis on the closure of the American frontier.

The epochal Chicago World's Fair, which started a year late, supposedly to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage.

And - the birth of Clark Ashton Smith.

So there we are - we can have stream-of-consciousness fun, frolicking about and splashing in the flow of ideas.  World's Fair, 400 years, frontier closing, country feeling first twinge of full coverage of culture layer from coast to coast, birth of a writer who never leaves his native California and finds it sufficient for his literary needs, a base from which to create his worlds, many of whose narratives grow out of local settings - The City of the Singing Flame for example, starting memorably in "The Sierras"; The Root of Ampoi beginning with a circus in Auburn.  The common theme to all this is rootedness, the growth of personality of a culture.  World-building for real.

And all of us, wherever we are, are continuing to do it, just by living our lives; building, brick by emotive brick, edifices which contribute both to reality and to the re-shufflings of that reality which will form the literature of the future.

2016 October 20thAll the recent reflections, on the new page about Star's Reach and in A Plea For Lost Civilizations, on the haunting traces of past civilizations that surround us, makes me wonder if there's a convenient phrase for that paradox of antiquity, which for the moment I propose to label NOOLD - the Newness of Old.

It's natural and yet completely misleading to sense that the further we look back into past ages the more we are delving into Oldness.  We're actually delving into Newness - the youth of the world.  We're the ones swathed in Eld!

Of course it's language that's at fault; we know what we really mean - we understand in our hearts that when we say "the ancient world" we mean the young world, and that the more ancient world is actually the world of now.

It's clear enough in our own lives.  Referring to events of our childhood we say "back when I was young...", not "back in the days of my immemorial antiquity"!!  It's only when our thoughts turn to history that the adjectives - and to some extent the thoughts - undergo somewhat of a reversal.

But perhaps there's more point to this than meets the eye.  There might be more at work than the mere suggestiveness of language.

Assuming that lineal time is transcended at some level of reality, we may suspect that we are at work on the past - that our thoughts about it are part of it - that we are in a sense completing it, by the labels we stick on it.

I for one am so used to thinking that the Olympic Games began in 776 BC, that I link the number with the event, in a way which of course was not possible for the participants at that time.  Wouldn't it be great if some day in the unimagineable future the players in those first Games had a whiff of their place in our history books, and the date BC meant something to them, too?

Wouldn't it be great also if - likewise in some super-advanced future - our minds could coast through the geological past of Earth, and bestow some contemporary reality on the resonant names of the periods, Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, etc, so that they became more than mere retrospective labels?

These thoughts are, of course, mere fumblings in the dark, by one who likes to eat his cake and have it.

2016 October 19th:  I once listened to a chat between some writers who were complaining about the difficulties which mobile phones create for the plotting of novels nowadays.  (I bet Stephen King enjoyed doing away with the gadgets, in his novel Cell.)

Yes indeed, if you're writing about the here and now, I can well imagine how much harder it has become to arrange surprise and suspense when communication has become so easy - so much did suspense and adventure in former tales depend upon isolation; an isolation which to a large extent no longer exists.  Imagine how pointless the plot of The Go-Between, to take the most obvious example, would become nowadays!

Which gives me yet another opportunity to mention good old Barsoom.  No apologies whatsoever for my continual harping on about that creation - an inexhaustible iconography and mine of observations.  This time, I refer to the topic of communications, using a passage in The Gods of Mars.

On the morning of the second day we raised the great fleet of transports and their consorts at the first flood of dawn, and soon were near enough to exchange signals.  I may mention here that radio-aerograms are seldom if ever used in war time, for as often as one nation discovers a new cipher, or invents a new instrument for wireless purposes its neighbors bend every effort until they are able to intercept and translate the messages.  For so long a time has this gone on that practically every possibility of wireless communication has been exhausted and no nation dares transmit dispatches of importance in this way.

Plausible; and it can be seen in the wider context of Burroughs' largely successful effort to blend civilization and adventure.  His red Barsoomians are a cultivated folk, technologically advanced despite their sword-play; clever enough to invent radio and at the same time clever enough to make it unusable!  Thus, ERB has it both ways.  He can have his characters occasionally use radio when it suits him to plot a scene that way; but in general the element of isolation and surprise, and hence of adventure, is preserved.

