the sunport vista:


The Samuel Pepys of the OSS...

2022 May 24th:   


Two Venusian lands are portrayed in the novel Perelandra itself - the island referred to as the "Fixed Land", where it is forbidden to stay overnight, and the much larger land where Ransom ends up in the final chapters and which contains the "Hill of Life", Tai Harendrimar.  But in the next and final volume of C S Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy we are told of a third land.

On page 337 of my Bodley Head hardback unabridged edition of That Hideous Strength, Ransom, speaking to Merlin, says:

"The ring of the King... is on Arthur's finger where he sits in the House of Kings in the cup-shaped land of Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra..."

Until recently I tended to assume that Abhalljin was another name for, or a name for a part of, the same land-mass that contains Tai Harendrimar, for that sacred mountain-top is also described as cup-shaped.  But in my most recent re-reading I realized this was not so, when I compared the reference with the later one on page 458. 

This time it is Dr Dimble, Ransom's scholarly associate, who provides the information:

"...There are people who have never died.  We do not yet know why.  We know a little more than we did about the How.  There are many places in the universe - I mean, this same physical universe in which our planet moves - where an organism can last practically for ever.  Where Arthur is, we know."

"Where?" said Camilla.

"In the Third Heaven, in Perelandra.  In Aphallin, the distant island which the descendants of Tor and Tinidril will not find for a hundred centuries..."

It seems clear from the two references to where King Arthur is, that what Ransom calls Abhalljin when speaking in Latin is the same as what Dimble calls Aphallin when speaking in English.

Loving these books as I do, I enjoy, after the main reading, the piecing together of extra fragmentary references and clues.  For example:

[1] The Sea of Lur is mentioned in Perelandra, page 194:

"...The King has not told you all.  Maleldil drove him far away into a green sea where forests grow up from the bottom through the waves..."

"Its name is Lur," said the King.

[2] The "hundred centuries" mentioned by Dimble seem, from evidence in the earlier volume, to refer to Venusian rather than Terran centuries (the former being of course about two-thirds the length of the latter).  We glean this from pages 195-6 of Perelandra.

Page 195:  "...While this World goes about Arbol ten thousand times, we shall judge and hearted our people from this throne..."

Page 196:  "...When the time is ripe for it and the ten thousand circlings are nearly at an end, we will tear the sky curtain and Deep Heaven shall become familiar to the eyes of our sons as the trees and the waves to ours."

Putting it all together, it looks like the tearing of the sky curtain and the discovery of Abhalljin/Aphallin will be more or less synchronous.  That raises interesting questions...

The sense of mystery still permeates the great story, a huge, tantalising backdrop to the trilogy, in a fashion that reminds me of the way Tolkien ensures that Middle Earth is haunted by its past. 

Lewis, however, also ensures that his trilogy is haunted by the future. 

2022 May 16th:   


Dylan Jeninga has sent me an illustration of the above, commenting, "Apparently one would climb into a rocket and then journey to 'Venus' to see its jungles, dinosaurs and a budding Martian colony. Would've loved to see it!"  So would I.  Here's the picture:

The fairground space-trip reminds me of Ray Bradbury's moving short tale The Rocket (to be found in The Illustrated Man), about a father who gives his children an unforgettable space-travelling experience that on a literal level is "merely" fake but on an emotional and spiritual level is real.

The 1939 World's Fair inspires poignant thoughts about how great futurity used to be.  (I imagine the daydreams that might have gone through the mind of the later-to-be-great British sf author Eric Frank Russell, who crossed the Atlantic to attend that Fair.)  The world was soon to be engulfed in war, which put paid to many dreams, while in a darkened tone it nevertheless gave rise to the technical marvels which soon made the space age come true.  In 1930, Olaf Stapledon's future history Last And First Men had imagined that Man only got round to achieving space flight hundreds of millions of years in our future, when the imminent destruction of Earth made travel to other worlds imperative; yet the first man to walk on the Moon was born in the very year that book appeared...

2022 May 15th:   


“A crux is a textual passage that is corrupted to the point that it is difficult or impossible to interpret and resolve.”

So my online dictionary defines the word "crux", in its literary-critical sense.

