the sunport vista:
zendexor's
oss
diary

2024

The Samuel Pepys of the OSS...

2024 June 13th:

A SPACE-BOOT IN BOTH CAMPS

The boundary between the Old Solar System and the Real Solar System is clear enough - the OSS is based on pre-space-age ideas, the RSS on what, in the Space Age, is scientifically believed.

It's possible, though, for writers to create works intended to straddle that boundary.  Irrespective of their degree of success, I find such attempts interesting.

Let's class them in two kinds - the backward-gazing RSS and the forward-gazing OSS. 

First: the reluctant, backward-gazing, boot-dragging realists: 

John Varley's In the Hall of the Martian Kings (1976) and Arthur C Clarke's Transit of Earth (1971) are both space-age tales set on Mars.  They are written by modernists who, despite their realism, hanker so strongly after the old-style Mars that they do their utmost to stretch backward towards the idea of advanced Martian life, like clever lawyers looking for loopholes to avoid a conviction.

Clarke's story was written after the discouraging results from the first flybys, Mariners 4, 6 and 7; nothing daunted, the author conjures up future probes which provide evidence more to his liking:

...Those moving patches on the orbital photographs.  The evidence that whole areas of Mars have been swept clear of craters, by forces other than erosion.  The long-chain, optically active carbon molecules picked up by the atmospheric samplers.

   And, of course, the mystery of Viking 6.  Even now, no one has been able to make any sense of those last instrument readings, before something large and heavy crushed the probe in the still, cold depths of the Martian night...

   And, don't talk to me about primitive life forms in a place like this!  Anything that's survived here will be so sophisticated that we may look as clumsy as dinosaurs...

Varley's story, written later still, well after the Mariner 9 orbiter's survey, seizes the excuse offered by long-term orbital fluctuations (a theme likewise exploited by Ian Watson in his 1977 novel The Martian Inca).  Varley's In the Hall of the Martian Kings sets out the scientific background thus:

"You've heard of the long-period Martian seasonal theories?  Well, part of it is more than a theory.  The combination of the Martian polar inclination, the precessional cycle, and the eccentricity of the orbit produces seasons that are about twelve thousand years long.  We're in the middle of winter, though we landed in the nominal 'summer'.  It's been theorized that if there were any Martian life, it would have adapted to these longer cycles.  It hibernates in spores during the cold cycle, when the water and carbon dioxide freeze out at the poles, then comes out when enough ice melts to permit biological processes..."

Terrans landing on Mars unwittingly trigger these processes ahead of schedule, which will allow an encounter with Martians. 

Like the Clarke scenario, the Varley one seems far-fetched but not impossible, and so long as it's not impossible, we can class it as RSS not OSS.

Second, let's take a look at the opposite "straddling":

Here, instead of realism weighted by nostalgia, we consider the converse: that's to say, late-period OSS writings which are influenced enough by space-age discoveries that the reader is able to have the sweetness of his nostalgic brew sharpened with some astringent drops of modernist, real, space-age science.  Not that the reader's critical faculty is really fooled.  Yet the tincture of realism is a shade stronger than that provided by the OSS' traditionally perfunctory nods towards science.  For these new nods are Space-Age. 

The perfect example is provided by Lin Carter's quartet of lost-race Mars novels, collectively called The Mysteries of Mars.  The first to be written, but the latest in internal chronology, is The Man Who Loved Mars (1973).  The other three are: The Valley Where Time Stood Still (1974), The City Outside the World (1977), and Down to a Sunless Sea (1984).

In some moods I can enjoy them as novels, in others as mere curiosities.  Either way, one opinion which I hold steadily is that they are vastly better than Carter's frustrating pseudo-Burroughsian Thanator (Callisto) series.

In The Mysteries of Mars, Carter makes a noticeable effort to imagine how space-age data and the romantic old Mars might be reconciled.  He can't actually convince - or he convinces only by collusion with the reader's ability to suspend disbelief - but the fact that he tries at all is what gives the series its flavour.  Juxtaposition of denial and affirmation is the game he plays: a technique which you can view either as a sort of con, or as a praiseworthy attempt at psychological preparation.