The balancing of an ability with the inability to make use of it can be seen also in ERB's treatment of Barsoomian telepathy.  They can read minds, but as this would often spoil the plot, ERB arranges it so that they're past masters at blocking each other's mind-reading efforts...

Regarding radio, another solution, apart from the Barsoomian one, is to admit radio communication but to stipulate that its range is limited.  That, I believe, is how Gibson plays it in Uranian Gleams.  Or of course you can just write about a society that doesn't have radio at all.  But it can come in handy, provided it doesn't get out of hand... and the same goes for telepathy.

2016 October 18th:  Following the argument that has begun in A Plea for Lost Civilizations, regarding the size of Earth, I wish to explore a related topic - the size of Mars.

The problem with Mars is that it's only slightly more than half the size of Earth.  Admittedly, its lack of oceans means that its land area is about equal to Earth's.  Still, looking at an image of Mars to scale beside an image of Earth, one starts to think that the Red Planet's limited size might be a problem as regards infinite adventure...

And such thoughts increase one's respect for the audacity or the foolhardy ability of our resourceful old friend Edgar Rice Burroughs, who depicted a Mars whose inhabitants routinely had access to fast fliers - it was an everyday thing to them to zoom around their planet - while somehow preserving the sense of new horizons, of adventure beckoning on all sides, throughout the ten volumes of the series.  Here is a case where fast transport did not destroy the sense of distance.  If ever there was a case of gawi, this is it.  But to set ERB aside for now - let me suggest a way to picture the bigness of Mars.

I'm going to be a bit eclectic here, using both the metric and the imperial system of measurement.  Much as I despise the metric system for its inanity, its ugliness, its cultural deracination and its almost complete lack of descriptive power - and hence I cheer at the satire in the last part of Valeddom - I do find one of its units quite useful: the only one which lacks a broad equivalent in the imperial system: namely, the millimeter. 

Imagine you're standing beside a globe of Mars, a globe that's on a scale of one millimeter to a mile.

Mars is about 4200 miles in diameter so that's represented by 4200 millimeters; so, half of that, a bit over 2000 millimeters - a bit more than the height of an average man - gives you the height from the floor, on which the globe is resting, to the globe's equator.

So there you are standing beside the Mars globe with its equator just above the level of your head.  You approach and examine the globe - the southern hemisphere at any rate, which is all you can see properly.  Nose around.  Look at the surface.  Just one millimeter represents a whole mile!  Just a little spot!  Picture your home town reproduced on the surface of Mars - a little blotch.  Meanwhile feel how the entire globe bulges, stretch your arms and try to hug the thing, stand back and gaze at how it fills the room - you'll need a high-ceilinged room - and then imagine the size of the real planet.

That should cure you of any thought that it's small.

2016 October 17th:  Doing a page for Prisoners of Saturn is going to challenge my powers of "squaring the circle" in the literary sense, by which I mean, in this case, being able to talk without talking too much; without "giving the game away".  For it's such a shame to spoil an author's surprises!  On the other hand, one must say something, in fact one must say quite a lot, to give a good idea of what a book is like.  So - how to play it?  My aim will be to make a limited number of strategically important points; yes, a kind of pointillism is the thing; a point here and a point there, placed so as to encourage the reader to "join up the dots"...

This way - so I hope - what I say will be of use to those readers who happen to be more or less on my wavelength; who share my values or tastes or inclinations or whatever one should call them.  "A nod is as good as a wink", as the saying goes - a somewhat peculiar proverb.

The above observations also apply to some extent to the forthcoming page on Star's Reach, though that's an easier case to deal with, in that there's not so much danger of spoiling the secrets - since the book is by nature more an open development of ideas.  It has its plot-revelations; however, in the main, its mystery is not something reserved in the plot but rather inherent in the background - the setting itself, the way it increasingly comes into focus.

2016 October 16th:  Need for a change of plan concerning all this Saturnian stuff.  I had thought it would be enough to add a subheading on the Saturn page, maybe "Short Visits", followed by a discussion of Missing Men of Saturn and of Prisoners of Saturn.  But now I realize that won't suffice.

Missing Men of Saturn does indeed give the reader a fairly short visit to the planet.  But my memory served me ill, in telling me that the same was true about the other book.  In fact, yesterday and today, during my enthralled re-reading of Prisoners of Saturn (my third reading of the book), I am amazed at how much there is in it - I find it hard to understand why my second reading (uncounted years ago) left me with the impression that the visit to the ringed planet was unsatisfactorily brief.  True, one always wants more, but Suddaby has given us a considerable Saturnian adventure - as far as I know the only one ever written.

