Thoughts for the day...
2016 July 31st: I often lavish praise on an author, but today, for a change, I shall also lavish praise on a publisher.
The superb ongoing edition of the works of Edmond Hamilton is being issued by Haffner Press. They deserve to be mentioned in large letters, HAFFNER PRESS. I have three of these wonderful volumes, each of over 600 pages, each a treasure trove of nostalgia for fans of the author and his period of sf literature.
Each is supplied with a fascinating and readable introduction, and, most important of all, with a long end-section rich in excerpts from the letters-columns of the magazines in which Hamilton's tales appeared. Also, the illustrations have been reproduced. What more could one want?
The introductions are properly thoughtful, not one-sided, not blind to the faults of the early Hamilton. As Mike Ashley says at the beginning of Volume Four:
This is the early thirties... Science fiction, as a separate marketing genre, was only five years old, and it was in trouble. Some might say (with more than a tad of truth) that Edmond Hamilton was part of the problem, but he would soon become part of the solution. The old "World Saver" or "World Wrecker" as readers had dubbed him, was about to save the world of science fiction.... Okay, it's a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely...
I possess volumes One, Three and Four of this series. Volume Five is out, I think, but I have not been able to get hold of it yet. Volume Two consists of Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol series, which I already have in other collections.
The big drawback of these super books is their cost. I would advise anyone of limited means who wishes to start collecting them, to save up first for Volume Four. It's the first one (in my view) which can be enjoyed "objectively" (nostalgia to the side), for the quality of the stories alone. Its last seven tales take us through 1932, the year Hamilton tightened up his act and found his proper voice as a story-teller. This is not to say that he wrote nothing worth reading before then, only that his early style was far too verbose (though despite the verbosity, the reader who makes allowances can nevertheless catch the enthusiasm and the vision in those very early tales).
Even if you're not prepared to put up with the style of the earliest stories, the first volumes are well worth having for the 100-or-so pages of magazine letters, discussions, editorial comments and illustrations at the end.
Because Hamilton's writing career lasted so long and he was so prolific, we can look forward to many more volumes in Haffner Press' splendid series, if only they can keep going with it. In years to come they should provide us with an incomparable feast of golden-age science fiction, including many unsuspected classics of the Old Solar System which will give us joy as we re-discover them, and no doubt fill us with amazement that they could ever have been forgotten.
2016 July 30th: Although this is mostly a site for discussion and criticism, a substantial minority of its pages consists of free new online neo-OSS fiction.
An event has prompted me today to ascertain just how big this new-fictional element is, as a proportion of the whole.
The event is: for the first time, a month's page-view totals has topped 6,000. To be precise, it has risen to 6.097, and the month isn't over yet. (May's total, the previous record, was 5,551.)
This morning I counted up how many of those 6,097 were due to the fiction on offer, and here are the totals, tale by tale.
Archives of the Moon: 224 views.
Man of the World: 130 views.
Mission to the Tenth Planet: 114 views.
Peril on Pallas: 97 views.
Wanderers of Mars: 50 views.
Arc of Iapetus: 38 views.
Total: 653 pages out of 6,097 viewed were fictional. Over 10%.
Note that every one of the stories has had on average well over 1 view per day - ranging up to the top one, over 7 per day. In other words, every single fictional offering has turned out strong.
This level of success has surprised me, but on reflection, I realize that fans of a small, select niche such as the OSS sub-genre are likely to submit work of above-average quality; their love for the topic will show in the results they produce.
And this in turn suggests to me that the future of the site lies in increasing the proportion of fiction.
2016 July 29th: Moral bipolarity - a posh term I've just coined for "all-good goodies vs all-bad baddies" - is supposed to be a mark of jejune hack literature, and I suppose it is. But it only takes a bit of subtlety to wipe away the disadvantage, and make a good story out of the "good heroes versus bad villains" theme.
The theme brings me once again to discussing Burroughs and the Barsoom series in particular. I make no apology for harping on about these books so often. Their achievement is central to any study of the OSS.
At first glance the jeds and jeddaks of Barsoom comprise a clear case of moral bipolarity. They are either very good, or very bad. Tardos Mors, Gahan and Talu are fine people. Tul Axtar, Hin Abtol and (especially) Ghron of Ghasta are evil, as is Multis Par of Zor, "thoroughly hated for his arrogance and cruelty".
But there is more to the series than these cases. Doxus, in Llana of Gathol, for example, is neither particularly good or particularly bad. We can see that he's merely a product of his culture. The same might be said of Xodar, appointed by John Carter as Jeddak of the First Born. A touch less dignified is the ultra-suspicious Haj Osis of Tjanath, who, one feels, has had his nerves wrecked by his proximity to Tul Axtar's Jahar. Strangers get short shrift in Tjanath, but all the same, Haj Osis is not an absolute monster. Strangers are also at peril in Horz, but its ruler, Ho Ran Kim, is much more polite in manner while taking his ruthless measures against outsiders.
Then there is O-Tar, who cuts a fine figure of barbaric splendour, objectively admired as such by the captive Tara of Helium - though she scornfully rejects his offer to make her his queen. As events proceed, O-Tar loses the respect of his people and then (in his last act) regains it. Not a complete stereotype here, either.
Even among the starkly evil jeddaks, we have enough variation to make them distinct characters. Ghron is clearly a mental case. Tul Axtar and Hin Abtol are more of a kind, equally selfish and cowardly, but I'd say Hin Abtol is more the bumbling braggart, whereas Tul Axtar plays a long game.
I've tried to show that variety does exist amidst the apparent moral bipolarity of ERB's Barsoom. Enough variety, in conjunction with the colour and action and suspense, to bathe each of the characters in his own halo of individual sparkle. All this is genreally achieved, be it noted, without explicit psychologising.
The exceptions are the very rare cases where the psychologising is itself a sort of colour in the narrative, and these exceptions seem to centre on the "mad scientists" - e.g. Carter's ruminations about Fal Sivas in Swords of Mars, Tan Hadron's concerning Phor Tak in A Fighting Man of Mars, and Ulysses Paxton's concerning Ras Thavas in The Master Mind of Mars.
2016 July 28th: Yesterday was a record for the number of page-views of the site in one day - 436. Also, this month's percentage of visits from France doubled in that one day from 4% to 6%, which means a sudden influx of about 50 visits from that country. I suppose it's a coincidence that an author born in France contacted the site on that day, but still, the coincidence is remarkable.
Input from Dylan Jeninga and from S M Stirling on the topic of Dyson spheres has jogged my memory back to the 1970s when I attended a lecture in Oxford by the late Adrian Berry, author of The Next Ten Thousand Years.
Berry was an ebullient man, in some ways like a latter-day H G Wells (in the prophetic, not in the literary sense). He thought that some day Man might create more living-space in the Solar System by breaking up the planet Jupiter into many small worlds. Unless I dreamed it, he thought it might be done by increasing that planet's rotation until it tore apart into many fragments which could then be used to make worldlets.
Personally I think that quite a few health and safety regulations would be contravened by such a procedure - it might well lead to a renewal of the Late Heavy Bombardment which had such an influential effect on the early solar system. But my main objection would be aesthetic. Hands off Jupiter's structural integrity!
