Thought for the day...
2016 August 31st: I spoke too soon, in my grumble a couple of days ago about the life-forms in Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars. I pronounced the verdict that they were ridiculously un-original. That was because so far the hero had merely encountered animals and plants which were identical to Earth types except for their colour.
Since then, I've read on, to where the engineer-explorer Robert Darvel is walking along a beach (this Mars of 1908 has open water), and he sees what look like a lot of worms half-concealed in the sand. Being scientific, he tries to dig some of them out to examine them, and then - in a most terrifyingly effective scene - it turns out that they aren't separate worms at all but the tentacle-ends of one single giant monster whose main body had been lurking in the sand...
Mustn't underestimate this book.
After all, if ERB can give us native Martian humans, why can't Gustave Le Rouge be allowed to give us native Martian bustards or beech trees, for instance?
However, the above parallel doesn't satisfy me - this is a case where aesthetic considerations ought to trump the rigour of logic. Burroughs was right, for his purposes, to have native humans on his Mars, and would have been wrong to add native Martian beech trees.
Examining my reasons for this species-prejudice, I come up with a justification that there may be a solar morpho-genetic field that creates a bias towards the evolution of human intelligences on the worlds of the OSS, a bias which stems from an interactions with a teleologic mental line of development, by which human evolution in a sense pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.
2016 August 30th: I have a rather naughty tendency to expand the scope of this site by elastic interpretations of "Old Solar System". This tendency has so far been most apparent when I discuss stories about various dimensional extensions of Earth, and so far I think I have been able to justify this "Earth Shimmer", on account of the fact that Earth is such a special planet.
Just recently, another sly impulse has come over me:
Could one include the role of the OSS as a venue? In other words, could I include discussion of stories about visits to the OSS from interstellar space, provided the events in the story occurred in our System?
And not only that, but might one also explore the issue of temporary membership of the OSS family of worlds, in the form of transient celestial bodies, such as Hoyle's The Black Cloud and Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer?
The converse of that would be dispersal of OSS worlds into interstellar space, as in Hamilton's Thundering Worlds and Pohl and Kornbluth's Wolfbane. A sort of OSS diaspora.
Perhaps some of you readers would care to comment on these suggestions.
By the way, readers, I apologize for the many typing errors which existed during the first few hours of the online existence of the new Ceres page. My only excuse is that power corrupts, and that being absolute supremo of the Solar System is apt to induce the delusion that one is typing correctly when one isn't. Fortunately, this particular supremo has a wife who can proof-read, so things were soon put right.
2016 August 29th: Carrying on with my reading of Gustave Le Rouge's Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars - which appeared back in 1908. It's vigorously written, a gripping enough story; I'm about half way through. Also, this morning I have ordered the sequel, La Guerre des Vampires. (Bit of luck: Amazon had just one copy left of the edition I wanted.)
The story is good enough in itself, but also fascinating for its historical-literary context: appearing just four years before Barsoom. It's not a patch on Barsoom, of course - one wouldn't expect that. But what interests me is how good the story seems despite its most serious fault.
Le Rouge's Mars is interesting despite the ridiculous and taken-for-granted prevalence there of Earthly forms of life: notably Earth species of trees and birds. The only difference between Martian and Earthly forms is the colour: the Martian varieties are predominantly red. How dumb can you get? And yet, and yet... the writer does give us the lonely frontier feel of being on an alien world. The hero, Robert Darvel, has been teleported to Mars against his will. He is in a Robinson Crusoe situation, and that can make for a gripping plot with a sense of perpetual imminence, of multiple hazards lurking in all directions.
How much of my enjoyment comes from the mere novelty of reading sf in a foreign language, is a moot point.
2016 August 28th: It's acronym-coining time again. Mustn't overdo it, I know - too many of them would mean that they become hard to remember, which defeats the purpose. But a few are necessary: they cater for themes which keep cropping up, and which lack a convenient designator unless someone gives them one.
Once such phenomenon is caused by the frustrating habit some authors have of tossing off tantalizing hints, which are designed to give a dash of extra colour to the tale, but which also leave the reader pining in vain for more information about the place or being or object hinted at.
CLUFFs - Cute Little Unfulfilling Fragments of Fascination.
I recently re-read William Tenn's powerful little tale The Deserter, about a Jovian asylum-seeker during a Terran-Jovian conflict, and came across the following CLUFF (which I've printed in red) in a sentence about the militarism of the giant planet:
...it has weighed every Jovian down with an immense burden of guilt because of what their armies and military administration have done to alien life-forms on Ganymede, Titan, and Europa, not to mention the half-sentient bubbles of the Saturnian core.
Darn it, there should be a cosmic Freedom of Information Act because I WANT to force a mention, and more than a mention, of the half-sentient bubbles of the Saturnian core.
Lovecraft was a devil for sprinkling CLUFFs around in The Shadow Out of Time and in Beyond the Wall of Sleep - the former cluffing the "bulbous vegetable entities of Mercury" and the latter cluffing the "insect philosophers that crawl proudly over the fourth moon of Jupiter".
Burroughs teases us with a CLUFF in The Master Mind of Mars, when Ras Thavas mentions "the people of Rasoom (Mercury)" - Rasoom being mentioned nowhere else in the entire ERB canon, apart from this one phrase.
A CLUFF can sometimes take up a bit more space than a single phrase, and yet still count as a CLUFF, so long as it is an isolated reference, and is not followed up. Consider the following Martian CLUFF in James Blish's Jupiter story, Bridge:
"...the building of gigantic projects for ritual purposes - doing a thing for the sake of doing it - is the last act of an already dead culture. Look at the pyramids in Egypt for example. Or an even more idiotic and more enormous example, bigger than anything human beings have accomplished yet, the laying out of the 'Diagram of Power' over the whole face of Mars. If the Martians had put all that energy into survival instead, they'd probably be alive yet."
2016 August 27th: I thought I'd write something about the Martian "long season", as mentioned for instance in Ian Watson's The Martian Inca, and John Varley's In the Hall of the Martian Kings. But when just now I googled it, I came up with a Wikipedia article on the climate of Mars, which did not mention quite what I was looking for. The "long season", predicted by some theorists, is a cycle of Martian axial wobble on a time-scale of the order of 10,000 years. It's thus on the borderline between historical and geological time-scales. The benefit for fiction is the idea that Mars may be due for an awakening - life-forms may have adapted to hibernate during the multi-millennial winter...