It's going to need a page to itself.

If I were as rich as Donald Trump, rather than try to be President I would devote a large proportion of my funds to establishing a publishing house to reprint affordable editions of OSS classics such as Suddaby's wonderful but unfortunately-rare book.

One aspect disappoints me.  (If you don't want to know, don't read this paragraph.)  Readers of this site know that I like my planetary natives to be real natives.  That's the reason for my dislike of COMOLD.  Well, Prisoners of Saturn is certainly free of COMOLD - the Saturnian natives are intelligent clouds, somewhat reminiscent of the Martians in Last And First Men, and as such could hardly be related to us!  But those wonderful Saturnians originated on Titan, not Saturn itself.  In the distant past they colonized the giant planet and engineered its surface and lower atmosphere to their liking.  So they're natives of the Saturn system, but they're not specifically what I would call "real" Saturnians in the deepest and most authentic sense.

Never mind; the story is a corker.  Unforgettable. 

Stid:  "Unforgettable"?  Er - hang on, Zendexor: a few paragraphs ago you admitted you had forgotten a lot of it.

Zendexor:  I forgot many of the details, yes.  I've led such a full and varied life, you see, that I can't help forgetting some good things.  But I never forgot the emotional wonder of the book and in particular the great carved landscape of Saturn, and the clouds which carved it.

2016 October 15th:  Yesterday evening I finished reading Gustave Le Rouge's Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars.  When I have also finished the sequel, La Guerre des Vampires, I intend to do a page on this early (1908-9) Martian saga.

I foresee that it won't be easy to disentangle the pleasure I get from reading in the beautiful French language from the pleasure I ought to be getting from a good OSS tale.  As mentioned elsewhere, I feel I have a duty with regard to first-rate works, a duty which makes it incumbent upon me not to over-praise the second-rate.  So what shall I say about this largely forgotten old story?  How first-rate or second-rate is it?

Well, my opinion has see-sawed during my reading of it.  For instance, mentally pouncing upon a description of a tropical area of Mars which emphasized the heat, I thought, this won't do, Mars can't be hot, not even in OSS fiction; but then I remembered, Burroughs' Mars is so warm that the Barsoomians mostly go about almost naked.  Moreover, ERB has one lushly fertile area right in the South Polar region - namely, the Valley Dor.  And regarding Le Rouge's Mars, some of the heat is artificially produced, by reflection from crystal structures.

So far, I'm inclined to give the Le Rouge Mars the thumbs up, despite some doubts as to the terrestrial pattern of much (though not all) of its flora and fauna.  Le Rouge is, in general, vastly inferior to Burroughs as regards the invention of animals.  Yet there are some special forms to be found on his Mars, alongside the mere red-tinted copies of Earthly species.  And by and large, the reader - this reader, anyhow - knows he's being transported to another world, with its own secrets and mysteries.

The first book has ended with a cliff-hanger.  I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next - and that shows that here is something worth reading.

2016 October 14th:  950 years ago today King Harold lost his life and his kingdom in a single battle.  And as if that weren't bad enough, we have had swarms of historians since then trying to make out that the outcome was a good constructive thing for England, conducive to strong government, progress, etc. 

Well, of course good comes out of evil - it always does - but it's nevertheless not very grown-up to be coy about calling a catastrophe a catastrophe.

I'd prefer "progress" not to come about by means of foreign conquest and 300 years of linguistic and cultural subjugation.

But there, that's the power of the pen for you.  Writers have power to alter the way we think and feel and see.

Loads of people are even now cavorting about as sinister clowns because of what one Stephen King wrote in a book published back in 1983.  (Why IT is suddenly being made into a movie a third of a century later, I have no idea.)

And the power of the pen of one Donald Suddaby has made me shell out nearly forty pounds for Prisoners of Saturn - which I ought to hold in my hands tomorrow morning, if all goes well.  As I mentioned a couple of diary entries ago, my efforts to obtain that book have so far been thwarted by malign fate doubtless influenced by the secretive powers of the ringed planet.

This morning the Saturnians made one last-ditch attempt to keep me from the prize: they made the postman knock too softly so that I didn't hear him, and so the book is being kept at the sorting office for me to collect.