If we're going to meddle with Jupiter, it would be better to do something about its atmosphere, and give the place a solid surface. Then either invent gravitational adjusters, or increase our musculature, so that we can colonize it. A tall order, but more feasible than the Berry plan.
Talking of construction -
I need at some point to add to the Earth page, or dedicate a new page to, J G Ballard's remarkable story, Build-Up. There's nothing like it in the whole of literature; it's almost a genre of its own.
It reminds me of a dream I once had, a weird and haunting mood-dream, in which I knew it was the year A.D. 99,998. I saw rows of houses, looking fairly ordinary, like a tall row of brick or stone offices, and at the same time (as happens in dreams) I saw inside, and the interesting thing was, the buildings were full to bursting with paper files. This, then, was a future in which accumulation, rather than innovation, was what characterized the culture. Paper files, piling up for tens of thousands of years. Shelves crammed with them, leaning dustily.
Similarly the Ballard story postulates a linear increase in the characteristics of the present, rather than the usual assumption of qualitative progress. In the case of Build-Up the focus is on the built-up area of Earth, and unlike in my dream of the year 99,998, the increase is over a vastly greater period, of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of years, until the very concept of "space" is lost, and the universe is thought to be a building with no end. Not only that but one begins to suspect that in this tale the Universe now really is in reality a building with no end... Spooky!!
2016 July 27th: A big thing has happened: S M Stirling has made contact with the site. Perhaps he did so in response to a message I tried to leave on his site, but I had the impression that my message had not got through, for when I clicked on "send" the twirly thing just kept on twirling and there was nothing to tell me it had been sent. Anyhow, coincidence or not, it has happened. Let's hope that it's the start of more sharing of insights and comments. When I started the site in May 2015, I had no one. Now I/we now have TWO authors in the family!! Stirling with his coverage of Mars and Venus; Gibson with his coverage of Mercury and Uranus. Being greedy, I now want to find neo-OSS novels set on the Moon, on Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, the outer planet moons, the asteroids, the Sun...
Another good thing that has happened: I found a Triton story. I had been wishing I had more stuff for the Triton page, to add to the skimpy mention in one Captain Future novel which was all I had managed to find when composing the page. And then this morning, browsing my old issues of Startling Stories, I found in the Fall 1945 issue a tale, also by Edmond Hamilton but not connected with the other, which seems to depict a different version of that world. It's called Trouble on Triton. Horray! I shall be augmenting the Triton page in due course...
Readers may think it odd that I can "discover" things in my own collection of sf magazines. The fact is, their size and state of dilapidation makes them difficult to arrange. I don't like handling them any more than I have to, because every time I do, little bits of paper fall off the edges of the pages. They're disintegrating with time. Of course, in a way it's all the more exciting, delving into these crumbling volumes of forgotten lore; all I need is a "pallid bust of Pallas" to complete the picture...
Yes, everything seems to be going well with the site at the moment, which is a puzzle for a gloomy pessimistic fellow like myself.
2016 July 26th: Build-ups: that's what I'm thinking about at this moment: how an author eases the reader into the story. But also, at the same time, how an author builds up his own style.
Edmond Hamilton wrote a spate of rollicking good novellas in the late 1950s in which the reader is subjected to shock starts. Year by year the abruptness intensifies.
In 1956 he gave us Thunder World, which begins excitingly, but not violently:
Farrel Baird stood rigid, watching the plane coming across the high white Antarctic peaks. It came fast from a northwesterly direction, its metal wings shimmering in the pale sunlight, its atomic motors purring.
He thought, It's only chance that it's coming this way, it doesn't mean they've found us. It'll change course in a minute.
It didn't. It came straight on as though those in it knew exactly where they were going...
In 1957 he gave us World of Never-Men, which collars the reader more abruptly:
Someone reached out a hand from the black, blind niche of the doorway and caught him as he passed.
Colin Barker crouched and whirled in the narrow darkness of the alley, leaping away from that grasp. His gun, a solid heavy Earth-made weapon, fairly sprang into his palm.
"Come out of there," he said in rapid Martian. "Come out or you die."
He was not exactly nervous, or frightened. Rather he was keyed-up, intensely alert and wary as a wolf. The note the child had brought to him at his quarters on the native side of the Ganshaw Canal had been urgent, mysterious, and unsigned, containing a word that might not be ignored when passed between friends. He was an old hand on Mars, what the lily-whites called a red-dust man, and he was not taking any more chances than curiosity allowed.
In 1958 he gave us Men of the Morning Star with a more fraught opening:
The knife came out of the fog behind Kerrick, so that he didn't see it until it went past his ear and clattered against the dripping stone of the sea-wall ahead. The metal glittered nastily in the dim light of an oilwood torch at the corner.
Operating on sheer physical instinct, Kerrick bent over and made a clumsy leap sideways. He was a little drunk, and he had been until this minute in a mild peaceful state where the inner fog nicely balanced the outer one and he could forget how long it seemed since he had seen the sun and the stars and smelled a clean cold wind. Now fear came with a wild shock.
Someone was trying to kill him. And he had not the faintest idea why.
He floundered in close to a warehouse wall, where the dim light was dimmer and the fog was clotted thick. He tried to see who was behind him on the quay, but all he could see was the mist rolling in slow waves from the tideless sea. The three torches that marked the tavern he had just left made a golden blob against the mist, which was tinged with the color of the purple night of Venus where cloud and sea, land and air are never quite dark, any more than they are ever quite light by day.
Fast is good, but slow is good too, if you want to build a world. Burroughs takes ages to get the conflict going in A Princess of Mars, but that's quite all right - we're being introduced to Barsoom. And of course the suspense and tension precedes the actual conflict.
Slow is good, but fast is good too. That's to say, fast is good if it's followed by a helping of slow, to explain and orient the reader.
Fast-then-slow, or Slow-then-fast: either one works. You've got to have some explanation sometime.
On a different note: regarding the competition, I have had an idea this morning about how to make it easier on those who haven't read the stories. (After all, it's likely that some of the stories are not readily available.)
The idea is this:
I could invite the readers to match pairs of story-fragments. Spot the pair that comes from the same story. In a way this would make a more interesting competition. It would be a contest that rewards those with an ear for style.
Perhaps, then, at the end of this month, or shortly after, I shall give the answers for the unsolved competition entries, and then the next lot of entries will be other excerpts from those same stories. You, readers, will be invited to tell me which comes from which.
The beauty of it is that it doesn't matter if you haven't read the stories. You can still try to guess from the style.
2016 July 25th: Here's a statistic that causes me to raise my eyebrows: whereas my new page on In the Courts of the Crimson Kings has been viewed 11 times, Dylan's comment on that page - The crimson courts and my Martian dreams - has been viewed 30 times. Got that? The original page, 11 views; the comment on it, 30 views. What should we conclude from this result?
The lesson, I reckon, is that discussion is tremendously popular. I am reminded of C S Lewis' typically provocative remark, that instead of reading critics in order to enjoy the authors, we are more likely to read the authors to enjoy the critics - that is to say, it's such fun to read what someone else is thinking about a writer who interests us. Of course, what got me going on this is a case where people are reading the critic of a critic, more than the actual critic... Anyhow, the message is, commentary is a winner. I point this out in order to encourage more of it.
