2020 March 30th:
A PAIR OF GUIDES TO BARSOOM
Two pleasant books on Burroughs' Mars, which have been in my collection for over four decades, are: A Guide to Barsoom by John Flint Roy, and Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision, by Richard A Lupoff - both of which came out in 1976.
Roy's book is organized as a work of reference; its chapters cover the following areas of Barsoomian nature and culture: 1. A Brief History of Pre-Carter Barsoom; 2. Geography/Gazetteer; 3. Biographical dictionary; 4. Flora and Fauna; 5. Measurements; 6. Language, Religion and Customs; 7. General glossary; 8. Quotations, Proverbs and Expletives; 9. Science and Invention; 10. Through Space to Barsoom? (a theory of dimensions, to explain Carter's interplanetary transitions and the nature of Barsoom); 11. a biographical sketch of the fictional ERB and his relations with celebrities such as Carter and Tarzan.
As you can probably guess, this is a great little book to browse in, though the pleasure is bitter-sweet in that one always wants more.
Lupoff's volume is different. It's more of a critique: a collection of seventeen essays, reflecting upon various aspects of the Barsoom cycle, considered as a work of literature. It's a pleasant read for the aficionado, because Lupoff shares our sheer delight in the series. Broadly speaking, though he makes some negative criticisms, their context makes it clear that the message is, "such-and-such are faults in theory, but in practice they don't matter a hoot".
I'll give you one example, from pages 103-4, where Lupoff has been discussing the author's "classism":
...Burroughs offers fleeting glimpses of Martians in many roles and stations of life. There are flashes of ordinary life in the camps of the green hordes, on the farms of the red Martians, in the inns and eating-houses, the temples, in the laboratories of Barsoomian scientists and the air boats of city patrols.
But these are only glimpses.
John Carter gave little thought to the common man of Mars because Edgar Rice Burroughs gave little thought to the common man of Earth. In the strange perversity of uncounted good republican Americans he was fascinated by royalty, and loved all of the trappings and ceremonies of court life.
Perhaps it smacked of a nobler and more gracious age than Burroughs' grim twentieth century (or John Carter's tragic, post-bellum nineteenth), a time of higher interests and ambitions and of finer deeds. But for any reader interested in the lot of the common Martian, there is precious little information available in the entire eleven-volume cycle...
It may sound a bit like a complaint, but really it's just a topic for reflection, as he goes on to make clear in the subsequent pages. Incidentally, in my opinion Lupoff overstates the "classism" of Burroughs. I take the point about the focus on royalty and nobility, but there are enough exceptions in the total ERB oeuvre to allow a breeze of "a man's a man for a' that" to blow through the tales. In particular The Moon Men has an egalitarian, revolutionary feel; and certainly no Burroughsian hero is ever a snob.
That said, remember that the above constitutes just one of Lupoff's topics. His work is a rich trove of reverie and appreciation. Not too profound, perhaps, but pleasant like a chatty evening spent listening to a friend's views on the Barsoomian cycle.
2020 March 29th:
To plug a gap in the coverage I shall now mention some transient members of the Sun's family. You can regard them as honorary members of the OSS scene, just as a giant gorilla from Skull Island who climbs up the Empire State Building can in a sense count as an honorary New Yorker for that span of time.
The intrusions occurred in a rich variety of ways:
- callously destructive, as in Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964), in which a "dirigible" alien planet steers into position close to our Moon, causing tidal havoc on Earth;
- criminal, as in Edmond Hamilton's Calling Captain Future (1940, 1967) though here the "Dark Star" intruder is mostly an illusion used by evil Dr Zarro to frighten the System into giving him dictatorial powers;
- allowing momentous temporary contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, as in Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle's Fifth Planet (1963), in which the star Helios approaches Sol, and its system interpenetrates our outer system, in the year 2087, enabling an expedition to be sent to Helios' planet, Achilles, where the crew get more than they bargained for;
- similarly in Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957), in which the intruder is a gaseous body, an intelligence whose metabolism is sustained by a controlled flow of gas;
- and largely positive, as in Robert L Forward's Dragon's Egg (1980), in which a neutron star approaches close enough to be visited by a Terran scientific expedition, and the development of a civilization of tiny neutronium beings on the star is accidentally accelerated by radiation from our observation modules, mostly to good effect, in a matter of hours (the 'cheela' live a million times faster than we do).
In addition to these I wish to mention a novel which treats of the opposite idea, namely, Earth leaving the Solar System and voyaging into interstellar space: Pohl and Kornbluth's strange but fascinating tale, Wolfbane. You could call it part of an OSS diaspora... along with Hamilton's rather ridiculous Thundering Worlds, an over-exuberant short story from back in 1934 in which the entire complement of nine planets is steered across the void to a new home.
My favourite of the above five is Fifth Planet; it's one of those novels which I've re-read so many times, I've long ago lost count. It's excellently written and full of wonder, fascination, depth of characters, profundity of ideas, gripping narrative... what more could anyone want? To die without having read it would be an absurd fate for any sf fan. The Black Cloud, much more renowned because of its daring speculation about nebular life, is less haunting, but still a superb read (though lacking the literary polish of the other work).
Dragon's Egg has no polish at all - Forward doesn't know what style is - but it's a great book, and written with a clarity that has merit in itself. The Wanderer has polish but, to my mind, is much less likeable, much less interesting; but then I've never got on with Leiber's stuff much - except the superb, unputdownable horror novel Conjure Wife. Nevertheless, I expect I'll sometime read The Wanderer again.
as for good old Captain Future, well, if you can read it on its own
terms, the story of Doctor Zarro's nefarious plot is great fun - after
all how can you fail, if you're named Doctor Zarro, to excel in
You will note
that none of these works are later than 1980, which I suppose shows my
lack of interest in most contemporary sf, as it's highly unlikely that
the theme of celestial intruders has remained un-exploited since then!
