Re: Stretching the OSS

by John Michael Greer
(Cumberland, MD, USA)

That's an interesting question. I think a good case can be made for membership in the OSS when a story takes place entirely in our solar system but the broader context involves some degree of reference to interstellar travel. (Lovecraft is an example of this, to return to my usual hobby horse -- a lot of his critters, from the Great Old Ones through the Great Race of Yith to the ancient beings in "At the Mountains of Madness" -- all came from the stars originally.)

With this in mind, I wonder whether you'd consider three of Cordwainer Smith's SF stories for inclusion in the OSS listings. Most of his writings, of course, were set in a classic CRIM setting, with interstellar travel in planoforming ships a routine if not risk-free activity, but his stories "Mark Elf" and "The Queen of the Afternoon" are set on a future Earth of distinctly OSS flavor, and "When the People Fell" is a story about the Chinese colonization of a very OSS Venus.

{comment from Zendexor: Yes, I clean forgot "When the People Fell" - I was thinking about Cordwainer Smith recently, and about how he never set any stories on our neighbouring worlds - yet he did, and that's the one; what's more, it's a good story. I seem to remember, also, that one of his characters in another tale - it may have been Rod McBan - paid a brief visit to Mars.

But of course the main case for discussion of Smith here stems from his tremendous visions of a future Earth.}

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Sep 02, 2016
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Alpha Ralpha Boulevard
by: John Michael Greer

Zendexor, I won't argue -- Smith rarely sat down at his typewriter without producing marvels, but I'd have a hard time naming one that's better.

Another far future Earth I've always found evocative is M. John Harrison's "The Pastel City" -- reminiscent, in a certain sense, of Clark Ashton Smith's Xothique tales or Jack Vance's Dying Earth, though without the explicitly fantastic elements that dominate so much of those author's future-earth work. Harrison's tale has spaceflight as one of many classic SF elements in the backstory, of course. I wasn't a great fan of Harrison's later Viriconium stories when I read them -- though it's been a while, and heaven knows my tastes have broadened somewhat -- but "The Pastel City" itself, to my ear, never hits a false note.

...and it suddenly occurs to me -- I'm not sure why it took this long for the penny to drop -- that Harrison may well have borrowed some features of his Viriconium-era Earth from OSS Mars. The dying world, the red deserts of rust, the mix of ancient high-tech and dark age rough-and-tumble -- it has more than a bit of Barsoomian flavor. I wonder how deliberate that was.

And that sets my mind jumping ahead: there have been other future Earths that have the same character of other OSS worlds. Brian Aldiss' "Hothouse" is distinctly Venusian in its heat and damp and overwhelming greenery, for example. Interplanetary literary influence? Hmm.

{Reply from Zendexor: On your recommendation, I shall probably give "The Pastel City" a try. I remember seeing it in paperback with a great Bruce Pennington cover.

We are certainly living upon an amazing planet and this is some consolation for those of us who dreamed of that fast expansion into Space which was aborted by cutbacks in the space program.

Your thoughts about Earth acquiring characteristics of other worlds inspires me to speculate: if we all were reduced in size by a factor of ten, Earth might then, for us, become the equivalent of Jupiter in effective surface area!}

Sep 01, 2016
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Re: Stretching the OSS
by: John Michael Greer

Zendexor, you're quite right about Rod McBan's stop on Mars, of course -- I should have remembered that! And Cordwainer Smith's portrayal of Old Old Earth has always struck me as one of the most astonishing of SF visions, partly because of the riotous exuberance of it, and partly because of the brilliant way he handled the partly-familiar, partly-alien sense of a far future setting. I was literally in the middle of a science fiction trivia competition, fielding a question about Cordwainer Smith, when I realized that "Meeya Meefla" was what umpty-dozen centuries had made of "Miami, Fla."

Hmm. A related question -- would you consider stories set on a future Earth without benefit of space travel to count as OSS stories? (Full disclosure: I've recently started writing a column of reviews of old deindustrial-SF novels for a newly started SF magazine, so books of this sort come readily to mind.) For example, Poul Anderson's "The Winter of the World" is a good rousing tale set on Earth in the midst of a future ice age, tens of thousands of years from now; there's nary a spaceship to be seen, nor any sense that space travel is even so much as a distant memory. Is that OSS or is it something else?

{reply from Zendexor: I never twigged Meeya Meefla, doggone it! - thanks for the enlightenment.

I would class Anderson's "Winter of the World" as OSS-affiliate, maybe. Certainly a discussion of it would not be out of place on this site, provided it were linked via the following chain of association: OSS planets - planet Earth - future of Earth. After all (and this is the crucial test) supposing we had an equivalent tale set entirely on the surface of some other OSS planet, with "nary a spaceship to be seen", would that not be OSS? Put that way, the answer is inescapable. For that matter, Robert Gibson's "Uranian Gleams" is set entirely on Uranus, if you ignore the introductory framing device of the Earthly historians. And Brackett's "The Sword of Rhiannon" is entirely set on Mars, with no interplanetary aspect. So yes, let's include "The Winter of the World", which sheds awesome light upon the future evolution of mankind and of his terrestrial environment, and so is truly "Earth in the round".

As is Cordwainer Smith's "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", which I tend to think of as his mightiest story, and one of the best tales in the sf genre. That's an Earth story through and through, and anyone who wants to talk about it in the pages of this site ought to be allowed to do so.

Of course the sf literature on the future of Earth is so vast that there might in theory be a danger of overbalancing the site, swamping it with a deluge of Earth-related discussions. Well, I say we should accept that risk. The other worlds shouldn't complain - they outnumber Earth sufficiently, after all!}

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