...The shaggy border of the canal shrank behind us, merging in a purplish-brown line that seemed to stretch across the world from north to south with such perfect precision that you could swear it had been inked across the dustlands with a mapping pen.  The canals of Mars are really patchy, broken areas of low, thick-leaved shrubs and very dense moss which flourish - if that's really the word for such marginal survival - along subsurface crustal lesions where moisture has been trapped for ages by sheets of solid bedrock.  From a distance, due to optical effects, these fertile stretches of vegetation seem to take on an astounding regularity which suggested to early astronomers that they were vast artificial waterways... 
                                                                                    - The Man Who Loved Mars, p.44

This stuff is not quite the Neo-OSS about which I've written elsewhere: that's to say, tales which simply ignore Space Age findings.  There's an infinite literary future in the full-blown, defiant NOSS, whereas I suspect that Lin Carter's sort of balancing act will not be repeated outside the early decades of the space age - unless, that is, it sprouts its own tradition of hybrid tales!

2024 May 20th:

BEYOND THE 'LOW WORLDS'

The sub-genre of Old Solar System literature tends, naturally, towards habitability of settings.  But habitability for whom?  We could reasonably suppose that the gas giants may be homes to beings which are not what we'd recognize as life - after all we really do not know what might be out there - in which case the OSS and the Real may overlap, even now, in the outer regions of the System.

This fringe-overlap unfortunately can't provide a setting for human adventure on the giant worlds in the style of Captain Future, or of John Carter's final adventure, Skeleton Men of Jupiter, or of Suddaby's Prisoners of Saturn - all of which exemplify my own favourite style of literary treatment of the outer planets.

Yet a few writers have successfully straddled the boundary by plotting some means of transference of consciousness whereby a human protagonist can experience (for example) a Jovian setting in a Jovian body.  Think of Clifford Simak's Desertion, or of Poul Anderson's Call Me Joe.  These are favourites too; tales of unforgettable brilliance.

Could one go further, and write of a mind-swap with some entity that does not possess what we'd call a body at all?

For some time I've been intending to mention the following snippet of conversation with the Green Lady in chapter five of Perelandra:

"What do you know about other worlds?" asked Ransom.

"I know this.  Beyond the roof it is all deep heaven, the high place.  And the low is not really spread out as it seems to be" (here she indicated the whole landscape) "but is rolled up into little balls: little lumps of the low swimming in the high.  And the oldest and greatest of them have on them that which we have never seen nor heard and cannot at all understand.  But on the younger Maleldil has made to grow the things like us, that breathe and breed."

If someone were to write a tale in which an explorer by some means went that far, the result would go way beyond the sub-genre of the OSS; yet perhaps the inspiration could be traced back here... 

2024 May 12th:

CLARKE MISTARGETS THE LAKE OF DEATH

In The Challenge of the Spaceship (1959) Arthur C Clarke included an essay on lunar nomenclature, "The Men on the Moon", which in my view is unworthy of a writer who (however superficial his metaphysics) had plenty of poetry in his soul. 

He admits that names like "Ocean of Storms" are "picturesque", but the main drift of his argument is a tut-tutting one.

...It is unfortunate...  that so many of these names are fanciful, cumbersome or downright inappropriate.  Since all the major formations on this side of the Moon have already been labeled, it is probably too late to do much about them except in the most extreme cases.  (Future lunar colonists may take violent exception to living in Hell, the Marsh of Putridity or the Lake of Death.)  The least we can do, however, is to make sure that the maps of the other side are less medieval and inconvenient...

...Indeed, and therefore we need not wonder why the Farside names are so much more boring!

Clarke is quite interesting on the Jesuit astronomer, Joannes Riccioli of Bologna, who published his lunar map in 1651.  But despite Fr. Riccioli's scheme being "a consistent one", Clarke clearly finds its survival something of an embarrassment.  For example, with regard to the lunar maria, although

   ...Riccioli knew perfectly well that they were dry plains, he christened them seas...  oceans, lakes, bays and so on.  In the actual naming he really let his imagination go, being strongly influenced by astrological ideas and the notion that the Moon's first quarter promotes good weather while its last quarter brings storms and rain...  [Clarke then lists a lot of the names, ending his paragraph thus:]  We can be slightly thankful that, somewhere in the last three centuries, Riccioli's Bay of Epidemics and Peninsula of Delirium have dropped by the wayside.

Oh, I don't know.  I concede that "Peninsula Deliriorum" as an address would be a bit of a mouthful but you could shorten it while retaining some of its zest.  That's what happened to plenty of place-names in my own country after all - consider how "Beorhthelmes tūn" (Beorhthelm's farmstead) was eventually shortend to "Brighton".

How about Pendeliorum...?

2024 May 8th:

AN EERIE MOMENT IN THE BODLEIAN

Though never a student at any Oxford college I managed to obtain permission during 1977-78 (when I was lodging in Oxford) to use the Bodleian Library.  And my most vivid memory from there is of the occasion when I ordered from the stacks a copy of Fontenelle's Discourse on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), in the original French.  It may have been an eighteen-century reprint but it was nonetheless a very old little book, in perfect condition, and I felt privileged just to be allowed to handle it. 