(My lack of interest implies no lack of respect for the imagination of the moderns, only a distaste for their foul language and their jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly, brain-stunningly fouler morals. I'm all for villains doing their evil stuff, but the yuckocracy has brought villainy into thorough disrepute. And if any of you wish to call me a narrow-minded Puritan bigot, please go ahead; I love compliments!)
(Having said all that, I've just remembered three Ender-saga novels by Orson Scott Card, the last I read being Xenocide (1991), and they are humanely written, with human protagonists untainted by the prevailing yuck. Any advance on 1991? Hey, now I've just remembered that Night Lamp by the late great Jack Vance, who never needed to use the f-word in his entire oeuvre, came out in 1996. Any advance on 1996? Could the non-yuck frontier trickle forward into the third millennium? I keep watch with bated breath... and lo and behold, a recollection that John Greer's The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, the only one of his Lovecraftian thrillers which I have so far read, is - considering its late date of 2017 - amazingly free from obscenity. Yes, decency has breached the millennium-barrier. So... perhaps things aren't as bad as I thought, provided of course one doesn't switch the TV on.)
2020 March 27th:
PERTURBABLE PROTAGONISTS REQUIRED
I always like to encourage people to read the books I've enjoyed, so that I can have the extra pleasure of discussing them. As a corollary to that, I am always cautious about pointing out any faults in such works, in case I seem to present a partial view that is mistaken for the whole view, with the result that people are put off...
For instance, take the example of Michael Crichton. I've read five or six of his works. One which I didn't manage to finish is Timeline. Great idea, but he doesn't - in my view - manage the emotional side of it; doesn't handle the astonishment well enough - doesn't give us enough of the natural awe and wonder that must attend the invention or discovery of time-travel / probability travel / whatever you like to call it. In short, his folk aren't sufficiently surprised.
Now you might say that, from an author's point of view, this is a problem with no solution. The themes of sf are so mind-boggling that if due attention were paid to the astonishment attendant upon them, the whole tale would be swamped by the bogglement and there'd be no space left for actual narrative.
Well, all I can say to that is, some authors manage to leave the reader satisfied on this point. Crichton himself sometimes rises to the occasion. My favourite of his novels is Prey, which is brilliantly plotted and moves to a wonderfully horrific climax. He does falter once: on page 468:
"It's creepy," I said.
You're darned right it's creepy - to put it mildly. And that's the
trouble: by just using that inane phrase, he's putting it mildly. We
could do with a bit of portentous reflection at that point of the hero's
involvement with [spoiler alert] a swarm of evolving, increasingly
intelligent nanobots that can pour into your mouth when your possessed
wife kisses you...
But apart from that little "It's creepy" lapse, Prey is a great book; don't let me put you off!
Another work I admire which has the same kind of fault - but all the way through - is R L Forward's Dragon's Egg, about a civilization observed on a nearby neutron star. Terrific stuff, only I wish the human observers showed as much of a sense of wonder as the neutronium beings do. But it doesn't matter too much, since it's the latter who are by far the more important characters in the novel.
In my view there's an almost-but-not-quite lapse, a slightly iffy transition, in John Christopher's The Possessors, an alien-mind-infection thriller set in an isolated Alpine resort. Here the author gets away with it, I'd say. The almost-problem is the change in attitude by one of the main characters, the bluff old hotel-keeper. He's a no-nonsense type, a former soldier who at first ridicules the theory by a scientist at the hotel, that the goings-on are due to alien influence. Then abruptly he alters his stance, he believes in it all thenceforth. But the author has prepared us for this about-face by having the fellow make it clear that, in the war, he learned to face reality, however appalling it might be.
Let's turn to an author who doesn't even come close to striking any false note, with regard to the dues one must pay to astonishment. A masterly solution to the bogglement-problem is provided by H G Wells in The First Men in the Moon.
His stroke of genius here is to make his narrator a worldly, shallow character. It's made clear to the reader that it's no use expecting Mr. Bedford to appreciate a voyage to the Moon in a spirit of wonder as much as we sf fans would appreciate it. Consequently, insofar as Bedford does at moments get taken out of his materialistic mind-set, the effect is all the more moving.
Particularly memorable is the fellow's hesitancy at the end of chapter 3, when he almost pulls out of the voyage.
I astonished Cavor at breakfast. I told him shortly, "I'm not coming with you in the sphere."
I met all his protests with a sullen persistence. "The thing's too mad," I said, "and I won't come. The thing's too mad."
I would not go with him to the laboratory. I fretted about my bungalow for a while, and then took hat and stick and set out alone, I knew not whither...
Because Bedford is not supposed to be an imaginative man, Wells does not give us a solemn exploration of his thoughts; instead he shows us Bedford chatting with an inn-landlady and some labourers...
...about brickmaking, and motor cars, and the cricket of last year. And in the sky a faint new crescent, blue and vague as a distant Alp, sank westward over the sun.
The next day I returned to Cavor. "I am coming," I said. "I've been a little out of order, that's all."
Wells handles it all so exquisitely, he never gets a word wrong. The message is faultlessly conveyed, that no matter how dense and stolid a man may be, if he has any spirit at all he will be sufficiently awed at the experience of the first journey to another world.
At first it gave me a sort of vertigo to stand only on thick glass and look down upon the moon through hundreds of thousands of miles of vacant space; but this sickness passed very speedily. And then - the splendour of the sight!