Stories based on this idea would be borderline OSS/NSS. Exaggerated a bit, they could also combine the Worn-Out Mars with the Breathable-Air Mars in the same story, if the plot carries us through the climatic transition.
And it could all happen naturally, without terrestrial interference. No planetary engineering necessary: just wait long enough, and Mars will bloom.
2016 August 26th: It's all go. The "new contributer" I prematurely announced over two months ago has now submitted a piece to the site. This guy Antolin is known to me personally. (Spanish name, but British nationality, and even more of an American-history buff than I am.) He has a vast cross-referenced "site" of his own, a treasure trove of subtle studies of fantasy and sf, but so far it exists on paper only - he's not much into computers. It was only when I actually visited him, and showed him how to input his contribution, that it stood a chance of happening. I mention this in particular so that Dylan will not be disappointed if his excellent and positive response takes a while to get an answer from this erudite technophobe!
On a different note: For the first time in years and years I have read a Tarzan book. I think it's one I hadn't read before: Tarzan's Quest. (Number 19 in the series.) While enjoying the tale I meditated, as I often do, upon the secret of Burroughs' storytelling. I won't recapitulate here all the points I've made on the Barsoom page. I will say something else, though, and it's to do with simplicity and clarity.
When the type of tale allows it, the writer can get away with a really elemental use of English, which in other contexts would seem "flat". You can then just tell it like it is, using ordinary phrases, which, in this special context, have their freshness restored to them.
The wind now was whipping the topmost branches of the trees. The thunder grew nearer and increased in violence. As the clouds sank thicker across the sky, gloomy darkness settled upon the jungle. Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed terrifically, and then the rain fell. It fell in solid sheets, bending the trees beneath its weight...
Having said all that stuff about simplicity and ordinariness of language, I then, many chapters later, come across this:
The morning mist floated lazily in the still air, the soul of the dead night clinging reluctantly to earth.
Well, that's ERB for you; after pages and pages of drawing power from "basic English" (if I may use the phrase), he suddenly comes up with a haunting and advanced metaphor, that of mist as the soul of the dead night clinging to earth. Either way, he wins.
2016 August 25th: John Carter thinks he's a Virginian, but what does he really know about himself? Not much, as he admits at the very beginning of the Barsoom series.
My theory, for what it's worth, is that he is an Atlantean, perhaps one of an elite who had received immortality treatment and - as a corollary - is subject to periodic bouts of amnesia, like the people of Vallon in Keith Laumer's wonderful adventure/mystery/self-discovery novel A Trace of Memory.
Carter's Atlantean roots could be used to explain his strange on-and-off ability to project himself between Earth and Mars. Perhaps the Atlanteans had some special connection with ancient Barsoom - not necessarily with the human Barsoomians.
Of course, all this doesn't detract from Carter's Virginian cultural background; in fact, any American cultural background has got to be quite recently grown - that's the fascination of that powerful new country: the speed with which it grows its own personality, as though it were tapping in advance into its own science-fictional future: a time-transcendent borrowing exercise which I tried to pin down in America's own haunting. Carter, then, can be both Atlantean and Virginian.
Perhaps Ulysses Paxton is a partial example of the same phenomenon. Maybe not ageless like Carter, but nevertheless a genetic throwback to the same teleporting ability.
2016 August 24th: Analogous to the reaction against "fast food" which has taken the form of proclaiming the virtues of "slow food":
I want to proclaim the virtues of "slow space travel".
I can see the point of fast space travel in stories. Not only does it get you to the destination planet more quickly, but it enables a System-wide civilization to hum with constant action and reaction.
However, all this speed does tend to devalue the awesome distances of space and the sense of Otherness which is so essential to sf world-building.
So there's something to be said for the ultra slow velocities which ships can utilize if they are not dependent upon rocket power or Newton's Third Law. It's a bit like how we would suddenly re-discover the true sizes of our own countries upon Earth, if motorised transport were de-invented and we had to make all our journeys on foot or horseback again.
I don't remember how long Cavour and Bedford took to comlete their antigravity voyage to become The First Men in the Moon, but I do remember that Hotar and Evidon in A Voyage to Sfanamoë took most of their lifetimes to get to Venus. And the mysterious ray of propulsion, used by the Barsoomians and the Terrestrials in The Moon Maid, would have taken years to bridge the gulf between Earth and Mars.
Of course, one mustn't make too much of this point. SF and the OSS by and large can't do without fast travel. But the exceptions make their valuable point, too.
[ >> related entry, 5th December 2016 ]
2016 August 23rd: It's very late and I have been unusually sociable today, so there are only a few minutes left for me to squeeze a diary entry into what's left of the day.
I was browsing through a book in my astronomy collection, Lowell and Mars by William Graves Hoyt. It's a dry academic sort of book, packed with information. What I could do with is a book of wider scope about the entire Mars furore, including the interesting ideas some people had of signalling visually to the Martians by drawing huge geometrical figures in the Sahara, etc.
Anyhow these thoughts were interrupted when I saw on my site dashboard that a new contributor has joined our select company - an author, John Michael Greer. This is what the site needs most of all - users who talk to it. O frabjous day, to coin a phrase. Out of maybe 900 users, we now have three who talk - two Americans and one Brit. Come on, folks!
2016 August 22nd: Reading one of the tales in War of the Worlds - Global Dispatches, namely the tale in which John Carter fights the Wellsian Martians which he refers to as "sarmaks" - it got me thinking about the fun game of Plausibility: that's to say, of inventing reasons why a tall story could be believable.
Let's bring in my devil's advocate, Stid, and then defeat him.
Stid: Thanks for letting me into your diary, Zendexor. What can I do for you? Oh, I see - you want me to pour skepticism onto the story about the sarmaks. Right - here goes:
The sarmaks are lurking in an unexplored corner of Barsoom. Well, that in itself is implausible enough - I mean, that there could still be unexplored corners of Barsoom, considering how long Carter and his like have been zooming around in their flyers!