Moreover the text turned out to be easy to follow, the French simple and clear.  It's a charming sedate dialogue between a gentleman and a lady concerning the possibility of life on other worlds.  One detail amazed me above all and has stayed in my memory.  I certainly can't remember the exact words so I can only try to convey the gist very loosely.  The dialogue had turned to the topic of the moon.

LADY: But surely we can never know whether these ideas are true.  After all, the Moon is forever out of our reach.  No one will ever be able to go and see.

GENTLEMAN: With regard to that, I am not so sure; I don't think we can quite rule out the possibility that one day people will be able to reach the Moon.

My awareness that this little passage had been composed way back in the seventeenth century, induced in me a degree of awe, that I have never forgotten.  We'll never know, this side of the grave, what was in Fontenelle's mind.  His hunch seems all the more valid as prophecy, in that he did not outline any speculation about how such a voyage might be accomplished.  He did not know, and did not pretend to know; all he did know was, that Time stretches vastly and the future is likely to be astonishing. 

And what we can know from Fontenelle's remarkable guess, is that some of our own way-out prognostications may eventually hit the bull's eye!

2024 May 5th:

MISLEADING BEAUTY

Confession time.

I've just finished a podcast in which the Roll Off A Tangent team discuss Brightside Crossing by Alan Nourse.  As a further bit of contemplation I then re-read the page on this site which concerns that story.  It has struck me that one thing I neglected to mention was the strong impression made on my young self by the beauty of artists' impressions of Dayside Mercury.  The baked rocks - yellow in the story - and lava-filled cracks make for good dramatic art.  But the beauty is deadly.  To go to a place like that for real would be to meet with suffering and death.  Yet my naive younger self - very young indeed I was, just a little boy seeing those pictures - was so captivated by the colours, at such a deep mental level, that when I grew up the captivation remained in force, so that if the actual opportunity had been offered to me to go to a Mercurian Dayside for real I might well have been daft enough to take it up!

End of confession.

(I shall announce the podcast as usual when it becomes available.)

2024 May 4th:   

MULTI-GENETIC WORLDS

One of my pleas for themed stories (see others in Tales Unwritten).

I was browsing in my Weinbaum collection and came across this bit of Redemption Cairn:

   ...In the ephemeris, Europa is dismissed prosaically...  For an astronomical ephemeris isn't concerned with the thin film of life that occasionally blurs a planet's surface; it has nothing to say of the slow libration of Europa that sends intermittent tides of air washing against the mountain slopes under the tidal drag of Jupiter, nor of the waves that sometimes spill air from valley to valley, and sometimes spill alien life as well.
   Least of all is the ephemeris concerned with the queer forms that crawl now and then right up out of the air pools, to lie on the vacuum-bathed peaks exactly as strange fishes flopped their way out of the Earthly seas to bask on the sands at the close of the Devonian age...  

Life may have originated more than once on Earth, although I gather than all current terrestrial life is related.  But life must surely be even more likely to originate and to survive in unrelated phyla on worlds which possess habitable areas that are cut off from one another. 

Weinbaum's Europa, and the Mercury of isolated valleys described by Leigh Brackett in Shannach - The Last, and perhaps the Saturn described by Arthur K Barnes in one of his Gerry Carlyle stories, are likely scenarios for such multi-genetic development.  The theme isn't exploited to the full - the authors had other fish to fry - but what brimming possibilities in this bounteous idea!  (Not the first time I've suddenly been overcome by such excitement - see last year's Diary entry Pockets of atmosphere.)

The payoff would come when the author plots a tale in which one life-system goes over the ridge and meets another.  The contact would combine the "otherness" of interplanetary travel with the grounded immediacy of planetary romance. 

2024 April 29th:

EARTH AFTER MILLENNIA OF GALACTIC SPREAD

Emphyrio is one of Jack Vance's novels with an interstellar setting.  Towards the end of the story the hero visits Earth, wishing to consult the Historical Institute about a mystery that has long haunted his mind.  Vance's depiction of Earth a few tens of thousands of years in our future - see chapter 19 - is a splendid evocation of a culturally old yet lively world (a world, moreover, in which someone from our own era could still live - see The surprisingly human Vancian future).