..."Cavor," I said, "this takes me queerly. Those companies we were going to run, and all that about minerals?"
"I don't see 'em here."
"No," said Cavor; "but you'll get over all that."
"I suppose I'm made to turn right side up again. Still, this - For a moment I could half believe there never was a world..."
Ah, if only Wells had carried on writing stuff like this! He had more than half his life still to go, but after the glorious culmination of The First Men in the Moon, though there were some good "mainstream" novels to come, it was downhill all the way as far as science fiction was concerned.
2020 March 26th:
How about giving our Sun a brown-dwarf companion, somewhere way out on the fringes of the System. This object might (in OSS terms anyway) provide some heat to sustain life on its companion planets.
One or more of those planets might be really big, perhaps like Ramnua in Poul Anderson's A Stone In Heaven, which used to be a gas-giant until its hydrogen envelope was blown away by a nearby supernova. (Anderson is great at scientifically-plausible world-building, and though I don't care a fig for strict scientific plausibility, I see no reason to forego its inspirations when it suits me.)
Unlike Ramnua, though, our invented planet X might have an Earth-sized inhabited satellite, on which a race evolved who looked longingly at the big world, wishing they could endure its crushing gravity. Remember, these people are so far out in the outermost reaches of the System, that they might not even know of the inner planets, lost as those would be in the glare of the Sun. So, to these folk, their huge primary might be the only possible destination for space travel. They'd be highly motivated to devise some way of visiting it.
Spurred by this need, they might at last invent some sort of way of controlling gravity. And then - the big world is theirs.
The adventures one could write! How would it feel, suddenly to have the opportunity to explore a giant planet, perhaps a tidally locked world of which only one face had ever been seen?
Room for an epic here.
2020 March 23rd:
The currently topical theme of isolation (something which most of us are too gregarious to enjoy, most of the time) goes to show yet again that what's good to read about is very different from what's good or convenient to experience.
Mobile phones are so useful, most of us couldn't do without them, but they are a pain for authors who try to write contemporary fiction. How far would L P Hartley have been able to get with an updated version of The Go-Between in which the amorous protagonists were able simply to phone each other up?
And in our own sub-genre, think of the classic fictional space voyages. In Ransom's place in Out of the Silent Planet we would have welcomed a radio link with the authorities back home, but it would have ruined the story. And what about the effect in Wells' The First Men in the Moon, when the narrator finds that the Selenites have shut him out and the freezing night is falling:
...suddenly the open mouth of the tunnel down below there, shut like an eye and vanished out of sight.
Then indeed I was alone.
Over me, around me, closing in on me, embracing me ever nearer, was the Eternal; that which was before the beginning, and that which triumphs over the end; that enormous void in which all light and life and being is but the thin and vanishing splendour of a falling star, the cold, the stillness, the silence - the infinite and final Night of space.
Fortunately, just then I heard in my earphone: "Mission Control to Bedford. How are you doing? Over."
Not quite the thing, eh? Better scrub that Revised Version. And yet -
I can think of one celebrated Moon tale in which telemetry, far from ruining the mood, plays an enhancing, haunting role.
Walter M Miller's I Made You (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1954, and much anthologized since), leaves the reader with an unforgettable image of a rogue military machine gone amuk and lumbering about upon the lunar surface mercilessly slaying its handlers. It has trapped its human creator in a cave; the man repeatedly communicates by radio to the lunar base, pleading for help, but the authorities there refuse the only help that would be effective - a missile to destroy the expensive contraption. Finally... well, I won't spoil it, but you can guess. The sound advice to necromancers given in Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward - "Do not call up that which ye cannot put downe" - applies, mutatis mutandis, to AI military vehicles.
My point is, it's the mood that is so memorable, and that mood comes from the man's increasingly desperate transmissions and officialdom's inadequate replies, as much as from the lonely setting and its prowling, artificial monster.
So the rule is... there isn't one.
2020 March 22nd:
1959, THE TWILIGHT ZONE - AND A CALL TO BILL BRYSON
One of my favourite works of American history is Bill Bryson's One Summer, narrating events of the year 1927. It's full of varied scenes involving Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, Sacco and Vanzetti... and so on, all colourful, dramatic, panoramic and unputdownable.
I wish I could meet Bryson, buttonhole him and say, look, this shows what you can do; now do it, please, for 1959 - the year The Twilight Zone series came out!
For the haunting fact is, I keep coming across 1959. It figured in the previous Diary entry. It is perhaps the best year for the Old Space Program, since in 1959 one could still (only just) believe in the canals of Mars and a lush jungly or watery Venus, and Mercury still had its Twilight Belt... while the real space program was just getting started, with all its hope and excitement.
And quite apart from all that, The Twilight Zone - with its themes of mystery, bewilderment and paranoia - would provide a field-day opportunity for Bryson to link TV with reality. I'm not quite sure how (for instance) he would swerve his narrative from TTZ to the Nixon-Kruschev "kitchen debate" and back again, but I bet he'd find a way; such surreal Cold War incidents have the right flavour to blend with the TV series.
Bill, are you listening by any chance?
2020 March 20th:
THE HIDDEN SIDE OF THE MOON - 1949 - 1959
Let's again explore one little sector of the frontier that forms the dividing line between the realm of "hope and credulity" (what I call the Zohac) and the realm of "realism".
It's a story published in 1949 and set in 1959, and it appears in a collection edited by Donald Wollheim called Men on the Moon.
A character study, in which Raymond Z Gallun illustrates the contrast between a space-struck youngster, Art Pelsudski, and a professional astronaut, Mel Robbins, uses that contrast to explore the decline of youthful wonder as it is replaced by realistic experience, and in so doing, it voices the last faint hope that there might be air and life on the hidden side of the moon.