But never mind about that. Consider the ridiculousness of the policy of the sarmaks - to go to all the trouble and expense of trying to conquer Earth, when they haven't even conquered Mars yet. Don't tell me the Barsoomian red men are a tougher proposition than the entire population of Earth, especially when you add what to a sarmak must be the crippling gravity of Earth!
You might say that Earth has a more attractive range of resources to plunder, whereas Mars is a dying world. But though Barsoom may be dying, it's hardly at death's door. Indeed, if the sarmaks are that clever, they should be able to slow their own world's decline, or even halt it.
Anyhow, militarily it was crazy to launch all those expeditions to Earth while leaving their back door unguarded - as the event demonstrated: Carter was able to wreck the enterprise after the launching of the tenth cylinder. Really the sarmak policy-makers and general staff must have been unbelievably daft.
Zendexor: The underlying issue here is prioritisation. The basic question is: how silly is it, to jump ahead and expand into realms beyond, before having investigated one's own patch properly.
And in fact the issue comes up, explicitly, in Wells' The First Men in the Moon. The selenite attitude to Cavour's exploratory trip is one of amazement that an Earthman would try to come to the Moon while his own world has not yet been thoroughly explored. The insectoid selenites are more logical than that; they would never behave in such an unreasonable fashion. How loopy to zoom across space before having sorted things out at home!
Well, yes, we humans are like that. Evidently the sarmaks share that characteristic (after all they were once humanoid, before their bodies atrophied at the expense of their heads).
We have in truth sent expeditions to the Moon without yet having fully explored the ocean floor.
Prioritisation is not our strong point. But perhaps we're wise not to let it be so. In a war, even in the age of so-called "total war", we spare some cash to keep the cultural departments of our universities running, our museums running... for we instinctively know that if we let these values die, it won't do us any good to win the war.
If we were to wait till we were sure we could do everything in the right order, probably nothing much would get done.
2016 August 21st: I've re-read Philip K Dick's first novel, Solar Lottery. It's as weird and compelling as I remember it, but there's something more, which I'm steadily beginning to understand about Dick's work - rather late in the day, some of you will doubtless think - and that is that his plots are somewhat incoherent. For instance in the denouement of Solar Lottery the way Cartwright defeats his enemy - I used to be so humble, I assumed it must make sense as well as being impressively dramatic, and that I wasn't sharp enough to see how it works out according to the rules of the society depicted in the book. But now I don't assume that. I now suspect that maybe the reason I don't understand the rationale, is that there isn't one.
In which case, good for Dick! I have nothing but admiration for the way a great author can pull the wool over my eyes. Why complain, after all, at being tricked by a literary magician? It's what one pays for.
But the most interesting aspect of this book's trickery concerns its great concept of the mysterious trans-Plutonian planet, the Flame Disk.
I've read Solar Lottery quite a few times now, and each time - thanks to the shifty, incoherent plot - I have forgotten enough of the details, to enjoy the renewed mystery.
What the heck is going on? How do the colonists hope to survive? What was the sudden white-out and the so-called alien voice? Was it just John Preston the original discoverer deceiving his followers? What... why... how...
All these questions are like the confusing strokes of an impressionist painting when viewed too closely. If you step back, you get a unified wholeness which is there to be enjoyed, not analyzed.
Its message is that there may be some wonderful Otherness out there, on the fringes of our system, and that some people who desire freedom strongly enough may attain it.
2016 August 20th: Last month there was just one of the nine planets which didn't do so well: the Neptune page had less than 1 view a day on average. Now, good news: the Neptunians can hold their heads up high - they're getting almost 2 views a day.
I remember seeing the Voyager images fresh from that planet in 1989. What a beautiful world. Its blueness is appropriate for a watery globe; never mind that the colour comes from a quite different cause - Nature is for once doing her best to ape the OSS Captain Future Neptune, at least as far as external appearance is concerned.
In reality, would it be possible to have a watery globe that size? Maybe not if the ratio of rock to ocean were like that of Earth, where the hydrosphere is such a comparatively thin film over the solid sphere. For in that case the gravity would be so great, that it would attract too heavy an atmosphere during planet formation, causing too great a surface pressure for ordinary liquid water... I'm guessing, now; I am not capable of actually doing the calculations.
But in actual fact Neptune's density is so low, its gravity is approximately similar to that of Earth, despite its far greater diameter. This rouses one's hopes. Could one have a world like that, with "water all the way down"?
Well, Stapledon in Star Maker had interstellar worlds like huge water-drops, where his "icthyoids" lived. I think Hamilton's "Captain Future" Neptune is plausible enough. If we must think of an excuse for it to be sufficiently warm for liquid water so far from the Sun, there's always internal radioactivity plus the neptunothermal energy from slow gravitational contraction of the great globe.
2016 August 19th: The site seems to be going more global this month, with the proportion of users who are from the US slightly down (to 57%, compared with over 60 previously) and other countries' proportions up - though the US still predominates by a long way.
Interestingly, 6% of readers currently are in the Czech Republic, which comes fourth after the US, China (13%) and France. France itself (10%) is above Germany (5%), which is the exact reverse of the usual position in previous months. I have a few friends in the Czech Republic, but I don't suppose that has anything to do with it - I have friends here in England, after all, but UK readers amount to just 2%.
Well, if Dan Dare had become a reality, things would no doubt be different.
Anyhow, we're all Terrans, aren't we? Living in this exciting if peculiar future, in which something appears to have gone wrong - we're seriously deviating from the script. After all, weren't there supposed to be colonies on Mars by about 1980? Seems to me that the policy-makers haven't been reading the right stories. And where are all the humanoid robots?
Perhaps we're in one of the less fortunate probability-worlds - for which see Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium and its sequels.
Still, we can always turn to SF for consolation.
2016 August 18th: No entry yesterday because I was too busy putting the finishing touches to the Kuttner-Moore Venus page. That page has been weeks in the making: I had to re-read the stories, note the most telling quotes to go with the argument, construct the argument... and at the end of it all my main computer goes on the blink and fails to get an internet connection, before I have managed to get illustrations onto the page.
My wife and I have three computers between us, but only one is linked to a printer. That one is the most useful and therefore I have learned more about it than about the others; so I know more about how to use it, for other functions besides printing. Including getting illustrations from the Net onto my site.