Let me reiterate to you OSS fans: your views - if you submit them to the site - are likely to obtain a considerable audience.
The competition page, meanwhile, is also popular, climbing the charts steadily. But so far I have received only 2 answers. Are the questions too hard? Perhaps it's too early to tell. Remember, you're allowed to guess; I'm soft in that way; there are no penalties for getting it wrong - no danger that you will be confined in the Lunar Penitentiary, or sent to forced labour on Cerberus.
2016 July 24th: The "villain/hero", as I define him here, is more than just a hero with faults, or a villain with virtues. He is a protagonist whose giant ego and outsized will-power makes him an engine of change, and his career a turning-point of history. I am thinking now of three examples, one in a novella, the other two in novels.
The novella is The Crucible of Power by Jack Williamson. Perhaps, of the three, this is a borderline case because the narrator's ruthless father is in the end more hero than villain.
But come that, you might say the same - in the very end - of Gully Foyle in The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. (That book is, by the way, OSS, despite its title.) Gully Foyle is for most of the book a rather nasty character, but he does repent of his misdeeds - though his repentance itself takes typically dangerous form.
And then we come to the third example, Sam Reed in Henry Kuttner's Fury. Of the three, Sam is the one who changes least in the course of the story. From beginning to end he is utterly egotistic and ruthless, though there is also something fine about him, or about the raw material of his personality. The author stands back and narrates the cyclonic progress of Sam through the history of his time, in which, purely as a by-product of the selfish ambition of one man, Mankind is saved from stagnation and given a second chance for greatness.
While writing this I had an odd thought: even Edgar Rice Burroughs, who usually gives us proper good heroes, made one foray into - or almost into - the villain/hero business. I am thinking of his novel Pirate Blood. Not like the others I mentioned, insofar as the career of Lafitte is of no historical importance to his world - it's just a darned good story.
I suppose, also, that Ras Thavas, The Master Mind of Mars, who appears in that work and also in Synthetic Men of Mars, approaches villain/hero status, or at least, he has it in him to do so. He is one of what I call the Three Great Savants of Barsoom: the other two being Phor Tak (in A Fighting Man of Mars) and Fal Sivas (in Swords of Mars).
Of these three savants, Ras Thavas is by far the most impressive: a well-drawn picture of ambiguous greatness. A more intellectual author than Burroughs might have striven with less success, by means of deliberate suggestions, to achieve the result which Burroughs, by his rambling and episodic approach, attains more or less by accident.
2016 July 23rd: Continuing my laudable editorial preoccupation with the wishes of readers:
For the past two and a half months, the Mercury-page has been the most popular planet-page on the site (Venus coming second). I feel it's time to hazard a guess as to why. Let's construct a theory. Here goes:
The general public might think that the biggest disappointment of space-age Solar System studies was the disproof of the canals of Mars. But sf fans, who are likely to be better informed than the general public with regard to planetology, have probably been inured for longer to the Martian disappointment.
By contrast, sf fans are maybe more vulnerable to the Mercurian disappointment - that is, the disproof of the Twilight Belt. For the very existence of that Belt was probably not a part of the mental furniture of the general public, who thus haven't missed it like we do.
Then along comes this site, composed by a stalwart old-style Mercury supporter (me), who splurges effort on the Mercury page and the associated pages for Valeddom and The Immortals of Mercury - plugging the old Twilight Belt for all it's worth.
This taps into a sizeable community of similarly nostalgic Twilight Belt afficionados.
I might add, that the Mercury page is the only one on the site which has been a "super-page" (as defined in yesterday's diary entry) during every single month since the site began. That's not to say it has always been the most-visited planet-page. For example, last April it was Venus; in February and March it was Jupiter; in January it was Uranus. But Mercury has never fallen below the one-visit-a-day average (the current figure is about 2.5).
I hope the Mercurians, in whatever dimension they reside, have their hyperspatial detectors trained on this diary and are cheering these figures.
2016 July 22nd: I feel like "taking stock". So far, this has been a great month for the site, rivaling the results for May. I try to keep in close touch with readers' wishes insofar as I can ascertain them.
It's getting harder to say exactly how many pages there are on the site; some are admin-only constructs and "comment forms", which bring the total to well over 200; I know however that the total of "real" pages is well over 100 by now.
Out of those, there are roughly 50 (the total fluctuates and gradually increases over time) of what I might call "super-pages" - those which are viewed on average at least once per day.
Currently the four most popular destinations for readers - apart from the Home Page which always rules supreme - are: What's New? (over 6 per day), this OSS Diary (over 5), Man of the World and Global Dispatches and Extraordinary Gentlemen (both over 4).
I am particularly pleased this month that the Barsoom and the Perelandra pages are now "super-pages" as defined above. It's long overdue that Barsoom should get this level of attention! Perelandra is even more popular - over 3 views a day. This is quite sudden, and I am, as usual, baffled as to an explanation. The book is superlative, but then it always was - why is the page suddenly so popular now? It has been on the site for many months.
The popularity of Man of the World pleases me because I see it as in part at least a vindication of my "Earth-Shimmer" categorization. We editors like our little sub-genre pigeonholes.
It also reminds me: I need some time to do another Earth-related page, on a different sub-genre topic: underground worlds. Not hollow-Earths like Pellucidar, but underground realms like those in The Perilous Descent and Land Under England - and also the rather different case of The Fires Within...
It's finding the time - that's the problem! All I need is a government grant to devote myself to the site full-time...
2016 July 21st: In the past couple of diary entries I have been writing about inconsistency. To sum up: inconsistencies of fact and event can be annoying, but also can be fruitful if they inspire the reader to theorize - to make interesting excuses for them.
The other type of inconsistency is much more serious: inconsistency of tone.
This can happen when a writer returns to a series after a long gap. Two non-OSS examples:
The last two "Demon Princes" novels by Jack Vance don't quite fit with the first three, though they're all good. Far worse is the mismatch between Asimov's first three "Foundation" volumes and the later accretions to that series, written decades later, by which time the lean, memorable style has become flabby and verbose, and the plots are more contrived and less archetypally haunting.
An OSS example, somewhere mid between the above two in the seriousness of the tonal inconsistency, is provided by D F Jones' excellent Colossus trilogy (the last volume of which surprisingly relates a threat from Martians). The first volume seems tonally set in the 20th century, with a Cold War flavour, whereas the last two - though with the same main character - seems to be set at a far later date, perhaps a couple of centuries later. Perhaps I am wrong in this, in which case a reader may correct me.
But I am certainly not wrong in the other two examples, which point the moral that an author needs to be very careful if he/she returns to a series after a long gap.
If an author's career spans decades, and his style naturally develops, it's better if he either keeps at a series steadily, or abandons it and does something else. It's a mistake to put a series on hold for many years and then return to it in a different style.
Two ways to avoid the trap:
Burroughs did not have the tonal inconsistency problem because although his series spanned many years, his style did not change over his three decades of authorship. Edmond Hamilton avoided the problem because although his style changed hugely, he changed his plots and characters too, over his 50-year writing career.
2016 July 20th: Again on the subject of inconsistency, but now focusing on C S Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy.
Why carp, though, about such a fantastically great work? Why try to pick holes in it?
Good question. Perhaps it's a sign of love - an excuse to talk about those exceptional, much-loved, infinitely admired books.