"Say - let me wish you luck, Colonel Robbins! Just think - in four days you'll be looking down on the other side of the Moon, that nobody's ever seen! An old theory might be right - that the Moon has been drawn out of shape by the constant pull of terrestrial gravity in one direction - it may bulge on the hemisphere which always faces Earth, and be hollowed on the other. All the air may be cupped there. There might be lakes and trees and strange cities in a tremendous valley. Nobody knows..."
"Nobody does," Robbins agreed.
The theory was ancient, weak, and too romantic and pat in the way that its supposed marvels hid behind the unknown. It was the look in the kid's eyes that interested Mel most. In it was the worship of great things of metal and power, and the driving love of unreached distance and mystery...
The astronaut has lost that kind of idealism, partly because the passing years naturally do that to a man, and partly because he feels he has reason to fear that space technology will be mis-used for war. Yet, reminded by the boy's enthusiasm, the older man recalls his own youthful dreams, the glitter and glamour and purity of a vision which can be remembered but no longer really believed.
History, for what it was worth, would call him the "Columbus of Space".
It was a nice, melodramatic title. It made him chuckle. The final effort to gain it had been easy. He'd simply ridden an automatic machine. If there had ever been any hero in him, it was long ago, when nobody knew him. Dream and fulfilment were mistimed, like a lot of things in this world.
Ruminating on this theme during his Moon-voyage he remembers the boy, who had hitch-hiked across America to glimpse the rocket before its take-off.
Maybe it was protective instinct for the young; maybe it was maudlin sentimentality connected with being out here beyond the Moon, maybe it was just pity - Robbins didn't care, then. That kid was somehow important to him, seeming to make him feel that way by just being what he was. Robbins knew that he had to do something for this Art Pelsudski - build him up, blind him a little to what was coming, let him feel that the universe was still okay...
For the man has realized that although he can no longer feel the youthful magic himself, he can help to pass on its good effects to a new generation.
It occurred to him that Pelsudski, being young, was a symbol of the future - a rather splendid one. The idea was enough to turn Robbins' mind around, making it argue in another direction.
The word "feelings" became a kind of pivot of his arguments. What you could do about the future was related to what you felt about it. Feelings were the critical factor in this age of danger and triumphs, when the weakness was the human element...
...Suddenly his eyes twinkled. He was the guy who had crossed space, wasn't he? He was now the natural reigning hero, for all kids, everywhere.
Maybe he could make his voice reach...
...The shadows in the years to come had receded a little. Pelsudski had given him something. Now he would give something back...
And so, Robbins recaptures his idealism, in maturer, more deliberate mode. A signed picture of the first view of the mysterious hemisphere of the Moon will do the trick - despite the fact that there turn out to be no lakes, no trees, no air there, after all. Which is why the tale - Operation Pumice (Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1949) - has that rocky, inorganic name.
2020 March 14th:
FROM 1520 TO BARSOOM
We're approaching the 7-24 June quincentenary of the prototype "summit meeting", the splendid junketings of Francis the First and Henry the Eighth at the celebrated Field of the Cloth of Gold.
I reckon that those two kings, slippery customers though they both were, deserved some credit on that occasion, which was at least an attempt to promote peace between the two nations, perhaps with the idea that such summitry would catch on as an alternative to war. The mood of 1520 didn't last, but it was something.
Rather than search consciously for some profound link between the above and the literature of the Old Solar System, I simply let my usual stream of consciousness waft me where it would, and lo, I arrive at Chapter XXVI of Burroughs' A Princess of Mars.
There, after the city of Zodanga has been sacked by the hero's savage Thark allies - and princess Dejah Thoris of Helium rescued from Zodangan clutches - the Thark chief Tars Tarkas gets to meet Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, to seal a new friendship between the nations.
At this point a really interesting force kicks in. Call it protagonocracy (rule by main character), or logotechnocracy (rule by author).
Its implications blossom many volumes later. In Swords of Mars, number eight of the chronicles of Barsoom, the hero, John Carter, his Terran skin-colour disguised, and under a false name, meets the girl Zanda, one of the victims of that sack of Zodanga which he had instigated. Zanda informs him that she has vowed to kill John Carter.... and as Carter admits later to one of his officers:
"...all her sorrows resulted from the fall of the city. Her father was killed; and, in grief, her mother took the last long journey upon the bosom of Iss; so you see she has good reason to hate John Carter, or at least she thinks she has."
Rather than go any further into all the rights and wrongs of it, Burroughs leaves us the readers to make our own adjustments using the scanty clues of context and suggestion, such as the passage quoted above, with the aim of tempting us to be willingly inveigled into seeing it all John Carter's way. Yes, it's all right to arrange for a city to be sacked if by doing so you rescue a princess. Honestly, I'm not being ironical here; when visiting his moral dimension I take my hat off to ERB, submit to his power and let him call the tune...
...Just as the lesser folk no doubt cheered the two kings as they revelled on the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
2020 March 8th:
THE MOST OVER-THE-TOP DYSON-SPHERE SCHEME
Following on from my previous remarks, I feel I should mention one remarkable sf work which applies the Dyson Sphere concept to the Solar System while nevertheless allowing the continued existence of the System's worlds.
In Colin Kapp's Cageworld series, our nine planets aren't broken up; their orbits are merely enclosed - and, in the most truly mind-bogglingly immense work of engineering which any author has ever imagined, they are enclosed not merely by one Sphere but by one Sphere per world.
Thus, the Sun is enclosed like the core of an onion by concentric layers, each of increasing surface area as one goes outward, and these surfaces are all habitable. Don't ask me how, or how it works, or how light and air are provided... it's a long time since I read Cageworld Volume 1, and I never finished Volume 2.