A notorious example of such a crux in Hamlet is The dram of eale / Doth all the noble substance of a doubt / To his own scandal.  It makes no sense as it stands, so we have to assume that something has gone wrong with that bit of text during its transmission from Shakespeare to us.

For some reason I am reminded of a couple of stumbling-blocks in the otherwise smooth flow of my thoughts as I read Perelandra.  In the past few days, during a zillionth re-reading of that wonderful volume in C S Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy, I came across those difficult bits again and decided to share them with the readers of this Diary. 

To be precise, there are three of these odd places in the book.  I reckon that only the third one is possibly a "crux" in the sense defined above.  The first two are - in my view - points where the problem lies in my own mind: I simply don't get what Lewis was trying to say.  That's so unusual, given his usual clarity of expression and the sympathy between his views and mine, that I am reminded of the bafflements arising from textual corruption.

Now to give references to the three problem points.  For the first one, I have put the key part in bold.

[1] Page 55:

“What are you talking about” said Ransom.

“I mean,” said she, “that in your world Maleldil first took Himself this form, the form of your race and mine.”

“You know that?” said Ransom sharply.  Those who have had a dream which is very beautiful but from which, nevertheless, they have ardently desired to wake, will understand his sensations.

[2] Page 116:

“Hush,” said the Lady, “let us listen to the rain.”  Then, after a moment, she added, “What was that?  It was some beast I never heard before” – and indeed, there had been something very like a low growl close beside them.

“I do not know,” said the voice of Weston.

“I think I do,” said Ransom.

[3] Page 136

“Mercy,” he groaned; and then, “Lord, why not me?”  But there was no answer.

[3] is, I suspect, a mere misprint of words which should have been “why me?”  In support of this, one may cite the place on the next page which reads:  He asked no longer ‘Why me?’

[2] (now that I think of it) might have a simple answer after all.  The growl could have come from Weston's throat, the Devil in possession of him having been peeved at the Lady's interruption of his story-telling.

That leaves [1] and this is the important one for me. 

I just cannot think up an explanation.  If it's something to do with Ransom's difficulty with the way the old Malacandrian creatures are reduced in some sense to being "back numbers", I can only say that the connection between that idea and the actual words in this passage is completely obscure to me.

If anyone has any light to shed on this matter, I'd be interested to see it, the more so since it's so very, very rare that I have any difficulty with reading Lewis!

2022 April 22nd:   


The following extract comes from the same tale as the recent entry 193 in the Guess The World series.

“…We’re falling rapidly toward the planet.  I can only see half of it, filling the entire horizon.  The color is almost exactly that of a pearl in moonlight, white with blue lights and absolutely featureless.  Sunlight out here is indescribably weak.  Our spectroscope, handled by Professor Reuter, shows the atmosphere is high in fluorine, with traces of argon, and outside that a thin belt, a very thin belt of helium and hydrogen…  We have accurate temperature readings now, folks, and what they say is 200 degrees below zero, which is plenty chilly.  You could drive a nail with a butter hammer at that temperature, folks, and it means we will have to do our exploring by diving, since the whole surface of the planet will be covered, perhaps miles deep, by liquid gases…"

It struck me that this sort of thing might do well in a page, or a series, concerning the approach trajectory to various worlds.  I remember as particularly impressive the account of the approach to Mars in Rex Gordon's No Man Friday, in which the reader feels he's there with the apparently doomed pilot whose hurtling flight towards the Red Planet is "suicide on a grand scale".

It's the kind of experience which is most suited to the first ever voyage to another world. 

What a shame that if humans ever do really go out and explore the System, it will all have been imaged beforehand!

Still, never mind the drawbacks of real life, at least we have literature...

2022 April 9th:  


This is the name given to the following scene, the artist being Steve R Dodd:

(My thanks to Dylan Jeninga for sending me the picture.)

Does it show Plutonian life of a kind, or are the formations entirely due to the physical processes and effects of extreme cold?  Or could some of them even be artificial structures?

(The example that comes to my mind when I consider how artificial some natural things look, is the so-called "Giant's Causeway" in Ireland.  Geology certainly put on a magically misleading show there.)