   For a month Ghyl roamed Earth, exploring the cloud-towers of America, the equally marvellous submarine cities of the Great Barrier Reef, the vast wilderness parks over which air-cars were not permitted to fly.  He visited the restored dawn-cities of Athens, Babylon, Memphis, medieval Bruges, Venice, Regensburg.  Everywhere, often light but sometimes so heavy as to be oppressive, lay the weight of history.  Each trifling area of soil exhaled a plasm: the recollection of a million tragedies, a million triumphs; of births and deaths; kisses exchanged; blood spilled; the char of fire and energy; songs, glees, incantations, war-chants, frenzies.  The soil reeked of events; history lay in strata, in crusts; in eras, continuities, discontinuities.  At night ghosts were common, so Ghyl was told: in the precincts of old palaces, in the mountains of the Caucasus, on the heaths and moors of the north.
   Ghyl began to believe that Earth-folk were preoccupied with the past, a theory reinforced by the numerous historical pageants, the survival of anachronistic traditions, the existence of the Historical Institute, which recorded, digested, cross-filed, and analyzed every shred of fact pertinent to human origin and development...  The Historical Institute!  Presently he would visit the Institute's headquarters in London...

It's just occurred to me that in some sense Vance's Earth bears quite a lot of resemblance, mood-wise, to Old Mars!

leafing-through-amazing-july-1931leafing through Amazing Stories, July 1931 (the cover announces "Spacehounds of IPC")

2024 April 7th:

BE NOT OVER-PROTECTIVE OF OLD PULPS

Browsing in my collection of Golden Age sf magazines I asked myself, "Why don't I do this more often?" 

Partly it's that by and large the best stories are to be found collected in books.  But that doesn't altogether diminish the attraction of the magazines, which are full of character and nostalgic atmosphere.

No, a good deal of the motivation for NOT leafing through the pulps is that every time I do so some of their substance flakes off!  In that respect they're a diminishing asset.  Their mortality becomes all too visibly obvious whenever one of them is lifted from the shelf.

However, here comes philosophy to the rescue.  A more positive, live-for-the-moment attitude to enable me to enjoy the collection without worrying too much about preserving it.  Instead of over-protecting stuff that is bound to vanish at some later point in the time-line whatever I do, why not be content with an awareness of the eternal reality of the time-line itself?  After all, anything that has ever been is anchored permanently in its indestructible temporal niche.

Hardly an original thought, this.  But it sure is particularly apt for sf pulp collections!

2024 April 5th:

A NINETEENTH-CENTURY QUARRY OF STORY-IDEAS

While engaged in putting another couple of entries on the History of Hopes page, and reading around them in the vast reference work The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900 by Michael J Crowe, it occurred to me, more forcibly than ever before, how authors of present-day NOSS fiction could do very well to browse in that volume. 

For example we find that John Herschel (son of William) in a treatise of 1833 has what seems to me would have been a brilliant idea for 1930s style Amazing Stories fiction.  He talks of

...absolute aridity below the vertical sun, constant accretion of hoar frost in the opposite region, and, perhaps, a narrow zone of running water at the borders of the enlightened hemisphere.  It is possible, then, that evaporation on the one hand, and condensation on the other, may to a certain extend preserve an equilibrium of temperature, and mitigate the extreme severity of both climates.

Now think of this in connection with the slow rotation of the Moon: the narrow opposite zones of frost and running water would be always on the move, always impossible to spot from Earth due to their positions on the terminator, but waiting as a surprise for the first lunar explorers... 

Ideal for an early gosh-wow Hamilton story.

2024 March 22nd:   

URANIAN POLITICS AND A HEATING ENGINEER'S CALLIGRAPHY

To illustrate the inexaustible richness of life's interconnectedness, exemplified by the limitless options of associational thinking, here is a true little anecdote.

A few days ago our gas-boiler went on the blink and we had to get an engineer to fix it.  (Fortunately it's under a seven-year warranty.)  After he'd fixed it he informed us it had been a problem with the "diverter pipe".  And that's what he wrote on his report; at least, I suppose it was - but his handwriting, which makes an "r" look like an "n" and an "e" look like an "o", suggests "dionton" rather than "diverter".

Now this got me thinking up a name, and an idea to go with it, amounting to a useful little brick in my edifice of world-building

In recent weeks I've been trying to work out, in greater detail than before, the contents of the final volume of Uranian Throne - specifically the climacteric chapters in Olhoav, which deal with the tyranny of Dempelath.  One aspect of this misrule could be the imposition of new vocabulary on the long-suffering subject population.  Renaming things in a tendentious way; Newspeak, and so forth.  One target whom the regime could aim at is the the city-brain, Dynoom.