The whole project is a clear case of technology getting out of hand - for the construction of the spheres is in the hands of an unstoppable artificial intelligence named ZEUS. Perhaps the compelling concept of a runaway AI is getting to me, as I've just finished re-reading Michael Crichton's Prey. I intend fairly soon to give Cageworld another go.
2020 March 3rd:
The recent death of Freeman Dyson, of Dyson Sphere fame, prompts me to issue a warning that it may be necessary some day to form a conservation group to protect the planet Jupiter. Dyson was speculating on what an advanced interstellar civilization might do, but Adrian Berry in The Next Ten Thousand Years (1976) shifted the argument to this solar system, suggesting that one day we may rip Jupiter apart for material to form a sphere of mini-worlds englobing our Sun, giving us all the total surface area which our giant population might ever need. And how exactly would we rip Jupiter apart? By means of some super-engineered centrifugal force, if I remember correctly. How this could be done without risk of bombarding the rest of the System with lethal impacts, I'm not too sure. But my objections, needless to say, go beyond health and safety considerations. I simply don't go in for murdering planets.
I've just re-read an old favourite of mine, Poul Anderson's The Corridors of Time (1965), and it strikes me that the attitude behind Adrian Berry's Jupiter-destroying project fits perfectly with the ethos of the Rangers in Anderson's time war. He doesn't use the terms "yin" and "yang", but in summary one might say that the Rangers are yang-gone-mad and their opponents, the Wardens, are yin-gone-mad. The two blocs manoevre for advantage from age to age, each doing their utmost to bolster their own type of culture. Collateral damage includes the planet Mars, blasted into asteroidal fragments some time in our future, but on Earth the combat is limited to a cloak-and-dagger level. Evils accumulate, though, and in one episode Anderson gives us a horrifying picture of a super-technological North America some centuries hence.
The above remarks do not come near to conveying the novel's excellence. Well-drawn characters, ingenious plot, vivid and varied scenes, thoughtful speculation - it's Anderson at his best.
Mind you, he leaves some of the theme's problems in the reader's lap. The Corridors of Time is one of those time-stories which downplay the problem of reality-change by assuming that the main line of history possesses an inertia which cannot be overcome. Yet he wants to make the characters' actions and motives meaningful, so he says (in effect) that history can somehow be worked on, exploited, some aspects of it emphasized, albeit not fundamentally changed! Only superb story-telling lets him get away with this attempted compromise.
The one and only writer who (to my knowledge) did fully tackle the issues of time travel and reality change, is Barrington Bayley in The Fall of Chronopolis (1974).
As a story-teller Bayley is the equal of Anderson. Despite the fact that Anderson scores higher as a historical novelist, evocatively weaving scenes from the real past into his work, Bayley is the more daring thinker, the ultimate spine-tingling visionary. He manages to deal with paradox by first settling another problem: that of sequence. By this I mean the problem that as soon as you use time-travel you create another arrow of time, orthogonal to the main one: what Asimov calls "physioyears" in The End of Eternity. In which case, what meaning can the term "the present" still possess? The answer, according to Bayley, lies in "temporal nodes", a kind of series of present moments, spaced along the time-stream and flowing like wave-fronts over a life-time apart. Time-craft can travel from node to node with far less energy than is required for a stop between nodes... and that is what allows coherence of cause and effect.
Not that chaos can be staved off forever, even in Bayley's scenario. Chronopolis must eventually fall...
Which inspires me to advocate another conservation effort: not only "Hands off Jupiter", but "Down with Time Travel!"
2020 February 28th:
BIFURCATED SOULS: FRANCE - OSS
For those of you who are used to the way I go on, it shouldn't take many microseconds for you to grasp the connection.
As a French-civilization buff I am often struck by the remarkable co-existence of two "souls of France", the rival splendours of the fleur-de-lys and of the Tricolour: the incompatible glories of Royalist and Republican France.
(I am of course referring to each of these in their idealized forms, not the grubby reality of quotidian human life. Though we humans wallow in muck we can still dream our dreams.)
What fascinates me is how the two visions manage to co-exist under the umbrella of the "France" concept, despite their utter opposition to each other. You can't have Throne and Republic at the same time, obviously. (All right, the first emperor had on documents "République Française - Empereur Napoléon". But he was one for having it all.) Yet though only one side of the question can rule in practice at any one moment, there's a kind of hyper regime in which both soul-characters twine around each other. Almost as though a new colour is created out of their alternation and admixture.
Of course I know perfectly well that the French as individuals act as a glue between the visions; for instance, D'Artagnan the royalist and Clemenceau the republican were equally fiery and prone to duelling. I can imagine them meeting across the gap of centuries and getting on quite well.
Nevertheless, when the overarching concept "France" pops into my mind I find I'm harbouring a sort of shimmering amalgam of impossible combination. Does this remind the OSS reader of anything?
The contradictory bundle of vision in literary "Mars", and the other contradictory bundle "Venus", in particular?
2020 February 25th:
LOVECRAFT REVERSED WITH ADDED BELBURY
While anxious not to reveal any spoilers, I feel I can hardly discuss John Michael Greer's The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth (2018) without alluding to the main point, which is, that it's a sort of rehabilitation of HPL's shuddersome big bad beings (BBBs) from Outside.
The Outside can be in the deeps of the sea or outer space or the mists of Time or beyond our cosmos altogether - the point is to chill the reader's blood with a kind of spiritual agoraphobia. Greer operates a kind of switch on this pattern.