The main computer is working properly again and I have at last furnished the new page with illustrations.
I should have waited until now to publish that page; I rather "jumped the gun" yesterday. Must practise patience.
The Kuttner-Moore Venus is one of the most significant creations of the OSS, and the fact that it has taken so long to do the page for it is a good example of how the most important stuff gets neglected, simply because it is so important and must not be skimped.
2016 August 16th: In yesterday's Diary I discussed the advantages possessed by the CRIM subgenre - the Classic Ramshackle Interstellar Milieu - which ought logically to enable it to preponderate over the OSS subgenre - the Old Solar System.
The fact remains that it doesn't proponderate, at least not as far as I can tell. Why not?
Some ideas as to why not:
CRIM presents a great technical challenge to the writer, especially with regard to scene-transitions. Authors need special skill to handle the "cuts" from planet to planet when characters zoom around the galaxy, for the distances are so great that the accounts of travelling must be absurdly abbreviated, enhancing the risk that the narrative will sound trivial, thin, unbelievable even in its own terms. And even if transitions are somehow managed - Vance does it brilliantly with the aid of chapter-introductions, quotations from imagined future guides - yet there is a danger of reader overwhelm because of the numbing infinity and variety of the galaxy.
I keep re-reading Vance's Star King to figure out how he does it. How can that book be so good? (Mind you, not ever reviewer agrees. I remember reading an unfavourable review of it in an sf magazine.)
Whatever the answer, it takes a Vance to pull the trick, and there aren't many writers of that calibre in the genre.
Another remarkable CRIM achievement is Edmond Hamilton's Starwolf trilogy, a perfect jewel of a saga. Here the transitions are managed without Vancian quotation-technique; instead they are done reflectively, the protagonists' thoughts setting the scenes appropriately. But more than this, the success of the series depends upon Hamilton's ability to invent memorable worlds, and give character to them.
World-building is where the OSS has an in-built advantage.
The Solar System's semi-mythic pre-existing characters of worlds provide a vast and life-giving embrace for the author's ideas. The personalities of the planets give nutriment to all OSS stories, varied though they are. In other words, powerful archetypes are ready to hand, to enhance the power of an OSS tale. If I were to say, "The Oceans of Venus" or "The Sands of Mars", you would immediately begin to picture things even before we'd gone any further.
The OSS has a head start.
2016 August 15th: In yesterday's entry I listed eight classic masters of the CRIM - the Classic Ramshackle Interstellar Milieu. My list consisted of:
Hamilton, Laumer, Vance, Asimov, Schmitz, Doc Smith, Bayley and Blish. I ought also to have added E C Tubb, for his Dumarest saga. So that makes nine.
Now to list the masters (and mistresses) of the OSS. Let's dash off the obvious names:
Brackett, Bradbury, Burroughs, Clarke, Gallun, Hamilton, Heinlein, Lewis, C L Moore, Clarke Ashton Smith, Wells and Williamson.
Do you notice something surprising here? Nine galactic rovers - and twelve OSS planeteers!
Doubtless both lists are too short, due to my ignorance, but I have no reason to suppose that if I knew more, the proportions would be different.
Considering how far the volume of the Galaxy surpasses that of the Solar System, wouldn't you think that there'd be more CRIM than OSS masters?
Furthermore, I erred on the side of generosity in my CRIM list, in my inclusion of Laumer and Blish each on the strength of one of their books: Laumer for Galactic Odyssey, and Blish for Earthman, Come Home. On the other hand I could have included Heinlein for his one CRIM volume, Citizen of the Galaxy. One could argue endlessly.
And in addition, I shortened the OSS list by excluding the neo-OSS Stirling and Gibson, so as to compare like with like periods - you see how I'm taking pains to be fair. And even so the OSS list remains longer.
After all, the CRIM not only has the advantage of greater spatial range, but also the advantage of perpetual modernity. Unlike the OSS, which for its future development is dependent upon defiant nostalgia and deliberate retro activity, the CRIM can never go out of date. It has no need for conscious resurrection in a "neo"-CRIM.
Yet here we are with an OSS list lengthier than the CRIM list.
I'll next be discussing possible reasons for this unexpectedly strong performance by the OSS vis-a-vis the CRIM.
2016 August 14th: As often happens, I have had afterthoughts; hence I have added material to the end of the Keith Laumer page.
Laumer has brought me to further reflection on interstellar fiction in relation to OSS fiction. You can learn about one sub-genre by comparing it with another.
It was in the discussion group www.sffchronicles that I first coined the term "Old Solar System" and its abbreviation, OSS. Last night I had another fit of classification. I thought up a term for the other spatial sub-genre:
CRIM - the Classic Ramshackle Interstellar Milieu.
You must know the sort of thing. CRIM gives us the kind of SF that sprawls among the stars, with a plot that meanders amid a diffuse, diverse background of cultures and environments.
Note that by no means all good interstellar tales fall into this category. Excellent sagas such as van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle do not, because a voyage of exploration is too linear for CRIM; the Space Beagle presents the reader with one unknown after another, rather than a tissue of connected cultures. Nor can we include tales which concentrate on one world, such as Vance's Durdane trilogy, Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy or Frank Herbert's Dune series.
The great CRIM sagas which I can call to mind without effort are (in no particular order):
Schmitz' Federation of the Hub series, and his The Witches of Karres; Asimov's original Foundation trilogy; Vance's Demon Princes series; Doc Smith's Lensman series; Keith Laumer's Galactic Odyssey; Hamilton's Starwolf trilogy; and Barrington Bayley's two CRIM masterpieces, The Pillars of Eternity and The Garments of Caean. Also, James Blish's Earthman, Come Home, considered in itself and not as part of its Cities in Flight tetrology.
(I apologize to fans of Banks' Culture series for not including it. I know I ought to, but I can't bring myself to. The reason: I simply can't manage to read those books. I struggled through Consider Phlebas (encouraged by its great beginning) and tried Excession and in the end gave up. There is no doubt something wrong with me as a reader; the series has scored great critical and popular success.)
Watch this diary space for thoughts about the fruitful comparisons which one can make between the OSS and the CRIM.