Dynoom, an ancient and humane AI, is a natural focus of opposition to Dempelath.  The latter could not risk destroying this Brain, which is needed for city maintenance, but instead could try to enforce an uncomplimentary renaming.  What could be the new and insulting name?  Well, why not adapt "dionton"?!  Change the vowels to be more suggestive of lowering, of underneath-ness, and we get "Dyuntun", a derivation, perhaps, of a Uranian term for "excrement" - who knows?  And the regime would proceed to "cancel" anyone who insists on still calling the Brain by nen's true name, Dynoom. 

I ought to thank the engineer really...

2024 March 18th:

THE SURPRISINGLY HUMAN VANCIAN FUTURE

Currently re-reading the Cadwal Chronicles by Jack Vance, especially volume 2, much of which is set on Earth, I am reminded of the distinctively "normal" future portrayed in this and in his other Gaean Reach novels.

They are set tens of thousands of years from now, in an epoch in which human settlement spans "a perceptible fraction of the galaxy", and yet though there are innumerable cultures on countless worlds, some of them weird in their ideologies and customs, none of them have that techno-weirdness which advanced far-future societies tend to have in sf.

It's as though we might have a third option, one that is neither going computer-crazy or genetically engineered crazy, nor stagnant and neo-medieval; neither dystopic nor savage: rather we might, instead, relax into a chaotic, colourful sprawl of recognizably human civilizations.

Even Old Earth itself is neither built-over nor a wilderness; it is very, very old but as ramshackle as ever, full of cultural nooks and crannies.  The heroine, Wayness Tamm, visits old Kiev, and we're told it has been rebuilt long since in the same style as before; the rebuilt version now already aged. 

Vance can make the scenario believable by his provision of relatively cheap interstellar flight and an abundance of habitable destinations.  I reckon it would really work that way: given such a state of affairs there'd be a sort of Sprawl Effect causing a relaxation of social tensions and of historical pressures, so that techno wizardry would no longer be in such demand, nor would "progress" (i.e. a regime of ever-weirder arrangements) keep its hold.  An old city might be rebuilt without the occasion serving as an excuse for modernisers to obliterate the place's character.

In which case, we really might be in for a long afternoon of human humanity.  Just one problem: I don't see cheap interstellar flight ever being achieved...

2024 February 7th:

SYNCHRONICITIES OF 1967

The growth of legends is an unplanned evolution, springing from the confluence and overlap of ideas, and it's fascinating to catch it in its early stages.  One of the reasons I am a post-Columbian American history buff is that one can watch a documented rise of a culture's character from the outset, its mystery materialising in the clear light of day (pre-Columbian has a different allure altogether, more like early British history, its origins fading back into the mists of time).

The growth of literary Old Solar System worlds is another instance of traditions' growths via creation-by-overlaps.  I've gone on about this sort of thing often enough, in the pages of this site and in the introductions to the Vintage Worlds anthologies.

Just now I'd like to mention a third instance: something created by the conjunction of fictional dates. 

It has become obvious, as I come across more and more references to add to the Fictional Dates page, that for some reason certain year-numbers have acquired (shall we say) a more dramatic ring-tone than others.  Not the obvious "round-number" ones either: just have a look at the page, scroll to the year 1967 and you'll see what I mean. 

No fewer than four authors are cited with their own fictional "take" on 1967.  Three of them - Burroughs, Cooper and Cummings - refer to it as a notable war year.  Clarke has it as a milestone in space exploration.

As one might expect, such coincidence becomes rarer the further ahead one looks along the infinite timeline.  It becomes more a matter of spotting the clumps or clusters that appear in specific decades rather than single years.  For instance you could maybe have a look at the 2050s and the 2170s.  And please let me know of any discoveries of your own, that would do well on the timeline!

Come to think of it, the 2020s are pretty rich...

john carter movie

2024 January 29th:

THE DISNEY JOHN CARTER

My wife Mary bought me the DVD for my 70th birthday, which was on 20th January, and we got round to settling down to watch it last Saturday, the 28th.  I have to say...

Stid:  Stop before you opine: I'm more interested to know how she got on with it.

Zendexor:  She quit part way through.  Apologetically, she excused herself on the ground that she found it "rather weird".  I dare say she's not used to Martians.

Stid:  Whereas you must have been in your element...

Zendexor:  Well, no: actually I found it weird too, but for a different reason: namely, that I could only comprehend about a tenth of the dialogue.  Why actors slur their lines like that, I cannot imagine.  I don't suppose they're drunk, so what is it? 

Stid:  Perhaps what it is, is that you're exaggerating.