Some licence for this reversal can be found in Lovecraft's oeuvre itself, which contains occasional second thoughts on, traces of respect for, and/or empathy with, the star-headed Old Ones in At the Mountains of Madness and the mind-swapping Great Race in A Shadow Out of Time. Even in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the horror of undergoing a species-change is accompanied by empathy with the way the victim ends up by liking it.
These, as I say, are traces. Greer goes much further, concocting a thorough re-evaluation whereby his hero actually joins the BBBs' side, with such justifications as are meant to ensure that the reader roots for him rather than feels horrified pity for him. And so I do. I'm an obedient reader. If a tale is well written I succumb to its message and read it in its own terms for the duration.
Now, you may ask, how can the author hope to compensate the horror-fan for the consequent loss of shudders? Answer: by providing alternative shudders to remedy the shortfall. This is where "Belbury Hall", and all it stands for, comes into play. The echo of the Belbury in That Hideous Strength is most apposite. We're asked to shudder, not at slimy shoggoths or tentacled Deep Ones, but at counter-organic forces reminiscent of the demons in C S Lewis' masterpiece. And Greer does provide some crucial moments of terror, where he succeeds in making that opposition (dubbed the Radiance) really scary. (My own reaction, for what it's worth, evoked my childhood fright when reading Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, in which you meet the demon with a blank face... the Terrible Trivium, probably meant as a sort of joke, but one which put the wind up me.)
On the subject of fear, another point needs to be made. In my view, almost all of Lovecraft is not really scary at all. Its appeal is in its invitation to a kind of role-play of being scared. We enjoy the depiction of fear rather than share in it. To the reader, the merit of the work is not that it frightens but that, by the imaginative sweep of its invention and vision, it awes. And from the OSS point of view it's all in the very good cause, that it elevates Planet Earth to be the equal of the other eight major System worlds with regard to vistas of discovery and of alien character. But as for making me as reader look over my shoulder for real - no.
With one exception, perhaps. The one HPL tale which did scare me as I read it is The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The suspense-filled plot, its gradual tightening of the net around the doomed hero, did get to me, especially as I was reading it in somewhat crummy Innsmouth-style surroundings at the time. But by and large I would say that if Greer aims to out-score HPL on palpitations, he's in with a chance. Whether he or anyone can out-do the old master in myth-making, time will tell; I would guess that HPL has too much of a head start.
Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that I'm sufficiently interested to order the second volume of The Weird of Hali.
2020 February 22nd:
These are the kind of OSS world in which the reader is taken to one scene after another, each freshly depicted and isolated from the previous one. There's no overarching culture, just a succession of episodes in various independent milieux.
From the writer's point of view the big problem with this sort of thing must surely be that the isolation of the episodes will tend to detract from the coherent character of the invented world. In the Old Solar System this problem can be mitigated by the heritage of personality which the world already possesses in literature and legend; nevertheless, it's rare to find an artistically successful multi-pocket OSS world.
I can only think of two outstanding examples.
One is Stanley Weinbaum's Mars. In A Martian Odyssey and Valley of Dreams he gives us a version of the Red Planet in which the reader is always expecting a completely new and unrelated scene "over the next hill". And for some reason, of tone or atmosphere or choice of imagery, it works - every new adventure is thoroughly Martian in inspiration, so that you never cease to feel that you're wandering over the same authentic version of the Red Planet, the Weinbaum Mars, unrelated though the episodes are.
The other instance of a successful multi-pocket world is Edgar Rice Burroughs' Venus. "Amtor" entirely lacks any general culture. The inhabitants know only their own area of the planet. Cultures drastically vary, and you never know what you're going to meet the next time your plane gets shot down or has to land for supplies. And yet the reader always remains aware of the environment's overarchingly Venusian character. Partly, no doubt, it's the clouds that help - the ubiquitous sky-cover which helps to confuse navigation and perpetuate the inhabitants' geographical ignorance. Still, the author's literary achievement is remarkable, as a portrait of the continually unexpected, which nevertheless stops short of chaotic character-dissolution.
The ideal multi-pocket world would be a giant planet in which ecologies evolved altogether out of contact with each other, perhaps in basins of breathable atmosphere separated by vast distances and unbreathably airless highlands. Then the challenge would be to compose a tale which links several of the pocket-worlds into one narrative while preserving a sense of their isolation.
Perhaps a culture in one pocket could undertake a kind of "space program" to voyage to another pocket. Such an adventure would have the wonder of a space voyage while staying on the ground. There's a bit of an echo of this idea, very briefly, in Perelandra, where Ransom speculates about the Venusians possibly having "submarines on wheels" to explore their permanent Night side, if they have one (it turns out they don't).
So there's an idea for a sub-genre: land-space programs. Earth's Age of Discovery had something of this character. But imagine a world so big that an effort to explore it had to be on the scale of the Apollo Project...
2020 February 16th:
ANOMALIES OF THE BOOK TRADE
Wouldn't you think it was in everyone's interest - publishers, booksellers, and the reading public - to make sure that the best stuff is the most easily available? Like on a fruit stand, you put the nicest stuff on show (or so I assume). Maybe the analogy falls down because, with books, the cost of producing them doesn't relate to their literary quality. It costs no more to print a great novel than to print the same-sized piece of crud.
So - why aren't the most enjoyable classics still around in the shops? I am thinking on these lines having just browsed in Heinlein's superb Red Planet. The old master really surpassed himself in that one. I'm generally not a dyed-in-the-wool Heinlein fan, though I'd be daft not to recognize his stature in the field; but Red Planet is a flawless and hypnotically addictive read, and one of the handful of truly great Mars novels. In which case - why doesn't one ever see it in a bookshop? It ought never to go out of print.