Well, here goes. My point is to do with the language which the hero, Ransom, speaks on Mars and Venus.
In Perelandra, Chapter Two, Ransom explains, before his departure for Venus, that he will go there already knowing the language:
"...scientifically it is one of the most interesting things about the whole affair. It appears we were quite mistaken in thinking Hressa-Hlab the peculiar speech of Mars. It is really what may be called Old Solar, Hlab-Eribol-ef-Cordi."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"I mean that there was originally a common speech for all rational creatures inhabiting the planets of our system..."
Now, Lewis doesn't take this any further, in the sense of offering an explanation of how such linguistic unity could have occurred. Certainly it did not arise from ancient space-travel or interplanetary communication by the species concerned. Nor does it imply a genetic connection between those species - there is no COMOLD whatsoever in the Cosmic Trilogy.
There is a spiritual explanation: that the speech was given by the Intelligences which govern the worlds.
And there is a scientific/philosophical corollary to that: the words of Old Solar derive logically from reality, just as the speech of Barsoom generates its own vocabulary (so that the Barsoomians don't even have the idea of separate languages).
So, Lewis can be absolved of self-contradiction here. But there remains a certain inconsistency of tone, if you compare the status of the language in question, in all three volumes.
In Out of the Silent Planet it is presented as merely interesting.
In Perelandra it becomes basic, fundamental, mysteriously interplanetary.
And in the final, climacteric volume, That Hideous Strength, it becomes - well, just read this:
"...You understand, Dimble? Your revolver in your hand, a prayer on your lips, your mind fixed on Maleldil. Then, if he stands, conjure him."
"What shall I say in the Great Tongue?"
"Say that you come in the name of God and all angels and in the power of the planets from one who sits to-day in the seat of the Pendragon, and command him to come with you. Say it now."
And Dimble, who had been sitting with his face drawn and rather white, between the white faces of the two women, and his eyes on the table, raised his head, and great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth. Jane felt her heart leap and quiver at them. Everything else in the room seemed to have become intensely quiet: even the bird, and the bear, and the cat, were still, staring at the speaker. The voice did not sound like Dimble's own: it was as if the words spoke themselves through him from some strong place at a distance - or as if they were not words at all but present operations of God, the planets, and the Pendragon. For this was the language spoken before the Fall and beyond the Moon, and the meanings were not given to the syllables by chance, or skill, or long tradition, but truly inherent in them as the shape of the great Sun is inherent in the little waterdrop. This was Language herself, as she first sprang at Maleldil's bidding out of the molten quicksilver of the star called Mercury on Earth, but Viritrilbia in Deep Heaven.
2016 July 19th: Thinking back to an enjoyable and estimable literary study by Richard A Lupoff. It's called Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision. I don't have my copy handy right now but I think it's the book which contains a severe criticism of volume nine in the Barsoom series: Synthetic Men of Mars. Lupoff accuses Burroughs of "sloppiness" and serious inconsistencies in the book.
The topic of inconsistency is a tricky and fruitful one. It can be mere sloppiness, yes. But then, even sloppiness, a fault in itself, can be a sign of something positive going on. A superabundance of creativity, perhaps. An outpouring of ideas, which overwhelm the author's ability to keep track of them. In such a case, does he try to control the flow, at the risk of reducing the output, or does he give way to the torrent, at the cost of losing control?
Perhaps if Burroughs had had an intellect the size of C S Lewis', he might have achieved the double-act of outpouring combined with total control. Well, Burroughs was far from stupid but his greatness lies not in intellect but in being a conduit, a channel of the power of dream. He simply opened that channel and whoosh!! the dreams poured forth in a dazzling torrent.
(Come to think of it, C S Lewis himself allowed inconsistencies in his Narnia series. They don't matter, but they're there.)
For me, Synthetic Men of Mars is well up to par in the Barsoom series. The self-sacrifice of the hero, Vor Daj, the oppression and tension in Morbus among the hormads, the Third Jed's coup, the flight through the marshes, the zoo of Jal Had - it's all blazingly memorable. And the book gives an brief but interesting extra sidelight on the character of Ras Thavas, the Master Mind of Mars.
So, I disagree with Lupoff on this one. But his book on Barsoom is a great read nevertheless.
2016 July 18th: What is a surface? That's a question which came up in a conversation I had with a space scientist many years ago.
I had asked him if there was any likelihood of the sub-giant worlds Uranus and Neptune having surfaces. His reply: "It depends on what you call a surface."
At the time, I wasn't sure of my answer to that, and I got the impression from this scientist that whatever "surface" might exist on those worlds would only be meaningless in human terms. It wasn't something you could sense if you were there (and presumably you'd only be there if protected by some sort of force-field or a fantastically strong structure).
Thinking about it since then, I have become more hopeful.
A "surface" could mean any layered discontinuity of matter. No matter how strange or undetectable to our normal senses, it could be detectable if those senses underwent some sort of enhancement or translation.
In my Sun page I argue that one might set stories on that body - its photosphere is a kind of surface, after all - by translating alien ordinariness into human ordinariness. As admissible as translation from one language into another.
The Sun is an extreme case. Uranus and Neptune could all the more be "translated". I am not referring, here, to the "reality engineering" in Uranian Gleams. I mean something more analogous to infrared goggles: that's to say, a "take" on the reality we have, only vastly more profound, comprehensive, subtle and wide-ranging than mere goggles.
I have (somewhere) a book of realistic illustrations by William Hartmann called Travellers' Guide to the Solar System. If I remember correctly it includes some paintings which suggest a liquid surface to one or more of the giant planets. The picture I'm thinking of shows a dark ocean, lit by a flash of lightning.
Is all this a digression from the Old Solar System? Perhaps. The OSS doesn't require all this accommodation with realism. But one day literature may come full circle, using sensory "translation" to justify - for instance - the oceanic Neptune of Captain Future. Islands might exist on the Neptunian ocean, because although permanent solid surfaces might be impossible, temporary coagulations might occur, and who's to say how long time takes? A second might be an aeon, for some creatures. And who's to say how these creatures might appear to each other? As human as you or I, maybe.
Translation - that could be the future of one big branch of the OSS.
2016 July 17th: From now on I will need to choose subjects for the site competition.
I had meant to use the random key on my pocket calculator to generate numbers which would direct me to locations on the 8 shelves of OSS books and magazines in my study. But my calculator has disappeared.
So I have been using dice instead.
I have dice with 2 colours, half the faces with black dots and half with red. Three rolls will give three "binary chops" to give me a choice of one of the 8 shelves. Black, first half; red, second half. E.g. first roll, red, narrows shelves 1-8 down to shelves 5-8; second roll, black, narrows it to shelves 5-6; third roll, red, narrows it to shelf 6. Then another 3 rolls to tell me where on the shelf I ought to look.
The trouble is, I did it three times and got the same result, the 7th section of shelf 6! Is it a jinx or a loaded die? Or destiny? Or the influence of a planetary intelligence?
I changed die and got a different result, so I'll go with the more prosaic explanation.
2016 July 16th: Found a provisional sobriquet for this diary page. From Breakdown by Jack Williamson:
Sunport was his capital. For a hundred years the monopoly of interplanetary commerce had fed its power, and even New York was now only a quaint provincial suburb. The towers of the megalopolis stood like a forest of bright monoliths for a hundred miles about the high Colorado mesa that had become the port of space...