If I were writing a tale based on the picture, I might be tempted to explore the life/non-life boundary, perhaps in an effort to envisage some third realm that is neither category as we know it.

Be that as it may, one might choose Pluto as an example of a world like our Moon whose "deadness" is very lively...  full of personality, one might say.

2022 February 17th:  


It seems I'm unnecessarily pessimistic sometimes.  For example I quite often rather gloomily reflect that I've read so much OSS literature from the great old days, that there can't be that much of it left to discover.  Or even, that there can't be any...

That sombre mood has been lightened considerably during the past few days, during which I've been reading William F Temple's 1954 'juvenile' novel, Martin Magnus, Planet Rover.

I had purchased it in December 1995, second hand, for £1, and hadn't bothered to read it for the ensuing 26 years, simply allowing it to lie fallow on my bookshelf.  It was a "just in case" purchase, without much hope that this garish paperback with the childish title would prove really worth reading.

How wrong I was!  I ought to have guessed that it was likely to be good stuff, from the fact that it was by William F Temple, author of the marvellous Shoot at the Moon, which abounds in excellent characterisation and climaxes with a wonderful encounter of "borderline life".  Yet when, a few days ago, I started to read the Martin Magnus book at last, it was not through any great expectation of enjoyment, but merely because I suspected it might contain material I could use on the Guess The World page.  (And so it did - see entry 179 in the quiz.)  The surprise it gave me was extremely pleasant. 

The ingenious plot, which ranges from Earth to Moon to Venus, involves widely different intelligent species and an exceptionally well-drawn and original human protagonist.  From the blurb ("Meet Martin Magnus, Space Investigator, who runs into trouble wherever he goes...") I had pictured a sort of Captain Future super-hero type.  Not a bit of it.  Magnus is an enigma to his superiors and colleagues.  A troubleshooting spaceman with a superb success record, he's a Londoner whose only desire is to go home and live among his Bermondsey Cockney neighbours.

Another spaceman who visits his home remarks,

"...I expected to find the place a sort of museum - you know, chunks of lunar rock under glass... meteorites, rare Martian plants in pots, possibly genuine Martian sculptures, photos of spaceships, the Andromeda nebula, and sunrise over the Straight Wall - that sort of thing."

"That sort of thing," said Magnus, deliberately, "belongs anywhere but here.  This is my home.  Here I want to feel safe from that sort of thing.  I don't even want to be reminded that it exists."

"If you hate that life, why ever did you go in for it?"

"You're the hundredth person who's asked that, and the answer isn't simple.  I'll tell you some other time - maybe.  Let's eat now.  I always eat out here - I'm a wretched cook."

Later, as a concession to a colleague who had rescued him from a tight spot, he does confide the truth about his motives, explaining that although "the sight of the stars scares me green", he feels he owes it to the community that cared for him when he was orphaned, to "use my ability to the utmost to preserve life".  That means troubleshooting on that dangerous frontier which he believes to be essential for humanity despite the fact that "anywhere outside of Bermondsey I'm always out of my element.  I feel insecure, lonely, and scared.  So to hide it, I have to act tough."

Not a stereotypical hero.  But we the readers can enjoy the exotic scenes of his adventures even if he doesn't.  I'm certainly tempted to hunt for the two sequels, Martin Magnus on Venus and Martin Magnus on Mars

The more I think about 20th century sf, the more I feel inclined to label the 1950s and 1960s the true Golden Age.  The sheer wonder and power of the human imagination in this connection is dazzling.  What came before then was brilliant pioneering, but those decades saw a literary explosion in which authors roamed among the worlds as if they owned them - a staggering outburst of confident genius.

And I'm left to wonder how much of it I have still to find; what other gems may lurk in odd corners of second-hand bookshops, in garish paperback covers, with misleadingly simplistic blurbs.

2022 February 3rd:   


A line maintenance man pleads with his boss to shut down Saskeega power station because of what has evolved in the wires.

"You can't just let it build, Stan.  It's too bloody awful to think about.  If this thing gets started..."

Mainwaring shook his head.  "Rick, I'm in a vise.  I'm caught in the same trap as everybody else.  It's the sort of trap only the human race could have invented for itself.  It could have sprung any time.  It's chosen now.  We're hooked on our own technology.