I hope an asteroid doesn't impact the sorting office before I get there...

2016 October 13th:  Rereading some of Burroughs' The Gods of Mars has made me think about how an author can do well to make psychological points arise from the heat of action.

The "holy therns" are not only arrogant but prone to self-deception in a big way.  They regard themselves as loftily superior to the other races of Barsoom, yet they know, in their heart of hearts, that they are at the mercy of the black men of the Valley Dor.

Burroughs could have given the reader a solemn lecture about this self-contradictory attitude.  Instead, it comes out in battle.  John Carter witnesses the scene where the Black Pirates - having landed their fliers in the therns' temple gardens - throw themselves with berserk fury at the therns; while the therns, though they fight back with equal fury, puzzlingly leave the blacks' unguarded fliers alone.

"Why don't they jump in and destroy those fliers?" I asked.  "That would soon put a stop to the attacks, or at least the blacks would scarce be so bold.  Why, see how perfectly unguarded they leave their craft, as though they were lying safe in their own hangars at home."

"The therns do not dare.  They tried it once, ages ago, but the next night and for a whole moon thereafter a thousand great black battleships circled the Mountains of Otz, pouring tons of projectiles upon the temples, the gardens, and the courts...  The therns know that they live at all only by the sufferance of the black men..."

So there you are - the attitude comes out in the action; the mentality surfaces in the physicality.  Given the type of book this is, it could not have been better done.  To adapt the old saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words", we might put it this way: an illustrative plight is worth a thousand lectures.

On some occasions, admittedly, Burroughs does go for the other option and lecture the reader, but the lectures are then part of the mood music, rather than real exercises in intellection; for instance, the rival philosophies of Gahan of Gathol and Ghek the kaldane in The Chessmen of Mars.

2016 October 12th:  Far be it from me to sound paranoid, but I could easily make a case for accusing the Saturnians for plotting against me.

Never in my life had I had any trouble with my NatWest debit card, until I tried to order Prisoners of Saturn from Abe books, using the reference kindly given to me by Dylan.  The order appeared to go through; but later that day, when I tried to draw some cash out with my card, the HSBC cash-till swallowed it up and would not disgorge it. 

I went straightaway to my Bank, and told the lady behind the counter what had happened, except that I did not mention the Saturnians as I thought a bank teller might not be briefed on the subtler points of interplanetary intrigue.  However, I did mention that I had used the card to order an item online earlier that day, and asked if the order would have gone through.  The teller assured me it would.  She said there was nothing wrong with my account; no stop on it, no reason for the card to have been withheld. 

You see, she didn't know about the interplanetary angle.

And sure enough, notwithstanding her assurance that the transaction should have gone through, I soon got an email from Abe Books telling me my order had been rejected because the card was not satisfactory.

A few days went by and I received my new card in the post yesterday.  Full of a sense of relief I re-ordered Prisoners of Saturn with the new card, and got the usual email confirming my order.

This optimism failed to reckon with the powers of the Ringed Planet, whose inhabitants appear determined that I shall not disclose the secrets of Donald Suddaby's rare book.

For today I saw another email from Abe Books, telling me, the same as last time, that my card hadn't worked.  My new card!  Aaargh!

Fortunately I am married to a kindly spouse, who said I could try again using one of her cards.  So I have done that.  I have set up a new account with Abe Books in her name not mine, and placed the order as if from her not me.

Will that fool the Saturnians?  Time will tell.

2016 October 11th:  I live in the North-West of England, fairly close to the Lake District, and I love the fells and dales of Wordsworth Country.  The virtues of its small mountains stem from their modest scale; they lend the scene a close and cosy glory, an intimate brush with infinity, which isn't to be had in huger and more spectacular ranges such as the Alps.

Perhaps an American might make similar comment juxtaposing the Appalachians and the Rockies - I'm not sure.

Anyhow, such comparison inspires me to an analogy between mountain ranges and science fiction sub-genres.

In this analogy, the OSS corresponds with the Lake District fells, and CRIM with the Alps.

The OSS can give us endless adventure and discovery in our own mythological back yard.  CRIM on the other hand stretches the creativity of writers into further and vaster territory, utterly new and unrelated to home.

CRIM can zoom us around the Galaxy; the OSS can make it seem just as far between here and the Moon, where, as Wells puts it in The First Men in the Moon, "Over me, around me, closing in on me, embracing me ever nearer, was the Eternal... the infinite and final Night of space."