Mind you, Gentle Readers, I am not as ruthless as the union boss in that story. I am quite willing to share power; in fact as I sit here running the System from my megalopolis (terraced town house, rather) I am eager to share power...
Following on from a recent comment by Dylan regarding Dune as a world that could have been Mars:
Leigh Brackett wrote a trilogy set on a vividly depicted world, Skaith, out among the stars somewhere. Now that world, it seems to me, could have been a perfect fit for one of the worlds in our Old Solar System. It was old, cold, full of ancient mystery and decadent evil, half savage and half civilized as you might expect from Brackett. Great stuff, but (from our OSS point of view) what a waste to have it placed somewhere out in the Galaxy. I reckon Skaith ought to have been... can you guess...?
It would have made a perfect Titan. Especially as our genre lacks a proper Titan novel, as far as I know.
Also, from the point of view of the hero of the Skaith books, setting them on Titan would have avoided a mis-match of scenes. I refer to the unsatisfying way in which Eric John Stark, a Solar System adventurer, is suddenly squirted out into the Galaxy to become an interstellar adventurer. The two roles don't fit.
Anyway, as I have probably remarked before, Brackett was at her best in the Solar System. She should have left it to her husband Edmond Hamilton to do the zooming-around-the-Milky-Way stuff.
2016 July 15th: I may have found a third contributor to the site - and I hope he won't prove to be just a one-off. More of this anon. I am waiting to receive an email with further details.
Rooting around some of my old stuff, I found an April 1937 Amazing Stories - wow. Unfortunately it lacks the cover, and most of the spine - fortunately the remaining bit of the spine was the top, which includes the date.
Frustratingly, it contains Part II of a serial, By Jove!, which seems to be about adventures upon Ganymede. (Author: one Walter Rose, whom I had never heard of.) Now, do I read this Part II or wait until I can get hold of Part I? I may have to wait a long time... and meanwhile there may be important information about the fictional Jovian system which I am failing to absorb. We certainly need more on the culture of Jupiter's largest moon.
The same issue contains Weinbaum's Shifting Seas, an interesting tale about sudden geographical change upon Earth. Some day I ought to do a page on that theme; it would need to include discussion of that Weinbaum story plus Keith Laumer's unputdownable Catastrophe Planet. Also a memorable post-cataclysm tale by J T McIntosh, which I believe was called Out of Chaos. Then again there's John Christopher's Prince in Waiting trilogy, set in a future England and Wales which has become subject to volcanic eruptions.
Earth is an amazing planet, the crossroads of many dimensions and subject to upheavals and crises both real and imaginary. What a world. Even the vulgarity of much of modern life could be romanticised if one takes it to be the result of some dramatic evil force, which could be called the Vulgariser or the Slob-Force, aimed at the planet as part of some fiendish interplanetary plot. In fact that might not be too far removed from the plot of Valeddom, though maybe the author would wish to make a distinction between my "Vulgariser" and his "hourless tapede".
2016 July 14th: Re-reading C S Lewis' wonderful essay Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages, which takes me back to the very old planetary System - before it was Solar - and (among many other things) underpins Lewis' account of the planetary Intelligences in his Cosmic Trilogy. Much more recently, his depiction of the heavens as "height" rather than "distance" has been re-vivified in the Kroth trilogy, especially Volume 2, The Drop.
Lewis puts it thus:
Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that the pre-Copernican astronomy is true. Look up at the sky with that assumption in your mind. The real difference between living in that universe and living in ours will then, I predict, begin to dawn on you.
You will be looking at a world unimaginably large but quite definitely finite. At no speed possible to man, in no lifetime possible to man, could you ever reach its frontier, but the frontier is there; hard, clear, sudden as a national frontier. And secondly, because the Earth is an absolute centre, and Earthwards from any part of this immense universe is downwards, you will find that you are looking at the planets and stars in terms not merely of "distance" but of that very special kind of distance which we call "height". They are not only a long way from the Earth but a long way above it. I need hardly point out that height is a very much livelier notion than distance; it has, the moment it is imagined, commerce with our nerves, with all our racial and infantile terrors, with our pleasures as mountaineers, our love of wide prospects, and a whole vast network of ethical and social metaphors which we could not shake off even if we tried...
On a different note: I have finally figured out the format of a regular Competition for this site. I'm away from home today, but when I return tomorrow - or soon after - I shall get cracking on this idea.
2016 July 13th: Missed doing a diary entry yesterday - for the first time since this diary's inception I was prevented by pressure of other matters. Back to normal now, I hope.
Re-reading Clash By Night - an old favourite. Written by "Lawrence O'Donnell" - meaning Henry Kuttner and C L Moore. Set on Venus, some hundreds of years after the atomic destruction of Earth. A long novella, it's a prequel to Kuttner's novel Fury which narrates mankind's emergence from the undersea Venusian "Keeps" and onto the savage surface of that planet - a powerful piece of symbolism and a speeded-up analogue of the evolution of life on Earth.But in Clash By Night Man is still for the most part living down in the secure Keeps, except for the hardy condottieri style Free Companions who fight the Keeps' proxy wars on the surface.
Clash By Night has a memorable introduction, which set me thinking about literary framing devices in general. You know the sort of thing - like in Pellucidar where the narrator meets the protagonist and learns his story. The story thus becomes a story-within-a-story.
Framing devices aren't seriously meant as a ploy to gain credibility: no reader seriously believes the story is thus being proved to be true. Rather, it's an enhancement of the tale via the addition of an extra dimension - the story of the story, as it were. And why not? If you're writing a story, why not also write about the effect of the story upon others?
In Clash By Night, and rather less effectively (in my opinion) in Simak's collection of linked tales City, we have the whole saga framed by the speculation of imagined historians. Robert Gibson goes the whole hog in Uranian Gleams by framing the six Uranian tales not only by means of a historians' introduction and comment, but also via an entire potted history of the planet - the so-called "Brief History" of Uranus, which runs to about 100 pages. Burroughs uses frames not only in Pellucidar but in all his other-world series, but I don't remember him using actual fictional historians; the historical approach re-appears however as we move away from sf to the so-called Red Book of Westmarch in The Lord of the Rings... and the vast collection of appendices at the end of that work. Robert Graves also uses a historian as narrator to great effect in his masterpiece of historical fiction, Count Belisarius, set in the sixth-century Byzantine Empire.
2016 July 11th: Following on from my recent grumble about excessive communications, it occurs to me that ERB almost got himself into a similar hole with his Martians. The people of Barsoom are mind-readers, and this - if taken to its wholesale conclusion - would scupper the usual type of ERB adventure. Heroes would not get very far if the opposition could read their minds at every move in the game. However, having set that trap for himself, Burroughs gets out of it by arranging that his Martians are also past masters at blocking each others' efforts to read their minds. A mental stalemate, like an arms race in which defence balances attack. And not implausible, actually. Rather like the way physical evolution works, with its balance between swift predators and swift herbivores, the pursuers and the pursued.