"Those lines have got to stay in.  We need 'em.  We're dead without them.  Could be we're dead with them as well, that's just too bad.  But we can't turn the clock back.  We can't scrap electricity just because it's turned mean.

"I've told you what I know is true.  But I didn't tell you I believed it.  This is one of those times when knowing and believing are two different things.  I can't let myself believe this because of what I am at Saskeega.  I can't believe it on a personal basis either because it represents the descent to what I've been taught to regard as unreason.  I can't take a fall like that."

The theme of being hooked on, or trapped in, technology, is portrayed as powerfully, in the different context of nuclear power, by Heinlein in Blowups Happen.  But in David Stringer's High Eight we see the even finer development of a related theme, that of the inability to "change mental gear" in time to adjust to dreadful knowledge (I'm reminded of Stephen King's Salem's Lot).  Rick, the line maintenance man, knows he must get out, must get his family out, must snap out of his mental groove... but he is just too slow.  

Rick drove up to his own place.  Everything was quiet... he went and stood outside where he could see the valley, the mountain beyond, the lines moving up there like cobwebs miles away.  He kept thinking he ought to be packing, they all ought to be getting out.  But it was still too crazy.  It was like throwing away job and future and home and all the folk you knew because one night you'd had a bad dream.  It was all so peaceful.  The air smelled good, there just couldn't be a Thing in the wires that was fixing to kill everybody on earth...

- David Stringer, High Eight, in New Writings in SF-4, ed. John Carnell (1965)

One encouraging thing about all this: we needn't feel we're lagging behind our neighbouring worlds in the monster-breeding business.

2022 January 27th:   


The Transplutonian planet which is the setting for The Eternal Machines by William Spencer (New Writings in SF - 2 (1964), ed. John Carnell) is a lifeless but vividly portrayed world, the junkyard of the Solar System.

...Robot ships shuttled in regularly from the more favoured planets of the system, bringing with them a capacity load of obsolete and unwanted junk of all kinds... The cast-offs from a machine-dominated culture... The dented detritus of the march of progress...

A warden named Rosco, an enthusiastic tinkerer with old machines, is the sole inhabitant.  Rosco has just about the loneliest job in existence - and he likes it that way.  He has created a special museum area:

...a clearing about two hundred yards square.  Rosco had arranged, some time past, for the ground in this area to be left clear of junk.  He had done so by the somewhat devious expedient of temporarily re-siting the sonic beacons which gave the dump trucks from the freighters their co-ordinates on the surface of the planet.

The cleared space had become Rosco's own private retreat.  An oasis of order in the midst of piled-up disorder.  Here he could pursue his obsession undisturbed.

With the loving care of a dedicated collector, he had reassembled some of the original machines from the dumps, salvaging a part here and joining a part there.  In the inert atmosphere of the planet, these specimens of human technological equipment might last well over a million years...

The Eternal Machines is an unusual story, tragic yet undramatic, yet the food for thought which the author intends to offer us - a meditation on waste and obsolescence, on the nature of human heritage - is not what I intend to comment on here.

The aspect I wish to highlight is the character of the planet itself and what it tells us about the GAWI process in OSS literature.

You would expect, would you not, to find that the outermost planet in the System is deadly cold.  Yet the coldness of Planet Chaos doesn't come through to the reader.  Lonely it certainly is, desolate and lacking a breathable atmosphere, and these austere qualities imbue it with a mood quite fit for its location in the outermost reaches of the System.  But all this just goes to demonstrate an unexpected principle at work, which I might put crudely thus: "if you follow some of the rules of realism, you are allowed to ignore the others".  It would seem that once you've attained the minimum requirement, the pass mark of plausibility, you're home and dry.  Applying that idea in this story, we might say: the author gives Planet Chaos so much of the feel of an outermost planet, he has banked so much in his plausibility-account, that he is sufficiently in credit for him to leave out the cold.

Heap it up with enough awesome desolation, loneliness and sterility, and you can have an OSS outermost planet that doesn't freeze you - instead, it numbs you by its isolation.  Who needs physical cold when you can have metaphorical?