(I seem to remember that the paradox of "smallness is bigger than bigness" is well captured in the trek along the Mercurian Twilight Belt in Valeddom.)

It's not an effect you could easily achieve in an interstellar tale.  I have argued in other Diary entries that CRIM is a more difficult sub-genre than the OSS, in that it lacks that support from the mythos and traditions of Solar System lore, which give OSS tales such a head start.

Of course that means that when CRIM does succeed - as for instance in Hamilton's wonderful Starwolf trilogy - the marvel is all the greater.  But not even Hamilton can get round the fact that the Galaxy is too big for any writer to do justice to its immensity.  Whereas for the Solar System - it can be done; just barely, it can be done.

2016 October 10th:  Here comes the Third PR.  After the political one, "Proportional Representation", and the business one, "Public Relations", we now have the OSS one, which I announce with fanfare -

Partial Realism.

Partial Realism is, I suggest, a big issue, offering multitudinous possibilities.

I'm thinking now of scenes set on the OSS-style solid surfaces of the giant planets.

Solid surfaces on Jupiter and Saturn are not realistic, of course.  But suppose, in the OSS spirit, we grant those surfaces to exist for the sake of the story.  What do we do about the atmospheres above them?

Burroughs in Skeleton Men of Jupiter had the solid Jovian surface, of course, but he also made a bow to realism by admitting a thick cloud envelope above it.  The surface illumination then had to come from the fiery glow of volcanoes.  Partial Realism.

Hamilton, on the other hand, simply ignored the atmosphere issue in the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune which he depicts in the Captain Future stories.  They not only have solid (or, in Neptune's case, watery) surfaces, they also have taken-for-granted surface illumination. 

The Saturn I'm reading about currently in Latham's Missing Men of Saturn - which I'm greatly enjoying - has PR in the sense that the surface is unrealistically solid but realistically murky: this author chooses to retain the thick Saturnian atmosphere.

I must admit, I prefer the Hamilton approach: I want the surfaces of these huge and exciting worlds not only to be solid but also to possess good visibility, without the need to concoct an excuse.  Burroughs' PR in Skeleton Men is fine, but that volcano-excuse for visibility would wear a bit thin if one used it for all four giant planets.

2016 October 9th:  I am writing a page about a story which is a classic of the OSS, and which is, moreover, a perfect piece, one which could not be improved; a tale in which every word is the best it could be to express what is required by the plot and the idea. This brings me to reflect on a wrong turning which can occur in conversations about literature.

Suppose two gals, Posi and Nega, argue about a book - say, The Lord of the Rings (a work which seems to lead to arguments).  Posi (who's like me) says she loves it; Nega, however, can't stand it.

Now, here comes the wrong turning:

"No use arguing about matters of taste.  We must agree to differ."  Etc etc.  Admittedly, opponents might well need to agree to differ - but the "no use arguing" stance omits one vital point, one great advantage held by the likers against the can't-standers.

Posi has enjoyed the book.  Nega hasn't, and she has all sorts of criticisms to make - but can she deny that Posi has enjoyed the book?  No - because why would Posi lie about her enjoyment?  The enjoyment must have taken place.  "But how?" Nega may well ask.  "You haven't shown a single reason why you should have enjoyed it.  And you haven't refuted any of my criticisms; so you're admitting they're all true.  So you ought not to have enjoyed the book.  You must have been bamboozled somehow..." 

Then Posi has won, because she can say, "Yes, this is a great author, precisely because of his talent for bamboozling."

You see what I'm getting at?  Posi either wins by winning, or wins by losing, the literary argument.  Winning by winning means showing that the work in question is bound to be good because of all its demonstrable qualities.  Winning by losing achieves victory by showing that the work in question has magically, wonderfully, mysteriously created an enjoyable experience in a reader without evincing those demonstrable qualities.  For in an important sense, it is all the more remarkable that despite all its flaws, the book has aroused enjoyment in Posi.

Either way, Posi beats Nega.

Actually, as I said at the beginning, the story I'm doing a page about does have demonstrable qualities of greatness.  So I needn't have made these points as far as that was concerned.  But anyway, I enjoyed my little rant.