Amusing displays of journalistic ignorance in recent newspaper reports on NASA's Juno probe. The prize must go to one reporter who gushed that Jupiter is so big, it can be seen with the naked eye! Well, there wouldn't have been much chance of it being named after the king of the gods, if the Romans hadn't been able to see it. People should get out more and look upwards occasionally.
Another boob, a common one, is to claim that Juno has approached Jupiter more closely than any other mission. What about the Galileo entry probe which actually descended through the Jovian cloud-tops?
In my opinion, the most fantastic success so far this century, as far as space-probes go, was the Huygens probe's landing on Titan. Stunning images were beamed back - those panoramic ones during the descent being the most breathtaking of all. But for some reason the papers didn't seem so excited on that occasion. Perhaps they'd never heard of Titan!
In one startling respect this is an unusual month so far, for visits to the site: I refer to the fact that British users currently outnumber Germans, 8% to 6%. Usually German visitors outnumber Brits by about two to one. (US visitors number as usual between 60% and 70%.) But in any case perhaps I should lump British and Germans together, as far as readership is concerned, such is the remarkable German fluency in English. In order do my own personal bit to redress this imbalance I'm doing my best to read Eric Frank Russell's Wasp in German translation ("Der Stich der Vespe"). I know the book so well in English, I can usually read it in German without a dictionary. I recommend this as a way of familiarising oneself with a language: get a book you know like the back of your hand, and read it translated into whatever tongue you're studying.
2016 July 10th: Re-read the following account in my issue of Amazing Stories, May 1940, of two early space travellers stepping onto the surface of the moon:
Nightmare landscape greeted their eyes. The glaring white plain of calcined dust and stone, stretching to the towering peaks that rimmed a horizon incredibly close. Overhead bulked the incredibly huge cloudy gray sphere of Earth. Its vast, veiled sphere seemed to fill the heavens. And beyond it, the sun glared fiercely, beating down with a scorching heat they could fee even through their insulated suits.
The two men started westward, toward the fanged peaks. They moved with a queer, floating drag. Only the lead weights fastened to the belts of their suits kept them from floating into the air with each step, so slight was the pull of lunar gravity.
Edmond Hamilton, Liline, the Moon Girl
This is the real proper sort of stuff. "Incredibly" in two successive sentences, but never mind. Earth wouldn't "fill the heavens", but never mind. Floating "into the air" is an unfortunate phrase for where there's no air, but never mind. The "glaring white plain of calcined dust and stone" makes up for any deficiencies of style in the other sentences. And another big reason why this stuff is so good:
No interruptions from Mission Control! These are lone explorers, really into the beyond, out of touch with the rest of humanity to a degree that no Apollo astronaut could boast.
Communications sure do spoil the mood of adventure. It won't be so bad with interplanetary travel, as the further you go, the longer the time-lag for radio communication with Earth, but even then, there'll be chit-chat across the surfaces of the planets themselves, pioneers radioing their advance base, perhaps via orbiting relay. Besides, automated probes will have spoiled the element of surprise by exhaustive examination of the globes concerned.
Communications need to be kept under control. I believe that in Uranian Gleams, the Uranians can only radio a certain distance upon the plains of their giant world, and besides, they often judge it too risky to give away their location by using their radios. That's one way to keep the chatter down.
2016 July 9th: Nearly finished S M Stirling's In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. A powerful, important work, though not (for me) an easy read. It is an intensely realistic and profoundly original rendition of a human or near-human Martian culture.
Such neo-OSS works are intended to some degree as "throwbacks" - in this case to a Mars with a breathable atmosphere - but there is one respect in which I suspect it must be very hard, almost impossible, for an author to recapture the virtues of the OSS, and that is regarding not so much the planets themselves, as the void between them.
We have, I think, almost lost a sense of the true physical vastness of Space. Only when re-reading very old fiction can we recapture it.
We have not lost a sense of the vastness of the Universe as a whole, but most interstellar fiction has to by-pass Space for practical reasons (except in stories about generation starships). Certainly, Jack-Vance-type interstellar civilizations must largely ignore distance-constraints, else the plots would never get anywhere.
Very old OSS fiction therefore can give us something that's both special and realistic: the vastness of interplanetary space. We'd soon feel the truth of it if we were really out there, especially if communication were cut off, or if telemetry had never been invented. I think now of Clark Ashton Smith's charming tale, A Voyage to Sfanamoë, in which two Atlanteans take most of a lifetime to voyage from Earth to Venus. Also, the marvellous impressions of Space between Earth and Mars, experienced by the kidnapped hero of C S Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet.
Related to the wonder of infinity is the theme of vertigo, and this could make a valid topic for a thesis: vertigo in space fiction. One might study Bradbury's Kaleidoscope and Heinlein's Ordeal in Space, the latter with a hero "grounded" because of vertigo caused by a space-accident, as is the hero of Clarke's The Deep Range. Or there's the different sort of space in Gibson's Kroth trilogy - that gives you vertigo par excellence, since you get the chance to follow the hero as he falls off the world.... And one might develop the theme in extensions to stories where it is merely potential, for instance Burroughs' The Moon Maid, which gives us a hollow Moon where the craters are holes through which one might, theoretically, travel from the inside to the outside... quite a climb that would be, with a gravitational turn midway like Dante's about-turn in the nether circle of the Inferno.
2016 July 8th: Wanderers of Mars has got off to a good start, with 10 views in less than a day. There currently seems to be an upsurge of interest in all things Martian - doubtless triggered off by the Global Despatches page. The interest has spilled from Wells' Mars to Burroughs', so that, just for once, the Barsoom page is beating the Amtor page in number of views - whereas in previous months, it has been the other way round, to my constant surprise. And the main Mars page is neck and neck with Venus now, whereas for a long while Venus was way out in front - again to my surprise. One of the pleasures of being a webmaster is the intriguing puzzle one is always trying to solve, to whit: what the heck do the users want? And the answer at the moment, seemingly, is Mars. On the other hand, I mustn't overlook the fact that the Mercury page is still getting more views than Venus and Mars combined... better send Captain Future to find out what's going on on Mercury... it's all go.
In today's Daily Telegraph there's a full-page article on Edgar Rice Burroughs, prompted by the new Tarzan movie. Burroughs' work has its share of clichés, but he was a great writer for all that, and this fact seems lost on his cliché-ridden critics (even the excellent Bill Bryson doesn't get it, in his otherwise great book One Summer). Today's Telegraph journalist can't get his facts right - says Burroughs wrote six Venus books, for instance. Would that were so. And mentions the anti-German sentiment in some of his works without also mentioning that in one of the best ERB novels, Back to the Stone Age, a German is the hero (and one of the best-drawn heroes in the canon). The most serious mistake is to leave readers who are unacquainted with ERB the impression that he's not worth reading, not worth respecting. Actually, ERB might, if he had been born earlier, have taught Henry James a thing or two about rhythm and cadence in prose.
Last night my bedtime reading was Edmond Hamilton's The Shot from Saturn, an early tale - interesting mainly because invasions from Saturn are rare, and because it contains the idea, worth remembering, that even if conditions on the planets are now unsuitable for originating life, life may still exist if past conditions allowed its origin - because life, especially intelligent life, can adapt to worsening conditions.