Zendexor: If I am it's only because I ought also to allow for how the sound track drowns out some of the words.  But the slurring is the main problem.  It's certainly not that I am incapable of understanding an American drawl.  Admittedly, the best English - in fact, quasi-comphrehensible - is achieved by the Therns, who, being villains, naturally sound more British than anyone else in the movie.  Yet never have I had had any trouble with understanding (for example) Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper or John Wayne.  But this guy playing John Carter... most of his utterances might as well have been in Etruscan as far as I'm concerned. 

Stid:  I know what it is, Zendexor: you're going deaf.

Zendexor:  Really?  I had the same problem two decades ago with Gladiator, in which I couldn't decipher Russel Crowe's mumblings; and I certainly wasn't "deaf" then. 

Stid:  All right, then, that's enough of the bad news.  Any good news?

Zendexor:  Yes: it was fun to watch in order to see what Disney made of Barsoomian architecture and decor.  The flyers looked good too, though they were more suitable for Bradbury's ornate Mars than for the functional navies of ERB's red men.  Another plus is that Dejah Thoris was more impressive than she is in the books!  What else....  hmm, the banths.  To me they looked more like the great white apes ought to look, than the Barsoomian lions they're meant to be; but anyhow, good Barsoomian critters of whatever species.  I rather liked Woola too.  Even John Carter himself, though too scruffy and moody to be my idea of the Virginia gentleman in Burroughs' books, seemed likeable enough.

Stid:  Is that the end of your struggle to find something positive to say?

Zendexor:  No, there's more: I'm going to end with a BIG plus.  Something Disney managed which Burroughs left undone.  I refer to the whole mysterious business of how Carter travelled between the worlds.  Burroughs simply copped out, though he got away with it (and no one else would have!).  The film does better; in fact, does it beautifully.  Mystery remains, but (if I may put it this way) we're given something for the imagination to get its teeth into.

Stid:  Are you ever going to see it again, do you think?

Zendexor:  Yes - willingly - provided that I can see it with subtitles!

2024 January 27th:

"STRETCHED" HARD SCIENCE

Most of the time, I suppose, the idea we OSS fans have about the science in science fiction goes something like this: 

Whereas in our Old Solar System sub-genre of sf the science is merely an underpinning mood, the science in "hard" sf is a more disciplined and stricter restraint on what is permissible...  Most of the time, anyway.  But -

It sometimes appears that, running between this pair of attitudes, there can be a kind of cross-link, whereby the imagination's desires spill over to play a strong part even in the hard stuff. 

Let's consider a couple of episodes in the works of Arthur C Clarke.

The first is from The Sands of Mars, chapter 13.  By this stage in the novel a fortunate accident has resulted in the discovery of a species of Martian fauna, contradicting the previous belief that only flora existed on the Red Planet.  One of the Martian creatures, dubbed Squeak, has developed an affection for the story's human protagonist and has accompanied the expedition back to base:

The scientists had prepared quite a reception for Squeak, the zoologists in particular being busily at work explaining away their early explanations for the absence of animal life on Mars.

I'm especially fond of that sentence.  It's a nice touch of gentle Clarkeian irony and makes it seem that he considers scientific explanations to be mere rubber-stamp authorizations of whatever fait accompli Nature presents us with.   

One may go further - beyond what Clarke himself would have allowed - and views explanations not only as mere authorizations but as mere humble excuses, necessary window-dressing for the intellect, similar to the perfunctory nods accorded to science in OSS "soft" sf.

We thus arrive at the view that causation itself is less important than results.  Wonders are what existence demands, and must be provided.  Teleology rules! 

The other excerpt is from Childhood's End, chapter 18, in which a child has dreams which are visions of reality from far worlds.

It was a world that could never know the meaning of night or day, of years or seasons.  Six coloured suns shared its sky, so that there came only a change of light, never darkness.  Through the clash and tug of conflicting gravitational fields, the planet travelled along the loops and curves of its inconceivably complex orbit, never retracing the same path.  Every moment was unique: the configuration which the six suns now held in the heavens would not repeat itself this side of eternity.

And even here there was life.  Though the planet might be scorched by the central fires in one age, and frozen in the outer reaches in another, it was yet the home of intelligence.  The great, many-faceted crystals stood grouped in intricate geometrical patterns, motionless in the eras of cold, growing slowly along the veins of mineral when the world was warm again.  No matter if it took a thousand years for them to complete a thought.  The universe was still young, and Time stretched endlessly before them -

I discussed non-breathing life in my previous Diary entry, but here the theme is presented not by the lovably lax Edmond Hamilton but by the formidably proper Clarke!