Doubtless, it's much easier now to get hold of a book one wants, but how do bookshop browsers ever get to know the stuff they would want if only they saw it - if they don't see it?
What's needed is an eccentric billionaire who sees the need and supplies the public with new editions of the treats that are currently being missed.
2020 February 13th:
FLIGHT OVER CERES
I recommend anyone who hasn't seen it yet to view this video:
Thanks to the Dawn probe's encounter with Ceres in 2015, and image processing techniques, digital elevation models and what not, we are treated to a spectacle of the asteroid as if we were swooping past and around it.
The view is so beautiful, I can forgive the Cereans for their coy avoidance of the limelight. It's understandable they may prefer us to view their world as uninhabited. Let them hide underground... though they've left mysterious bright traces in Occator Crater.
Another way of looking at it: Ceres really is uninhabited, but the OSS allows for some such worlds, e.g. our Moon. The lack of organic life yet allows for something else... call it character. Personality, even. Some kind of haunting. Our minds routinely are able to cathect (paint with emotional significance) non-living things; that's why you get some people interested in chemistry, geology, minerology. The elements and their inter-reactions, the stones and strata, "come alive" for them.
2020 February 9th:
GOR THE ENEMY OF LONGTAIL
I have had an interesting email from Xiangjun Zeng which I have decided to incorporate as a guest appearance here in the Diary, with a suitable link to the Adventures of Longtail page. So here goes.
From Xiangjun Zeng:
A picture is worth a thousand words! Part of my goal for this year
is to more fully realise the worlds in A Distant Sun. Let me introduce
Gor, one of the characters playing a part in the Longtail’s saga.
Right from the start I wanted an art style that brings out the atmosphere of the Red Desert. An ancient, dry, parched feeling.
I also wanted something that is reminiscent of those ink style illustrations that used to grace and adorn the pages of old classics like Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland.
Designing Gor wasn't easy. He's mean and tough, and as one of the antagonists to the Longtail, he also needs to exude menace.
Find out more about him in the Adventures of Longtail at adistantsun.com!
Stay tuned guys. I have exciting news to share in the next few days.
As Artists, we love feedback. Tell me what you think of the artwork and the story!
Also, check out my facebook page for more updates:
2020 February 8th:
A FLASH OF AMBITIOUS HOPE IN 1959
Another phenomenon to add to recent instances of the Zohac ("Zone of Hope and Credulity", i.e. the cultural spatio-temporal area-locus of OSS-style belief), is the brief 1959 USAF Project Horizon, a proposal for a military base on the Moon. Now declassified, its report can be read online. Skimming down the text, I came across the following optimistic statement:
The payload capabilities of the SATURN family, as well as their timely availability, makes it feasible to land the first two people on the lunar surface by Spring of 1965 and have a 12-man permanent outpost operational by November 1966.
The report went on to aver that no technological breakthroughs would be needed; the aim of a moon-base could be achieved with existing capabilities.
Well, think of that! That staple of the old space program, a 1950s-style sf military Moon, with all its connotations of secrecy and mystery, was actually (if briefly) a matter for consideration in real life.
Themes which we may love to hate in fiction - such as ruthless blimps monopolizing the Moon - are less welcome in real life, but I feel a twinge of regret that that 12-man base wasn't established in 1966. It might have proved more durable, less easy to cancel, than the civilian Apollo Project turned out to be. We'll never know, of course.
2020 January 29th:
WATERY LUNAR SEAS
Recently I was given for my birthday Eighty Not Out, the autobiography of Patrick Moore, who was and perhaps still is a household name in my country - television's instantly recognizable astronomer, and an inimitable character. Reading through the book I found a fascinating passage on Nobel laureate Harold Urey (1893-1981), who, Moore informs me, seriously maintained, well into the Space Age, that the primordial lunar "seas" may really have been watery rather than lava-filled. I followed this up online and found that in his "Study of the Ranger Pictures of the Moon" (1967), quoted in Arlin Crotts' Water on the Moon, I. Historical Overview), Urey says:
...they (lunar maria) may have been subjected to water at some time in their history...
Later the evidence from Apollo missions forced Urey to abandon the watery maria, but the point that intrigues me is the longevity of the idea. Rather than go into his reasons for having held it when he did, I want to issue an appeal here, for a convenient term to denote the... how can I say it... empire of belief, the boundaries of hope, the zone of credibility, marking out the historical limits of real belief in a more old-fashioned life-friendly Solar System. I'll go on trying to think up a phrase for it, but meanwhile I'd welcome suggestions - reply on the Facebook page or email me at the usual address, email@example.com.
So far as I know, Urey himself never talked about native lunar life. Still, wow, real seas on the Moon - imagine being able to believe that!
I presume he must have postulated an early lunar atmosphere, thick enough to stop the water evaporating immediately. The atmosphere couldn't have lasted long, leaking away as it must have done in the low gravity, but perhaps the leakage was less with heavy gases... I leave it to the more scientifically-minded to comment on that.
Anyhow, all this is an invitation to any writer who feels so inclined, to dust off Urey's temporary reasons for the watery-maria theory, and use them as a veneer of credibility for a really haunting tale of the ancient inhabited Moon.
2020 January 18th:
1956 - THE LAST HOPE FOR OLD MARS?