Pursuing this argument, one might have intelligent life just about anywhere -
But before we get too excited and start to demolish the distinction between OSS and NSS, I suggest we remember that a large part of the charm of the OSS is that its worlds are suitable for present human habitation. It's nice to hike around the planets without a space-helmet. Just remember not to stray from the Twilight Belt if you're on Mercury, and to bring a fur coat if you go to Pluto.
2016 July 7th: Dylan's tale Wanderers of Mars added to the site and showing up on the CREATION area of the navigation bar, where a respectably-sized cluster of tales is gradually taking shape, some complete, some unfinished.
I could do with the Earth's rotation slowing enough to make the days long enough for me to have time enough to read all I need to read for the expansion of the site. I remember reading once that the Earth's rotation period (due to tidal drag) is increasing by about one second every 65,000 years. In other words, the day is getting nearly 15 seconds longer every million years. I don't know how accurate this figure is, but the process is not quite fast enough to be of great practical use in planning my day.
Another topic that interests me is the gradual increase in the size of the Earth, and presumably of the other planets as well, due to continuing accretion of meteoric material. In one gigayear, so I hear, the Earth's mass increases by about one three hundred millionth (correct me, readers, if I misheard). That's what you get with 60,000 tons of meteoric material raining down every day. Well, given enough gigayears, we should start to notice that we have a significantly bigger planet. Of course we'd need to envisage some way to keep the Sun shining steadily beyond its main-sequence lifetime... the solar equivalent of hormone replacement therapy.
We could then set interesting tales on a larger Earth, a larger Mars, etc.
Another way to make the Earth effectively bigger, would be to make ourselves smaller. We could have brains as compressed as those of birds, who are very intelligent for their size. If our average height were 3 feet, it would be like having the diameter of our world doubled.
Olaf Stapledon's Third Men were quite short, come to think of it.
To change the subject: I am continuing to enjoy Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars - I seem to be in a French science fiction phase at the moment. Any European readers feel like recommending classic OSS works and writers to offset the Anglocentric orientation of this site?
2016 July 6th: More on the consequences of the Martian landing in Cuba, 1898:
On that timeline, due to the "butterfly effect" of multiplying changes, it is surely likely that McKinley's assassination in Buffalo, Sept. 1901, would not have taken place. Of course some anarchist might have done the deed on another occasion - it was a vogue at that time: King Omberto of Italy was murdered in 1900. Anyhow, if Teddy R. didn't succeed in Sept. 1901, he nevertheless might well have got the Republican nomination in 1904, in either timeline, and especially in the one in which he had garnered more kudos from his clash with the Martian advance guard in 1898.
And then he would have felt free to run again in 1908. And perhaps then he would not have gone on that Amazon trip that ruined his health, and then perhaps he would have lived into the 1920s and... who knows. Too many variables to imagine...
Back to this reality: this month has seen a gratifying increase in British users of the site - up from 3 - 4 percent to 8 per cent. Perhaps, after the Brexit vote, we are indeed lifting our eyes to wider horizons! Still, over two-thirds of the site's readers come from the USA; that has not changed. And with regard to Europe, there are still more users from Germany than from the UK. Germany usually comes third, after the US and China.
The most popular page by far during these first days of July has been Dylan Jeninga's Global Dispatches and Extraordinary Gentlemen. As I have remarked before, given the number of pages competing for the user's attention, a page does well if it averages one view per day; the Global Dispatches page has had an average of almost 10 per day. The only rivals on anything like the same scale are Man of the World and this OSS diary (both over 6 views per day).
As far as the main planet-pages are concerned, Mercury is the most popular by far (average over 3 views per day), Pluto second (over 2) and Venus third (almost 2). Mercury's popularity pleases me as I have a soft spot for that unique little world; it needs more attention from authors - I wish Robert Gibson would do a sequel to Valeddom, but I hear he's busy in other directions. It's a pity one can't just tell authors and editors what to do. If I had the power, I would command Dozois and Martin to compile an "Old Mercury" anthology a.s.a.p.
2016 July 5th: Received War of the Worlds: Global Despatches yesterday after having written the diary entry. Have now read the first two chapters - those of Teddy Roosevelt and Percival Lowell - and am on the third, the one that's from the point of view of the Dragon Empress.
I was told the book would be great fun, and it certainly is, the way it links sf and real events and people in a wholesale "tuckerising" of a slice of history... The Roosevelt episode makes me think that it would have been even more interesting if the Martians had invaded while he was President. As they almost certainly would have done, if the book had kept to Wells' chronology:
...slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
However, as it is, Global Despatches has the invasion occurring in 1898, which is the date of publication of The War of the Worlds rather than the date in which the tale is set. So we don't get Teddy conferring with his Cabinet and organizing the American resistance. He'd probably have founded NASA there and then, to get building a space-fleet...
If the invasion had happened in 1904, it might have influenced Teddy against ruling himself out as a Presidential candidate in 1908. He might have thought, "I'd better stick around and make sure this interplanetary business is sorted out - can't leave it to Taft."
I used to wish Teddy had tried for another term in 1908, but gradually I've changed my mind and now suspect he did the right thing in not running again, though he himself wished he had not made the renunciation. He retired on a high note, whereas if he'd continued for another term some stuff would have gone wrong and the people would have got tired of him and it would all have amounted to a rather sad come-down. That's my guess. However, his attempted comeback in 1912 is a different matter. That was a political renewal.
While I brood over history, contributions to the site are coming in thick and fast, four more chapters of Robert Gibson's Man of the World and Dylan's Part Three of Mission to the Tenth Planet. I need to get the brain in gear to do Part Four of the latter tale.
Memorandum: some time I ought to create "invasions from..." pages for Venus and Mars, to match the page on invasions from Mercury.
2016 July 4th: 240 years to the day since the publication of the Declaration of Independence. (I read somewhere it was enacted 2nd July, but it's the day of publication that is celebrated. Understandably.) Happy birthday USA, and thanks for all that great SF.
In the America's Own Haunting page I try to explore the link between the geography and the sf heritage of that land. Another slant on the theme which could be explored, is the abundance of great science laboratories that dot the land, and which can acquire the status of temples of mystery in one's imagination. Science as colourful, romantic adventure; scientists as having the glamour of magicians, whether good or bad. Splendid or sinister, never boring. I seem to remember there's something called the Z Machine. And the Long Now Clock. And innumerable other sites mentioned in my collection of issues of Discover. The country is chock-full of stuff worthy of Amazing Stories.
Received the continuation of Mission to the Tenth Planet from Dylan. Now that he's contributed Part Three, I ought to think up at least one possible version of Part Four, lest he conclude I am lazy. So: thinking cap on. I can't match Dylan on the realist-technical side but if I do the weird Proserpine stuff, at some point the two halves can meet... I hope he takes care of that when it happens.
Dylan's put my mind at rest concerning the Martian method of controlled descent to a planetary surface in War of the Worlds. Jules Verne can't be exonerated in the same way regarding the way he fired his humans into space, but we can let that go - unlike Wells, Verne is not (to my mind) an author whose works seem freshly alive to us today. I could be wrong because I have only read Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Propeller Island.