2016 October 8th:  My heart gave a leap, as they say in books, when a parcel arrived today and it turned out to be Missing Men of Saturn (1953), which had been shipped a month ago and which I had given up hope of receiving.  Moments like this are rare: holding a book in one's hands which actually might be a real OSS Saturnian adventure.

I'm half way through it now and the mysterious adventure is in full swing - on Titan so far, but I have hopes of the planetary "mainland".

So far I would say it is a gem of a book, an utter delight.  I intend to use it not only on the Saturn page but also for the page on plying the spacelanes, on account of its classically rough and ready attitude to space travel and navigation.

I wonder to what extent the author, Philip Latham, was conscious of how clever his choice of protagonist was.  Dale Sutton, snobbish young officer from the Space Academy, provides the reader with the ideal "spy-hole" through which to view the first few chapters.  A larger-souled main character would perhaps have made it necessary for the narrative to include too many wider reflections and awarenesses, "tipping its hand" too soon, whereas Dale is just concerned with his own status at first, though as the story goes on we see him develop some maturity.  Now that the perils are really hotting up, of course, he is having to grow up fast...

2016 October 7th:  I have been reading Lin Carter's A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos with absorbed interest.  One amazing thing I learned from it:

The famed editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, rejected quite a few of Lovecraft's greatest stories!  For instance The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Out of Time - mind-boggling!  The former tale Wright finally accepted some time later, having reconsidered, but the latter went to Astounding Stories after a couple of years, thanks to the marketing efforts of one of HPL's fans.

What can we learn from this, I wonder - what's the moral of this strange tale?  It wasn't a case of a writer being unappreciated by the readers - the readership was clamouring for more stuff by Lovecraft.

Whatever the answer may be, let's be thankful for websites and the Internet.  At least when I receive a great story I don't need to hesitate as Farnsworth Wright did.  Readers may retort, it's easy for me because I don't pay for the stories.  But that's not the whole of it.  There's room on the Web.  I don't have to wonder how much I can fit into a limited number of pages in a month's issue; this site just grows and grows, like the world-spanning banyan tree in Hothouse.

Also, though I don't pay for the stories with money, I can give publicity to writers, hastening the day when they do get paid.  That's what I like to believe, anyway.  So, let me assure you new would-be OSS professional authors, you're welcome here, to use this site as the first step on your ladder to fame and fortune.  And also those authors who have already been publised in one medium can use the site to experiment in another - Robert Gibson with his novellas comes to mind.  He's had novels published but - apart from one special case, namely the connected sequence of novellas in Uranian Gleams - has had no opening for his shorter work apart from here. 

Personally, I know of no paid outlet for OSS short fiction anyway.  I don't even know which SF magazines still exist.  It's a long time since I've seen any new issues, but then it's a long time since I've been in an sf bookshop.  Anyone care to report on the current scene?

2016 October 6th:  The news about Prisoners of Saturn prompts reflection about what I call the Three Stages of appreciation.  (I guess you have to be fairly aged to have experienced this.)  Stage One is the initial youthful enthusiasm.  Gosh wow, this is great.  Stage Two is the later disappointment when you return to something you loved as a child and find it diminished, not what you had remembered it to be.  Stage Three is the final return, when you look at it in a new way again, and appreciate it more maturely, with an understanding of its faults, but also with a vision that can look back past the faults and recover its original pristine virtues, but in a wider context.

In the case of me and Prisoners of Saturn, the disappointment of Stage Two was mild, consisting merely of dissatisfaction at the brevity of the actual episode on Saturn itself.  I'm hoping that if I can get hold of the book and experience a Stage Three, it will make me feel that the brevity which disappointed me in Stage Two is not as great as I thought.  Time plays tricks, every time.

2016 October 5th:  Oops, I've had to amend the end-of-September page-view winners, because I under-counted the hits for Mission to the Tenth Planet, which now gets moved up into the top 40.

This reminds me of my guilt feelings for not continuing that story.  Let's hope inspiration comes soon.  I do have an idea for the next episode, but embodying the idea in deathless prose is another matter.