Well, he might have said, why not?  Who's to say mineral life of that sort isn't possible, given the vastness of Time and Space and the surprises Nature can have in store?  Why should hard-sf not allow for these intelligent crystals?

Yet here's a comment I can't resist making: the thinking minerals are portrayed as being way outside our Galaxy, and I do wonder whether Clarke would have stretched his science so far, if the distance hadn't been far as well.  Can you imagine him writing about similar crystals on, say, the moons of Uranus or at the poles of Mercury?  I must say I can't.

It's like a hard-science fictioneer, when indulging in a bit of naughtiness, must do so well out of range of the OSS...  an evasion which, when you think about it, isn't so very scientific after all.

2024 January 23rd:   

AT HOME IN VACUUM: THE SPACE-DOGS OF CERES

The Three Planeteers (Startling Stories, January 1940), which I learned about from Guess The World contributor Lone Wolf (see Attacked in a fungus forest on Saturn), is a tale I'm reading bit by bit, rather than devouring at one go.  This goes to prove that I wouldn't class it among Edmond Hamilton's unputdownable yarns. 

However, it has turned out to be an unusually rich source of material.  I've quarried the text for the Guess The World, CLUFFs and Fictional Dates pages and I have good reason to hope that the plot will develop into providing yet more for GTW.  Quite good going for a single novella.

And its latest yield - GTW scene number 362 - has given me something to reflect upon here.  The "space-dogs" (see Lungless creatures evolved on airless Ceres) are great examples of one way in which the OSS can make the smaller worlds of the System more plot-friendly.

The other way is more lavish, more defiantly unrealistic: the provision of soil, water and a breathable atmosphere to tiny asteroids and moons which in actual fact can only be barren lumps.  This insouciant attitude to scene-setting has given us many a delightful read, such as Leigh Brackett's The Lake of the Gone-Forever, John Wyndham's Exiles on Asperus, Ray Bradbury's Perchance to Dream and Eric Frank Russell's The Saga of Pelican West.

(Or in a variant version the atmosphere might be too thin to be breathable by humans but yet substantial enough to support some life, which is what I seem to remember is the situation in Clark Ashton Smith's Master of the Asteroid.)

But the "lungless space-dogs" idea gives us a powerful alternative, an extra shove at the frontier of opportunity.  Airless evolution can people the coldest, darkest worlds, where even the stoutest OSS fan might baulk at the suspension of disbelief required to give them air and water and respiratory life. 

Another advantage is that it can spread native life to that world which we all think of as airless in both fact and fiction: namely, our own Moon.  (See Keyhole by Murray Leinster - discussed in Lunar surface creatures.)

One last point: is the idea of airless evolution all that unrealistic?  Life depends on - is a sort of re-arrangement of - energy, and energy in one form or another pervades the universe.  Think of cosmic rays; and then think of all the other things we haven't thought of and don't know about... and then you may conclude that the space-dogs aren't so far-fetched after all.

2024 January 17th:

NEPTUNE SCORES A POINT FOR LIFE

This little entry is a continuation of one I wrote almost seven years ago, focused upon Saturn, under the title IT JUST MIGHT BE.

In it I referred to the conversation in Footfall on the subject of whether an alien spaceship which had come from the direction of Saturn could possibly originate there.  The consensus was "no" to the possibility of a Saturnian civilization, but not an absolutely sure "no".  What fascinated me about that passage in the novel, was that although we may be used to thinking in certain boundaries, when something unexpected actually happens we are faced with the fact that we can't regard those constraints as absolute. 

"Saturn," Aylesworth said.  "Saturnians?"

"I doubt it," Ed Gillespie said.  "Saturn just doesn't get enough sunlight energy for a complex organism to evolve there.  Much less a civilization."

"Sure about that?" the President asked.

"No, sir."

I felt like cheering when I read that "No, sir".  Though in the novel itself the doubt is swiftly forgotten, the point as far as I'm concerned is memorable and vital: no matter how strongly a hard-science buff may protest that at Saturn's distance from the Sun a planet can't have the energy budget to afford a biosphere, you really cannot be sure: and lo and behold, a few years after Footfall was written we were all treated to a real-life surprise on how much energy a yet further world can possess.

I well remember the news of Voyager's Neptune encounter (I was at an Open University summer school at the time): I remember the official amazement at the pictures of Neptune's dramatically turbulent atmosphere.  Whereas Uranus three years earlier had shown as bland, Neptune - almost twice as far - was full of vim! 

I'd be willing to bet that the basic energy for life is available anywhere in the Solar System.  Perhaps the further out you go, the slower life is, but that's all right.