2016 August 13th: Vacation just about over. I've had to stay in the last 2 days, as I have been suffering from some sort of bug - a mild one, but I had to ensure it stayed mild. So anyway, this was conducive to getting some work done on the website, though as I'm on holiday I don't call it work. (Interesting activity is never quite "work" - it's more like living. Or work, when proper work, is not separable from play...) Whatever categories one might adopt, the result is that I have managed to do the Keith Laumer page at last - one of those items on my "to do" list for the site.
It wasn't easy, as a matter of fact. To do justice to a great author always involves some push at the frontiers of one's literary capabilities.
Every great author can do something no one else can. Of course, there are innumerable overlaps in the various talents and specialities which authors possess. But still, each one has his or her own special area where he or she is king or queen. It's the critic's job to pin down this uniqueness.
I've tried to do Laumer justice. Let me know, readers, if there's more I should have said, or if there are things I should not have said.
Another request: if any reader comes across a typographical error on site, I would be very grateful if he/she would point it out to me. I do have a system whereby I go through checking all the pages in rotation, but it takes months to cycle through all of them, and as the site gets bigger, naturally the intervals between particular page-checks get longer.
For instance, today I checked the Oberon page, and found a typo which I've now corrected. The last time I got round to checking that page was 4 January... and I missed the error then.
2016 August 12th: Further to yesterday's episode from Mission to Mars, let's have the other big moment of the other child-astronaut in my collection, Chris Godfrey of Blast-Off At Woomera by Hugh Walters. I discuss Walters to some extent in my page on the Old Space Program. Those were the days, when you could blast off at Woomera, the Australian equivalent of Cape Canaveral!
The situation in the Walters book is different from that in Moore's. Instead of needing to rescue some crashlanders on Mars, there's a need to photograph some alien structures on the Moon. The book never seems to consider the possibility that this could be done with an automatic probe. A human astronaut must guide the camera. But as in the other novel, considerations of weight mean a bright youngster is the only one fitted for the job.
...Chris Godfrey and the headmaster had been listening to the scientist intently. Occasionally Mr. Berry would steal a sidelong glance at the boy as the recital proceeded, noting, without comment, Chris' interest in and concentration on what Sir George was saying.
"I suppose the next logical step will be to send someone up in a rocket," Chris ventured. "How long do you think that will be, Sir George?"
"I'm hoping it will be very soon now," he said; and seemed to be strangely embarrassed.
"It will be very dangerous, won't it, sir?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so," Benson agreed. "Though naturally every foreseeable contingency will be provided for. Apart from the first monkey who died through heat prostration because of the delay in locating and recovering his container from the Mexican desert, none of the others have been injured in any way. One, called Albert, was adopted as the station's mascot."
There followed a pause - a long one. At last Chris became aware of the atmosphere of strain in the room and of the tense expressions of the two men.
The scientist seemed to take a deep breath. "Chris," he said, "will you go up in a rocket?"
Would he go up in a rocket?
For a moment Chris failed to appreciate the import of the question. Then it burst on him like a blow. The two men saw his face go deathly pale, then slowly the blood came back and soon his features were darkly flushed. He felt his heart thumping. Surely this is a joke, he told himself at first. But jokes like that are not perpetrated in the headmaster's study by one of the foremost scientists in the country. "Go up in a rocket? Why me?"
2016 August 11th: Following on from my childhood delight at Space Patrol:
Let's consider the theme of the child astronaut. It exists in OSS literary fiction. And it has its plausible side.
In an emergency, when considerations of weight and time and a limited budget mean that there's no chance of building a bigger rocket in time for a rescue mission to be any good, and a fit bright sixteen-year-old is ready to hand and willing to take the risk... it's not too ridiculous!
You almost feel, when for instance you read Patrick Moore's Mission to Mars or Hugh Walters' Blast Off At Woomera, that it could have happened that way.
Maurice Gray of Mission to Mars is at a loose end at Woomera, trying to discover what has happened to his uncle and guardian, Leslie Yorke. It turns out that Yorke and his companions have crash-landed on Mars - the first men to reach that planet. Their oxygen will give out in a few months. The only rescue rocket that could reach them is small, and it's doubtful if the sums will add up... Maurice feels he's an unwanted nuisance but he can't do other than hang around, waiting agonizedly for news.
...Any moment now, they would know whether it was possible to take a desperate gamble, or whether Yorke and his friends would have to be left to a lingering death... And then, suddenly, he heard his name being called. It was Mellor's voice, and without pausing to think Maurice ran towards the open door.
"I'm here, sir." He pulled up, and blinked in the brilliant glare of the electric lights. "What - what's happened?"
"So far," said Mellor, "nothing." He paused, and Maurice became aware that he was being watched closely not only by Bruce, but also by Sir Robert and the three scientists. "Listen carefully, boy. How much do you weigh?"
Maurice stammered, very conscious of his slight, spare body. "About - about eight stone, sir. Why?"
"Eight stone," breathed Mellor, and turned to Sir Robert. "You hear that, sir? We can do it - by the skin of our teeth!"
"Not so fast," said the Chief Controller, curtly. "You're too ready to rush into things, Mellor. I'm not sure that I've any right to let you carry out this mad scheme of yours - "
Mellor broke in unceremoniously, and gripped Maurice by the shoulder. "I don't suppose you've any idea what I'm driving at, but I'm not going to beat about the bush. What we have to do is to take off with three aboard, and come back with six. It'll be a risky business, to put it mildly, and unless our original crew weigh less than thirty stone between them we've no chance of success. I weigh eleven stone, Bruce nine, and you eight. That's twenty-eight stone altogether. You know something about radio, and if you sweat night and day until we blast off you can be taught all that's required of you. It's worth the gamble, Gray - if you've pluck enough to come with us!"
Maurice gave a gasp. For a moment his brain would not work. Mellor's words seemed too incredible - and then he realized that he was answering, his voice harsh and strained.
"I'm with you, sir. I - I'll do my best not to let you down."
Mellor swung round on Sir Robert. "Well, sir? If a kid of sixteen is willing to take the chance, you can't refuse to let us try it."
"I know," said Sir Robert curtly. "All my scientific training is dead against it, but you've forced my hand..."