Talking of the outer solar system, I get to reflecting upon poor old Neptune, the Neptunian Zone having come last in the September Zones Cup.  And yet Neptune has had some good coverage in literature - think of Last And First Men, especially.  (If only John Carter had gone there.  Perhaps he did, after his doings on Jupiter...  and has merely been too busy to report it.)  Likewise, Captain Future's Neptune is worth a visit - see Captain Future's Challenge.  Hamilton's other foray to the eighth planet, in his early tale The Universe Wreckers, is, however, disappointing (pity he didn't write it two or three years later, by which time his style had hugely improved).  I am referring to what I know; but bear in mind that I haven't read all of Hamilton's work, perhaps not even nearly all of it.  I keep discovering new gems, and that is what makes him one of the most exciting OSS authors for me - it's like being on a frontier: at any moment some new vista may turn up.

To get back to Captain Future's Neptune: here we have a striking case of visual co-incidence with reality.  For that fictional OSS water-world matches in eerie fashion with the beautiful blue images brought to us by the Voyager 2 probe, back in 1989.  Blue water or blue gas - it's still blue.  The quality arches over, from two separate causes, to "meet in the middle".

Can someone come up with a snappy term for this kind of phenomenon - the OSS/NSS coincidental, eerie, superficial match-up?  A SUMU?  I leave it to you, the jury.

2016 October 4th:  Let's anticipate some objections which might be made to my latest classification of Mars stories (see yesterday's Diary).

I invite Stid to try his usual demolition job.

Stid:  Thank you, Zendexor.  It's not often I get to rampage in your Diary.  The awkward fact which I shall focus on is this: you call one of your categories - the one that includes all those Mars stories in which the planet lacks a humanly-breathable atmosphere and also lacks a native civilization - the Worn-Out Mars (WOM).

Well, the trouble with that is, that all the other Marses are worn out, too! 

Leigh Brackett's Mars, for example, which you put in one of the other categories - BREM (for humanly-breathable Mars) - is tonally very worn out!  The cultural atmosphere is one of sinister decadence.  I'd also say the same about S M Stirling's Mars, of In the Courts of the Crimson Kings.

And Rex Gordon's Mars, which we meet in No Man Friday, and which you place in your third category, FNOM (Fit-for-Natives-Only Mars), is likewise extremely worn out, though in this case it's not decadence but biological near-exhaustion, despite the very advanced nature of the intelligent life-forms there.  In fact, those intelligences evolved as a corollary to the decline of the rest of the Martian ecology.

As I say - all of them are worn out.

Zendexor:  Useful comments, Stid, but if that's all you've got to say, I don't need to feel anxious about my classification system. 

For I can simply point out, it's just a matter of degree.  The WOM category is reserved for the Mars that is so worn out that it contains no native civilization at all.

(I say "civilization" rather than "intelligent native life" because the highest forms in the WOM novels Mission to Mars by Patrick Moore and The Sands of Mars by Arthur C Clarke are borderline-intelligent.  They might make Mars a FNOM if they had a civilization - but they don't.)

The three categories aren't a perfect system but I think they're the best I'm going to get.  Any attempt to multiply acronyms beyond these three - well, I'm not inclined to risk it.  I might start to confuse myself, not to mention my readers.  So I'm not going to have CHIM (Cheerfully Inhabited Mars), for those native civilizations which seem to be fairly up-beat, such as Barsoom and the planet all too briefly encountered in The Martian Crown Jewels.  The first of these will have to stay in BREM and the second in FNOM, despite the notable factor they have in common - namely, a lack of decadence.

Stid:  Ah, come on, you lack self-confidence.  Let's go full throttle for CHANODEM - Cheerful and Non-Decadent Mars...

Zendexor:  Shush.  Don't tempt me.

Seriously now, going back to WOM-related problems: a slightly tricky case is Poul Anderson's Duel on Syrtis.  Is this FNOM or WOM?  I would rate the extraordinary bio-awareness as a culture, and class it as FNOM.  You, Stid, might try to disagree and place it in WOM (because those particular Martians renounced technology), but only if you're trying to be awkward and carping about my nice neat system...

2016 October 3rd:  At the time I was creating the Mars page, I thought it enough to have two main categories of fictional Mars: [1] the Mars with a breathable atmosphere (as in Burroughs, Brackett, Bradbury), which I termed BREM, and [2] the Mars where Earthmen had to wear breathing apparatus (Red Planet, No Man Friday, The Sands of Mars), which I termed the Worn-Out Mars or WOM.

BREM is fine, but I now think that WOM is too large a class.