The history of opinion fascinates me, and I came across a poignant 1950s gem today while browsing among my old astronautics books. One of them has a chapter called "Fruitful Mars", in which the author admits that Lowell's ideas have not won wide acceptance, yet believes that the question of a civilized Mars is still open:
The possibility of space flight has stimulated interest in Mars, and many astronomers are trying to develop methods of studying it that are better than visual observation. One possibility is to take motion pictures of Mars during its next near approach, in 1956. The Palomar telescope, which gathers four times as much light as its nearest rival, is the only instrument that can do this effectively. Using the most sensitive photographic film, it can probably take pictures of Mars in about one-fiftieth of a second. This is approximately as fast as the human eye works. If a movie is taken of Mars during an entire night of exceptionally good seeing, one or more of the frames, each exposed for only one-fiftieth of a second, may show the planet unblurred by atmospheric turbulence. Such a picture will be free of the artifacts of human imagination. It will be permanent and can be analyzed, grain by grain, using the careful microscopic techniques well known to astronomers.
Perhaps it will show a planet elaborately organised by an intelligent race...
J N Leonard, Flight Into Space (1953)
As things turned out 1956 did not, of course, decide the issue. Personally I doubt whether the method suggested would have succeeded even if a Martian civilization had existed - I don't suppose Earth's civilization would be visible by means of an instrument on the surface of Mars equivalent to the Hale telescope. Be that as it may, I value the passage quoted above as a marker in the history of opinion - perhaps a boundary-marker, for 1956 turned out to be the last full year before the Space Age.
2020 January 9th:
Edwin A Abbott's Flatland (1884) is a memoir of life in a two-dimensional universe; its geography, history and society are described and narrated by a luckless Square who gets into big trouble for his "heretical" talk of a world with three dimensions.
The ways in which it's all worked out are fascinating and provoking of much argument. Abbott decided that Flatland must have one three-dimensional aspect, namely a light source which illuminates the plane surface from above. Apart from that, everything is two-dimensional, including the rain which intermittently comes from the North. North and South refer to the alignment of an attractive force, reminiscent of magnetism; the opposite, in some respects, of the "hard direction" on the neutronium world in R L Forward's Dragon's Egg.
The Flatlanders are severely class-conscious.
...The birth of a true Equilateral Triangle from Isosceles parents is the subject of rejoicing in our country for many furlongs round. After a strict examination conducted by the Sanitary and Social Board, the infant, if certified as Regular, is with solemn ceremonial admitted into the class of Equilaterals. He is then immediately taken from his proud yet sorrowing parents and adopted by some childless Equilateral, who is bound by oath never to permit the child henceforth to enter his former home or so much as to look upon his relations again, for fear lest the freshly developed organism may, by force of unconscious imitation, fall back again into his hereditary level...
Recently re-reading this short and delightful classic I began to think of it as an instance of Earthshimmer, a term I coined some while back to denote the way our unusual world is apt to emanate variant literary versions of itself in other modes of existence. Being a fan of this sort of thing, I explore its possibilities in my own work, as in the unidirectional gravity of Kroth and the air-bubble-set-in-universal-rock scenario of Man of the World, but up till now my only excuse for including such scenarios on an Old Solar System website was to posit a Terran exceptionalism - that's to say, just as (for example) Jupiter has its Great Red Spot and Mars its canals, so does Earth have its Earthshimmer, which just happens to be a peculiarity of our planet.
But now I wonder, with regard to Flatland - could you extend the "shimmer", could you have a Flat OSS too?
There'd be radical changes needed, of course. In particular, it's not easy to imagine flat worlds orbiting a flat Sun. But perhaps orbits can be dispensed with. Perhaps all you'd need, in order to develop the characters of worlds in isolation from one another, is static distance, without orbital motion. And such distance need not be of the empty kind, but rather an immense desert, perhaps consisting of a smooth, frictionless glassy plain across which the equivalent of rockets could be launched.
The first trip to Flat-Mars from Flat-Earth would thus require an epic voyage across this smooth space. And when the explorers reached their destination, they could encounter some echoes of the Marsness of our OSS Mars, translated into 2D terms...
As to what the characteristics of that setting would be, nothing occurs to me right now, but I dare say it could be done.
2020 January 8th:
THE "IN" PAGES
Having just finished the survey of the page-view winners for 2019, I pause to reflect on these results.
As usual I can't resist pretending to guess at meanings.
I notice that, in comparison with 2018, the "hit parade" for last year reveals some slackening in views of the major planet pages, contrasted with a surge in some of those which concern authors, themes and stories. (Not all of them by any means; Decisive Battles of the Old Solar System has gone down from 94th to 105th place; war-weariness maybe.)
The really big author-page surge in 2019 was by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who zoomed up from 70th place to 7th, and from 748 views to 2,794. Thus from category "green" (2 or more views a day) it has climbed to category red (over four views a day - well over, in this case). Success, though less spectacular, also came to the Heinlein page, which joins the basic super-page category (1 or more views per day) for the first time.
Significantly coinciding with 2019's outer-system triumphs in the Interplanetary Knock-Out, the page devoted to the Outermost Reaches has gone up from category black to category green. Another scrap of evidence: although the Jupiter page hasn't shown an increase in popularity, the more detailed Great Red Spot page has - up from 200th to 143rd place, and Jovian Inferno has likewise gone up from 157th to 104th. But other examples of successful planetary-feature pages take us back to the inner system: the ancient inhabited Moon has risen from 131st to 95th place, and Darkside of Mercury from 141st to 103rd. Next, here are some up-and-coming pages dedicated to particular stories: Amtor rose from 87th to 49th place, and Brightside Crossing and A Rose for Ecclesiastes have also edged up. And one of my favourites, The Sands of Mars, has gratifyingly surged from 191st to 106th place.
Of course there have to be losers as well as winners, but let's seek a positive explanation that fits everything. How about this: you the veteran readers of Solar System Heritage are becoming so knowledgeable that you now prefer to pore over the details, having already assimilated the big picture.