2016 August 10th: Welcome to the 20 or so new readers from India who have taken their first look at the site in the past 24 hours.
Following on from my recent remarks about invasions of Earth from the various planets: I omitted to discuss Uranus and Neptune. I now must rectify that oversight.
Well, it’s true that I can’t recall anything in the literature about assaults from those planets.
But fortunately, I can fill the gap by reference to that
good old childrens’ TV series, Space Patrol, which was on the air back in 1962 when I was eight years old.
Roberta Leigh’s puppet characters are, I suppose, largely forgotten nowadays, unlike the more famous creations of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Stingray etc).
But Leigh’s work was equally full of character, and very well thought out. The futuristic cityscape at the beginning of each episode of Space Patrol – showing Earth in the year 2100, with bullet-shaped cars rushing through transparent tubes – was masterly. And the stories were superbly imaginative Old Solar System adventures, with all the planets habitable and inhabited by native beings. I particularly remember the lizard-like Saturnians, the leek-shaped Uranians and the Martian creatures which laid square eggs.
Last night for nostalgia's sake I watched an episode on YouTube - the one in which Captain Larry Dart is the first man to land on Saturn. He gets into trouble by unwittingly taking some sacred leaves, the loss of which angers the Saturnian ruler.
The only planet which was never visited by and his crewmates (Slim the Venusian and Husky the Martian) was Neptune, the home of a race of telepathic humanoids with a superiority complex, convinced that the peoples of Earth, Mars and Venus were inferior to them. I can’t remember the nature of the threat from the Neptunians, but it certainly does surface in more than one episode.
As for Uranus – I remember the threat from the beings of that world more definitely.
The Uranians were intelligent mobile plants, shaped, as I have said, like leeks. They figured in two episodes of the series. The first, which made the greatest impression on little me, concerned the first ever expedition to Uranus. I remember the Uranian jungle and the menacing “leeks” prowling through it. They uttered no sound, in that episode.
When they next appeared, it was in an episode where they talked, and where they were given a name, the Duos. In this story, they actually came to Earth and created trouble. I think they had some kind of hypnotic power; even so, I’m not sure how a few animated leeks could pose a serious threat – but I remember being convinced at the time.
I hope the Uranian-leek episodes are on YouTube, too.
2016 August 9th: A couple of unrelated news items.
From Robert Gibson via email comes the news that Man of the World has been accepted for publication and should be out some time this autumn. Congratulations and – may I add – some self-congratulation, insofar as the author is obviously in tune with my own ideas of the “Earth Shimmer”: enlargement of Earth's scope via dimensional echoes of this planet.
(I wonder if analogous Shimmers/counterparts/reflections of other OSS worlds could emerge in literature. All I can think of at this moment is the “Map of Mars” area of Larry Niven’s Ringworld.)
Mutual pats on the back, anyhow, regarding the Earth-Shimmering Man of the World. If the response to its preview on this site is anything to go by, the book should sell well. And the more it sells, the less effort Gibson will need to put into promoting it, and the sooner he can devote his energies to producing the promised sequel to Uranian Gleams. And then – notice how I dream on – then maybe other authors will take the hint that epics set on OSS Outer Planets with solid surfaces are a good idea. We might end up with a whole school of writers pouring forth Jovian, Saturnian, Uranian and Neptunian sagas.
From my site statistics comes my second news item: that there has been a surge in French users of the site. A sudden doubling from 6 to 12 per cent of visitors. Very interesting, tantalizingly so! If only I could find out why these things happen: there’s bound to be a reason and the reason is bound to be fascinating, if only one could know it. Madames et Messieurs, soyez les bienvenus et dites-moi, s’il vous plait, comment vous avez découvert mes pages…
Tidying up a loose end from yesterday: I was talking about invasions of Earth from
our neighbouring worlds of the System. I
omitted to mention an invasion, or at least a potential threat, from the
central orb of the System, namely the Sun.
This occurs in The Flames by Olaf Stapledon. A more distant and hypothetical threat is
mentioned in the last paragraph of Arthur C Clarke’s Out of the Sun. Of course - as I argue on the Sun page - the Sun is such a way-out environment for life, that the distinction between OSS and NSS rather fades out!
2016 August 8th: Which of the planets has been most guilty of invading Earth?
Because of H G Wells’ account, most people would probably answer, “Mars”, but really the damage done by those Martians was quite short-term.
It’s nothing to the damage done by the Venusians of The Metamorphosis of Earth by Clark Ashton Smith. Those invaders make an all-out effort to “Venusiform” Earth, and they meet with considerable success in this harrowing tale.
Then there are the “shelks” in the Tumithak stories by Charles R Tanner. They rule Earth for thousands of years, forcing humans to take refuge underground.
Compared to oppression on that scale, the temporary devastation caused by the Wellsian Martians is small beer.
We also have the highly dangerous Venusian parasites in Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell. They were stopped – but only by a tremendous helping of good luck, namely that they came up against a rare Terran telepath who was able to alert the world to its peril.
I have elsewhere devoted a page to invasions from Mercury. Let’s move on to invasions from the Moon. Here I can think of two instances. There’s an early Hamilton, The Moon Menace. But the main one – in scope and literary quality – is The Moon Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Here, as in the Venusian invasions recounted by Tanner and Smith, we’re faced with centuries of oppression.
No invasions from the Asteroids come to mind. What about Jupiter?
Claude Veillot’s The First Days of May hints that the insectoid invaders may come from one of the moons of Jupiter. The high-pressure undersea “bathies” of John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes might come from Jupiter itself. Nothing is known for sure – the invaders are too alien for any contact to be make or their origin to be ascertainable.
Finally, there are two instances I know of, where we undergo incursions from Saturn. The benevolent (if disappointing) arrivals in Crisis 2000 by Charles Eric Maine are perhaps not to be classed as invaders, because they could claim to have been invited (though the invitation was not meant seriously). But in Edmond Hamilton’s The Shot from Saturn we do get real invaders, in the shape of crustacean Saturnians disguising themselves as human, though they don’t get far.
Williamson’s The Plutonian Terror has a malevolent intelligence threatening us from the ninth planet – but it doesn’t invade us; instead, it summons us to it.