Consider the three WOMs cited above.  There's a world of difference between The Sands of Mars and the other two.  Clarke's novel depicts a Mars without a native civilization; a Mars which by and large is a clear field for colonists from Earth.  It's a great book, a wonderful book, and it's what I had in mind when I first thought of WOM as a category.  But I think it's in a minority as far as successful literature is concerned.

I now propose to extend the jargon -

Let's keep WOM for The Sands of Mars and other tales of colonization (I can think of the Patrick Moore series of juveniles, Mission to Mars, The Domes of Mars, The Voices of Mars, Peril on Mars and Raiders of Mars), where the red planet is not quite dead but has no native civilization to compete with human settlers.

And let's have a third category for the kind of Mars depicted in Red Planet and No Man Friday, in which humans still cannot breathe out in the open without aid, but in which there are intelligent and civilized natives who can.  This Mars is still pretty worn out and dying, perhaps, but it still has enough native cultural oomph to prevent human settlers from having a clear field there.

I spent much of last night trying to think of an acronym for this type of Mars.  I had to discard comical monstrosities such as BREJUBNANOBU (Breathable Just By Natives And Not By Us), though come to think of it, who's to say there isn't a dimensional Mars somewhere which the natives call Brejubnanobu.

Anyhow, in the end I fixed on this one:

FNOM - the 'Fit-for-Natives-Only' Mars.

So now we have BREM, WOM and FNOM, and I hope that covers it.

2016 October 2nd:  Getting page view winners updated yesterday to show the results for September was something I did manage to do on the first day of this new month, but only just.  It will probably be the last time I achieve that degree of promptitude.  The site is getting so big and complicated, that in future I expect the task will have to be staggered over more than one day.

Anyhow, no matter how much work it involves, the comparative statistics are well worth compiling, from my point of view.  It's my way of keeping track of what the silent users want.  (The small minority of articulate users are much easier to please - they can just tell me.)  But apart from the utility, it's so darned interesting to watch the shifting balance of power in the Old Solar System.

Here's one cute statistic.  In this leap year, there were exactly 274 days from 1 January to 30 September.  And guess what, it so happens that during that period there have been exactly 274 views of the Triton page, no more, no less.  So - exactly one view of Triton per day (let's pretend it's not just an average but an exact periodic vigil).  Now, one could make up a Keith Laumer type story inspired by that. 

A speciality of Laumer's was the kind of story about some steady, patient, lonely watcher on an outpost somewhere, faithfully guarding against a cosmic peril.  A sentinel on Triton, it could be, maintaining his lonely vigil against the unspeakable menace that threatens to erupt from Neptune...  one view per day, day after day...

By the way I recommend, on this type of vigil theme, perhaps three in particular of Laumer's tales: Thunderhead, The House in November (a novel) and The Long-Remembered Thunder.  (They're none of them Old Solar System tales; but never mind, they're superb, perhaps especially the last - which you'll find in the collection Nine By Laumer.)

2016 October 1st:  Further to yesterday's musings about how to go about expressing one's enthusiasm:

The main approach to criticism, for me, is praise.  If you praise a book fittingly, you are bound to be on the track of discovering how its best effects are created.  Praise, in other words, gives birth to analysis.  I dare say other critics may look at it the other way round, but for me, enthusiasm is the starting-point.

A subsidiary aim then comes into view: in order to praise the praiseworthy, one needs sometimes to point out comparisons, stuff that's less good, stuff that fails...  and so negative criticism is an off-shoot of positive criticism.  Again, some no doubt see it the other way round... unfortunately.

A further point about the praise approach:

I am inhibited in my praise for authors who happen to be still alive.  For some reason, I feel much more at ease when enthusing over people who are dead.  Odd, but there it is.  It's the same with my memory: I can't remember where I went on holiday a few years back, but I can easily recite all the names and dates of the sovereigns of Britain for the last thousand years or so and the presidents of the USA since the first one.

For authors who are still alive, I have a different approach.  Instead of structuring my approach around overt praise, I steer towards classification of the precise sub-genre at issue.  That, too, gives an opening for analysis: every book is in a sub-sub-sub genre of its own, if you classify finely enough.  (Perhaps readers may detect this approach in my treatment of S M Stirling and Robert Gibson, and I intend to follow it with my forthcoming page on John Greer's Star's Reach.) 

And in this process of classification, praise is implied: for a successful classification implies some success by the author in communicating his/her aims and vision.

>>  OSS Diary September 2016