2016 July 3rd: Have taken Dylan's advice and ordered War of the Worlds: Global Despatches. I wonder if it will contain any explanation of that part of Wells' scenario that is hardest to accept: the idea of interplanetary travel without any means of controlled descent. To fire spacecraft like bullets from a gun, so as to impact the destination world without any deceleration, entails a somewhat excessively abrupt arrival! Critics tend to assume Wells was more realistic than Burroughs, but at least Burroughs believed in aiming at a soft landing e.g. Carson Napier parachuted out of his ship (admittedly onto the wrong planet, but no space-mission is perfect). Come to that, Jules Verne didn't seem worried about preposterous acceleration/deceleration either. Maybe people were tougher in those days...
Or - this has just occurred to me - maybe the Martians had discovered the inertialess drive! Switch off the inertia and Newton's laws of motion don't apply; in which case maybe you can fire spacecrafts like bullets from a gun, just to give them the initial push, and the passengers won't feel the slightest discomfort, maybe won't even know the trip has started unless they look out the window.
But an Old Solar System with inertialess space travel is not quite my style: I would miss rockets.
2016 July 2nd: Until the records are fully translated and released to the public one can only speculate as to the reasoning behind the strategy of the Martian High Command as they planned that ill-fated invasion of Earth which began with the impact of the first cylinder in the county of Surrey.
Their decision to limit this invasion to Britain perhaps indicates that despite their technological superiority they were not confident of defeating all the nations of mankind simultaneously. Britain was to be their island bridgehead, which, once secured, would provide a fortress-base for further expansion.
Disadvantages of this policy include: the need to build further transportation for this subsequent expansion; and the need for extreme accuracy in aiming the invasion projectile fleet. The latter disadvantage was of course overcome, as the event showed, but it may have made the launches more expensive and hence reduced the size of the available forces. Still, they must have calculated that they would still win easily. We gather from the account of Herbert George Wells that only ten cylinders landed, each containing five Fighting Machines, which means they expected to conquer Britain with just fifty FMs and, of course, their supply of Black Smoke. It has to be admitted that their confidence, in purely military terms, was justified.
Of course, with hindsight we now know why the invasion was doomed anyway, as was their second attempt, the invasion of the USA in 1938, reported in full by Orson Welles (no relation, so far as we know, of Herbert George).
2016 July 1st: Idly leafing through some of my old issues of Startling Stories I found a little gem I had overlooked in the July 1947 issue. It's "The Ring Bonanza" by Otto Binder, a short adventure in Saturn's rings, with assumptions about ancient civilizations in the Saturn system - a perfect example of the richness of OSS literature. It's not a literary masterpiece but it is well constructed, makes a good point and was, to me, a joy to read. And it shows what unsuspected treasures are still lying around for the taking, in any shelf-load of old SF magazines. Must get round to discussing this tale on the Rings of Saturn page as soon as I can find the time.
Lot of work to do today, compiling and presenting the end-of-month stats for "Page View Winners". The site seems to be doing reasonably well: although it didn't beat the exceptionally high May results, the response is nevertheless nicely up on April's. I wonder if we're approaching the ceiling of the niche; but then I wondered that last year, when December's results were down on November's - only to be happily proved wrong by the surge in January.
Brilliant new page from Dylan on recursive sf spin-offs from Wells and Burroughs. I must be on the look-out for possibilities of good links to it from the other pages. Big things may be happening, a wave of Neo-OSS literature which I would know nothing about if Dylan hadn't told me, which shows that knowledge of the contemporary scene is not my strong point.
2016 June 30th: Following on from yesterday's musings about old French sf, I remember long ago reading part of a novel published in 1908, Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars by one Gustave Le Rouge. I think some paranormal means was used to cross the void in that one - something involving an Eastern baddie. Now that my French has improved over the decades I might dig it up and have another shot at reading it, and if possible obtain the sequel, La Guerre des Vampires. A war with Martian vampires - now that must be something.
Looked on Amazon and Alibris to see whether I could order volume five of The Collected Edmond Hamilton, which is entitled The Six Sleepers. Not there. It is obtainable from Haffner Press themselves, but ordering it directly from them is extremely expensive for one who lives in the UK. A pity - I would like to support Haffner Press; they are doing such a superb job. They are also doing a collected multi-volume Jack Williamson, I believe. That is likewise a set to get hold of at some stage. Plenty of OSS treasures to be found in those two Old Masters, Hamilton and Williamson.
102 hits this month for the About Us page. The first month in which a page other than the Home Page has got into three-figure hits. There are now well over 100 pages competing for the readers' attention, so that 2 views per day is a very good average for any one page; About Us has an average of well over 3. The other over-3-a-day page currently is Pluto. There are four over-2-a-days and 31 over-1-a-days. With all that curiosity from the public, why don't more people send their comments in? I thought sf fans were an opinionated lot. Perhaps I ought to be more provocative.
Chapter 5 of Man of the World arrived and placed on site. Gibson doesn't want each chapter to show up separately on the "Recent Articles and Updates" at the base of each site page. Might have to argue with him about that; how are people to know a new chapter has arrived, if (for instance) they don't bother to read this diary? If you're having publicity at all you might as well really let rip. We'll see how much the pages get noticed, anyhow. Early days yet. Personally I want to boast of a world-exclusive... shout it from the rooftops. Or at least go into 1930s pulp-editor hype-mode.
2016 June 29th: Fascinating article this month in the American magazine Astronomy, about the French writer and astronomer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925). I had long wanted more info on Flammarion, whom ERB has John Carter mention in one of the Barsoom books (I forget which).
Flammarion wrote about visits to Mars and elsewhere by astral projection, something maybe not too different from John Carter's method of getting there. It would sure reduce transportation costs. On a more modern note, I recall that in Frederick Brown's Project Jupiter (1953-4), one researcher has a serious try at teleportation as a means of space travel...
I find the mere thought of Flammarion-era speculations and imaginings irresistible. If only one could recapture that sense of wonder of the Solar System as lambent with special mystery! The quality comes across in old illustrations likewise. Well, it's not gone; it is just in hiding. In the manner of elves and suchlike superseded beings, the old visions take refuge in the remoter thickets of our mental world, and peep out now and then, e.g. in that Astronomy article.
2016 June 28th: Momentous times for Britain; might as well start the diary now. Shadows of might-have-been grow a bit more solid; fact and fiction shimmer; Dan Dare comes to mind - a British space pilot in a Solar System full of life. Would be nice some time to do a page on Dan Dare; trouble is, I have only one of the books - Marooned on Mercury, which is an absolute spiffing corker (i.e. very good). Some of the volumes on offer online cost hundreds of pounds... beyond my means, I'm afraid. Have to wait until an eccentric billionaire scatters largesse in the direction of Solar System Heritage.
I have put the first four chapters of Robert Gibson's Man of the World on the site. Wonder how many he'll send altogether. It's a trade-off between whetting people's appetites and giving too much away.
This morning I added a few more comments to the page on The Sky People which I thought I had finished yesterday. Typically, the very act of (as I thought) finishing the page made me realize I hadn't done enough justice to the book.
Pity one isn't allowed to resurrect some old ones, using "salts" as in Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. No, that would be naughty. Necromancy is naughty. Need to get in touch with alternate worlds instead, e.g. one in which C S Lewis wrote a Mercury book, Clark Ashton Smith wrote dozens more OSS tales like The Immeasurable Horror and Master of the Asteroid, and Burroughs completed the sequels to Skeleton Men of Jupiter.