So there’s my brief survey in the interests of
interplanetary paranoia. I’d say Venus
poses the biggest threat. It's the closest planet, after all. And anything might be going on under those clouds.
2016 August 7th: Further to the point I made a couple of days ago about the great astronomer Fred Hoyle and his fortunate flouting of the arithmetic of stellar motions, enabling him to write a cracking tale about the conjunction of an alien Solar System with ours:
This idea, of ignoring a fact for the sake of a story, can be so widely used, that it almost wipes out the distinction between neo-OSS and “realistic” stories, if science is the criterion. All sf is a mixture of the "realistic" and the "unrealistic". As I’ve noted elsewhere, S M Stirling is a realist in just about every sense except his rather stunning assumption of the habitability of Mars and Venus.
Compare the work of Stirling with the sf of Arthur C Clarke, which is universally regarded as "hard", i.e. scientifically realistic. And so it is, in general attitude. But Clarke actually makes at least two assumptions which are as flatly impossible as those of Stirling.
The two I’m thinking of are:
In 2010: Odyssey Two he has humans floating around near Jupiter in spacesuits, ignoring the fact that they’d be pretty smartly fried by the lethal radiation belts around that planet.
In The City and the Stars he has human denizens of Earth about 1,000,000,000 years in the future alive and well, despite the fact that the Sun – its output steadily increasing during its life on the main sequence – will in actual fact be lethally hot by that time.
Who's to say - in strict logic - that an endurable Sun 1,000,000,000 years hence is any less fantastic than a habitable and inhabited Mars and Venus in our own time?
Not to worry! Enjoy the stories! But it does go to show, that if we’re contrasting neo-OSS with realistic, then, rather than get bogged down arguing about the science, we need to talk about other factors - about mood and style and culture and a certain approach to literary tradition...
And that's where the issue starts getting really interesting.
On a different note:
I am on holiday this week. I hope to keep up with the Diary, but I may give myself a rest from the Competition page. And by the looks of it, you readers need some time to catch up with the questions, anyway!!! (I'm obviously making it too hard for you. After my week's holiday, I shall have to think about relenting.)
2016 August 6th: I'm not satisfied with my 3rd August entry, which was an attempt to show how a throwaway hint, a glancing reference of the sort which abounds in OSS literature, can, as it were, bud into a story.
I don't feel I showed as clearly as I should, the steps by which such a "budding" or expansion can happen: the links in the chain of association were too perfunctorily described.
So let's try again.
I'll take a throwaway phrase from Nat Schachner's Slaves of Mercury, in which the homecoming space-pioneer at the beginning of the story reflects on what has happened to his companions:
"...Dorn was a frozen idol to the spiral beings of Pluto..."
That's all the information we're given on this topic, so it's up to us to squeeze more out of the sentence. Right then, let's try to imagine, what exactly happened to the unfortunate spaceman Dorn, and what are the spiral beings of Pluto?
I imagine them floating above the dark Plutonian surface: bright glowing spirals like little galaxies, twirling hypnotically. For the point about evolving into spirals is to give you power to hypnotize your enemies or you prey, or - and this is suggested by the word "idol" - to recruit them as objects of a kind of adoration.
Yes, that's the line to take: the Plutonians have a hunger for warmth and energy such as spring from worlds further in towards the Sun. Spaceman Dorn was trapped, somehow, and hypnotized by the swirling, living spirals, into becoming a "frozen idol". Frozen: that suggests more than temperature; in this context it could mean frozen into a state resembling stasis or at any rate a slowed-down time-sense.
Dorn, in short, might henceforth think he's a Plutonian, and an important one - since some of his inner-solar-system energy still lingers about him.
A tale might be written from Dorn's point of view, and the punch-line might come when something happens, some old memory recovers, to break it to him that he's actually a trapped Terran...
A note to my readers concerning this diary: it's getting so full, I felt I ought to split it into months. This will mean that if you get to it from the navigation bar, it'll mean one extra click as you specify the month.
2016 August 5th: Here's a riddle for you - still on yesterday's topic of Solar System vs Interstellar:
How is it possible to have a story that combines the two, not sequentially, but simultaneously, and without changes of scene? In other words, how can a scene be both Solar System and interstellar?
I'm not referring here to boundaries, to the outermost reaches, to any sort of borderline of location or category such as Asimov's Nemesis, or to tales that begin over here and end out there, like Brackett's Alpha Centauri or Die. Nothing like that.
What I am alluding to is a tale - and there is one, but (as far as I know) only that one - in which an adventure occurs that is definable both as a Solar System adventure and as a voyage to another star system.
How can this possibly be? Well, using logic, we can agree that it can only happen if the other star system comes to us - enters our territory.
Yes, in this adventure, another sun, with its planetary retinue, intersects the path of our own Sun's family, on its route through space.
The book in question is Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle.
It's so good, it's one of those novels I've read so often that I've long ago lost count of the readings. One of my all-time favourites. A stunning classic, which is hardly ever mentioned by anybody - such is life.
Apart from the value of the book in itself, it also provides an interesting instance of a top scientist-writer deliberately making an impossible assumption for the sake of a good story. For the passage of the star Helios through our solar system takes place in the late twenty-first century, and of course if this really were to happen, that star would already be terrifically bright in our skies for millennia in advance, especially as the star in question is stated to be considerably brighter than Sol. So we would have long known that it was on its way; whereas in the book its approach is foreknown for mere decades, if I remember correctly. Hoyle must have done his sums and known this perfectly well, but fortunately he did not let this arithmetic get in the way of a superb tale.
2016 August 4th: The idea that some authors are naturally adept at Solar System tales, while others are more in tune with an interstellar setting, is worth some reflection.
You might think it's partly to do with a feel for writing about distance.
But, paradoxically, you'll find, I reckon, more of a feel for distance in Solar System tales, than in interstellar. Interstellar distances are so vast that in most cases all you can do is by-pass them, so that a good interstellar writer is one who can convincingly manage transitions between scenes light-years apart without really tackling the distance. (By "convincingly" I mean in artistic, if not in scientific terms.) Jack Vance and Edmond Hamilton were masters of this art. Leigh Brackett, in my opinion, was not; but maybe I am prejudiced, because I so much admire her Solar System tales, that I resent the time she took off from the OSS in order to write (for example) The Starmen of Llyrdis and the Skaith trilogy. OSS protagonists are more likely to trek and trudge across really heartfelt distances on worlds that swim in real traversed (not by-passed) space. (Ahem - let's forget John Carter's method of transportation to Barsoom...)