Neptune-from-voyager

Of course, scientific realism isn't the point anyway, as far as most of the literature discussed on this site is concerned.  The essential mood-music or drama-prop which Science provides is all we OSS fans need. 

Still, it's nice for us when Nature seems to stretch a point in our direction...

2024 January 11th:

Note addendum to the entry on January 5th.

Zendexor-mars-globefumbling for Amazonis Planitia

5th January 2024:

LINKING LOWELL'S MARS WITH THE STANDARD MAP

More about the current efforts at inclusivity:

The more I browse in Heinlein's wonderful Red Planet the more I see it as a gold-mine of references to Lowell's Mars, all ready to be included in the Gazetteer if only I can do so while keeping to the rules (see previous Diary entry).

That's to say I need to link the features on Lowell's canal-covered maps with locations on the 1962 standard map.  Of course you might argue that the non-existence of the Lowellian features may present a problem.  However, although they don't exist, their locations - their latitude and longitude - do.  All that needs to be done, then, is to note the lat. and long. of the canals, oases, etc.

I spent some hours online trying to do this from the maps available.  The trouble is, though evocative in general impression, they're hard to read on screen.  But then at last I found the solution to the problem - an invaluable site called Lost Names of Classical Mars, which gives all the areographical references I need, nicely set out in a table. 

For instance Strymon Canal, mentioned by Heinlein, is listed succinctly as follows:

Name: Strymon    Feature type: Canalis    Latitude: 27    East Longitude: 156
            Origin: Ancient spelling of the Struma, a river in Greece    Usage: 1905 Lowell.

Having noted the areographical co-ordinates I got out my Mars globe and found that Strymon would, if it existed, be bang in the midst of Amazonis Planitia.  That nails it!

[Note added 11 Jan:  During the past few days I've been developing a distrust of the accuracy of my 1970s Mars globe; it looks good, with a level of detail gleaned from Mariner if not from Viking, but the names of the features sometimes don't match at all with the co-ordinates given by more modern online sources.  For instance Amazonis Planitia is, according to Wikipedia, centred upon 25 North, 196 East.  196 is too far from 156 to satisfy me, and the discrepancy induces a helpless confusion...]

lowell-mars-globe

2024 January 4th:   

EXTENDING THE GAZETTEER TO COVER MARS

To avoid misunderstanding, I'll remind readers that the "haunted worlds" Gazetteer is so called because the idea of it is to link non-fictional places with the auras they have acquired from their additional life in story.

The purpose is thus to coat the flat objectivity of a map with a shimmer of the subjective: typically, therefore, an entry in the Gazetteer is the name of a real place followed by reference to it in fiction (or, in the case of a few places on the Moon, outdated speculation which might as well now count as fiction: see for example Eratosthenes).

What is ruled out is the completely imaginary: that is, I shan't include instances where the location as well as the reference is fictional.  If total fictionality were included, the page would lose its point, which is the twinning of reality and dream.

Bearing all this in mind, you can see why, up till now, I have restricted the coverage to Earth and Moon.  Those are the two worlds which have long been mapped (or half-mapped in the case of the Moon, whose far side was not seen until the Space Age) to a level of detail which isn't available for anywhere else.

Right from the start, I thought about including Mars, but the references available are relatively few, and don't seem to have been very widely used by sf writers.  However - why not include those which are to be found?  It's time to go for it.  So far as I am aware, the best pre-Space-Age maps of Mars have remained an agreed source for amateur astronomers who, while monitoring the Red Planet to record dust storms, refer to surface features by the names which Schiaparelli and Antoniadi provided, a practice which indicates that the features concerned are real enough (and many of the names have been retained or adapted by the International Astronomical Union for Space-Age mapping).

More borderline is the notion that I might include references to named surface features observed - or rather imagined - by Percival Lowell.  (Off-hand I can only think of one - in Heinlein's novel Red Planet.)  You might well argue that to include them would be to indulge in that "total fictionality" which I renounced a couple of paragraphs ago.

Still, I might include them.  The justification would be: that although Lowell never succeeded thoroughly in convincing his fellow astronomers, his maps did to a considerable degree enter the public domain of belief.  Thus when Heinlein referred to the canal Strymon, it wasn't an invention of his.

It's a grey area.  Not a make-or-break issue in any case - for the Martian references are bound to be relatively few.

One thing's fairly certain: I won't be extending this sort of Gazetteer's coverage to yet more worlds.  Venusian clouds are un-mappable, and I've never met any fictional reference to Antoniadi's 1930s map of Mercury...  which is a pity since the names he chose are pretty good.  Cyllene!  Caduceata!  Solitudo Criophori!