Jack Vance is the example par excellence of the "purely" interstellar author; as far as I know the Solar System did not interest him, except that he wrote some good scenes set on Earth.
Then there are the authors whom one might call all-rounders: equally at home in interstellar and interplanetary scenes. Edmond Hamilton and Arthur C Clarke do as well in the Solar System as they do among the stars.
A sub-set of the OSS specialists could be those authors whose speciality is the Earth. I would place Clifford Simak in this category. His forte was, more specifically, the "Shimmer" (as I call it) of a multi-world Earth, which in his case formed an infinity of multidimensional probability worlds all coexisting, explored in volumes such as City, All Flesh is Grass and Ring Around the Sun.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is outstandingly a Solar System man, with one brilliant exception: his two novellas set on Poloda, far out in interstellar space. Even that scene, be it noted, is self-contained, the adventure entirely confined to the planet - no actual interstellar travel, no management of transition between star and star (except the John-Carter-style transmigration at the very beginning).
But what makes an author better at one than the other of these two main types of scene?
That's a hard one. If we ever do answer it, it will be by looking inside ourselves as readers, and figuring out what we need from each type of tale, and asking ourselves how and by whom the need is met.
Here's one suggestion. OSS tales are explorations of particular archetypes, facets of worlds each of which have an established character, though of course the characters are very wide-ranging.
Interstellar tales are fascinating for the opposite reason: they are free of the OSS set of planetary "souls" and are exercises in exploration of the absolute no-holds-barred infinite. If they have any discipline, it is a displine that has to be created in the story iteself; it does not depend on any tradition from outside.
OSS tales have the huge advantage of building upon an existing foundation.
Interstellar tales have the huge advantage of not doing so.
2016 August 3rd: Far-fetched analogy coming up:
First, think of how palaeontologists are supposed to be able to reconstruct the entire physiology of an extinct animal just by examining a single bone.
Just so - one might hope - we might expand one little hint in an OSS story into a full-blown tale. And so remedy some of the gaps in the literature.
A good example on this site is The Archives of the Moon, expanded from that one single phrase in a story by Clark Ashton Smith.
Let's think how it's done. How does one squeeze a tale out of a phrase? Think of another phrase from the same Smith story: "the chronicles of Saturn". Let's expand that into a story-plan.
The chain of mental associations might work as follows:
Chronicles - implies chroniclers - Saturnians - solid surface Saturn - big world - too big for easy global communications - besides, "chroniclers" has a medieval sound to it - let's say, no radio links - and Saturn is so big that ecologies and life-systems might have evolved separately in dispersed locations - pools of life - attempts to cross from one pool to another might be worth chronicling - the story could relate a ruler's attempt to cross from one life-area to another; epic effort like Richard the Lion-heart's crusade... or like a terrestrial space-program: only on Saturn it would be a space-between-life-pools program.
You could have the explorers driving airtight tanks on wheels to cross the unbreathable wilderness from one oxygen area to anther. Combining the sense of space travel with that of land travel.
I imagine the Saturnians as blue-skinned humanoids, probably out of a memory of a phrase in the Captain Future saga.
Well, we're not completely there yet, but the outline of a tale is beginning to be discernible...
2016 August 2nd: In just 3 years it will be 50 years since the first men landed on the moon, and in just over 6 years it will be 50 years since the last men returned from the moon.
Of course it's sad that mankind abandoned the Moon, but I wonder if the long gap between now and then is perhaps having a certain restorative effect on our imaginations, in the sense that the idea of "The Moon" is drifting back towards the category "far, unattainable, mysterious", which it was before the success of the Apollo Project?
till now I have assumed that people like myself, who are old enough to
remember the space-excitement of the mid-1960's, have access to a unique
perspective, for only we know what it was like to look up at an
un-attained Moon. For myself at any rate, this feeling blurred the
distinction between natural and supernatural. Simply because the
landscape of the Moon was that of another world, a place where no matter
how far you travelled you would never reach the places we know on
Earth, because it wasn't Earth - it had a special something which I can't describe. Not supernatural, but nevertheless - other.
It's a tricky subject. Hard to pin down, these emotions. I started to say, "Up till now I have assumed..." I'm beginning to wonder if younger readers might after all be able to share the sense of wonder which pre-space-age people felt. For even if we visit these places, that doesn't mean we really know them. If you or I were to stand on the Moon, no matter what our dates of birth, there might to each of us come a moment of "double take", when the truly fantastic nature of what we've done, and of where we are, invades our souls.
I recommend reading or re-reading Hugh Walters' Operation Columbus. That gives us a great first journey to the Moon. It's an exciting tale for young adult readers and for people of any age who are willing to enter into the spirit of the times. And whatever your age, it should tune you in to what I've been talking about.
2016 August 1st: The July totals are in and it has been a record month for the site, beating May's figures substantially, and wiping out the Eeyore or Puddleglum-type gloom with which I viewed June's slight downturn.
The figures have given me a lot of work to do so I am getting on with it, rather than trying to dispense pearls of insight in this Diary. If I have time I shall come back to the Diary later today, being mindful of my duties as the Samuel Pepys of the OSS.
(Later:) Phew! Spent most of the day compiling, checking and displaying the figures on the Page View Winners page. It may seem like an arid exercise to some, but there's some point to this nerdishness. At least I think there is. Anything that helps to keep me more in tune with what people want, can't be a waste of time.
The surge in interest in the Perelandra page is one surprising and gratifying development of the last two months. I have no clue as to why it has happened at this particular time.
The Edmond Hamilton
page did better than before but still just failed to break the
one-view-a-day barrier: 30 views in 31 days. Darn! Sizzling Saturn!
Crepitating ice-chasms of Pluto! - and other sulphurous oaths of the
space-ways. Still, at least Barsoom made it this time - the first month it has done so (38 views).
Now the System's overworked overlord is taking a break.
>> OSS Diary June-July 2016