A tall story about devilry

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

That Hideous Strength
by C S Lewis.
Pan Books 1955 (1945).

“Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said”

C S Lewis, ‘The New York Times Book Review’, 18th November, 1956

Composed during the war years, when That Hideous Strength was finally published in 1945 it was subtitled ‘A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups’. In his original preface Lewis declared that he “called this a ‘fairy tale’ in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled,” before finally characterising it as “a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”

The following year when Lewis abridged it for a new edition it was retitled The Tortured Planet, presumably to make clear its association with Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus. When that same abridgement then appeared in a new 1955 paperback edition it had resumed its original title and included another preface by the author in which he confessed:

In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace — I would not wish even ‘War and Peace’ or ‘The Faerie Queene’ any shorter — but some critics may well think this abridgment is also an improvement.

All of which is noted as a preamble to saying that the transformations the novel went through in its first few years are as nothing compared to the complexity that C S Lewis aimed to incorporate in his “fairy-tale for grown-ups”. It contains moralising, it’s true, but it’s also a thriller, a science fantasy, and a repository of ancient myths and legends.

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Still relevant

Black No More:
Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940
by George S Schuyler.
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2021 (1931).

[Dr Crookman] was naively surprised that there should be opposition to his work. Like most men with a vision, a plan, a program or a remedy, he fondly imagined people to be intelligent enough to accept a good thing when it was offered to them, which was conclusive evidence that he knew little about the human race.

Chapter Three

Imagine if an innovative process involving “glandular control and electrical nutrition” became available, allowing those with a dark skin pigment to become as pale as a majority white population; how many would take advantage of that process and what effect, if any, would that have?

A black US journalist, George Schuyler, did imagine just that in 1930, demonstrating in this, his sharp dystopian satire, a humorous and cynical approach that was underpinned by a realistic grasp of human weaknesses. Interestingly, it appeared just before a major shift in American politics when under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms the Democratic Party became more socially liberal while the Republicans established themselves firmly as the party of the right.

But what hasn’t changed is human nature, along with the doublethink that still holds sway, especially in the US, all of which makes Schuyler’s narrative so relevant to our contemporary world and its societies ninety years on.

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A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne,
translated by Edward Roth.
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon.

From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched.

Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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Chosen by myth

Mow Cop Castle (built 1754)

Red Shift
by Alan Garner.
Collins Lion Track 1975 (1973).

I see in my mind’s eye an exposed cliff which has been riven by some past cataclysm: strata from different periods composed of contrasting materials now sit side by side, yet they belong to the same cliff face. In such a way Alan Garner’s Red Shift presents to my imagination: three stories from different eras cleaving together in one extraordinary narrative.

Shifting from the present (Cheshire in the seventies) to the English Civil War in the same part of the world, or to a remnant of the Ninth Legion trying to go native among the Cornovii tribe in the second century CE, the novel slowly reveals how different people in different timelines can somehow be linked by a number of strands: topographical sites, artefact, geology, astronomy, a mythic tale.

As with many Garner novels the book is intensely personal. A native of Cheshire with local family roots stretching back centuries, he sets great store by a sense of place and by objects suffused with age, tradition or ritual. But he also features troubled characters in protagonist roles, a reflection of his own mental struggles over the years, all of which go towards ensuring his narratives have a firm substratum of authenticity and truth.

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At a crossroads

Comus with his charming-rod about to compel the Lady to drink the potion. William Blake 1801.

Doomsday Morning
by C L Moore.
Gollancz Golden Age Masterworks,  2019 (1957).

Set in the early years of the twenty-first century, Catherine Lucille Moore’s speculative novel is also a thriller, the action moving from the midwestern prairies of America to the East Coast and then California. For a tale written in the 1950s there is much that would appeal to male SF fans of the time: gadgetry, a hard-bitten, hard-drinking protagonist, lots of doublecrossing, and of course violence and explosions.

But there is more to Doomsday Morning than meets the eye. The fifties in the US was of course when McCarthyism was at its height and Moore’s plot has more than a hint of authoritarian repression. It is also, for all SF’s outward credentials as pulp fiction, a very literary novel, with allusions to Shakespeare, Chekhov, Steinbeck and Milton embedded in the text.

It’s also prescient in many ways in its anticipation of driverless traffic, covert electronic surveillance and the US’s alarming propensity to lurch towards totalitarianism when the conditions for it are prepared.

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Godforsaken paths

The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Wellcome Collection.  (CC BY 4.0)

One Billion Years to the End of the World
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky,
translated by Antonina W Bouis (1978).
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2020 (1977).

“I was told that this road
would take me to the ocean of death,
and turned back halfway.
Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

Yosano Akiko (attributed)

A physicist, a biologist, an engineer, an orientalist and a mathematician walk into an astrophysicist’s apartment. No, it’s not the start of a joke but essentially the main action of this immersive novella by the Strugatsky brothers, also translated as Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances.

Set in 1970s St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, most of the action takes place in astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov’s apartment while his wife and son escape the city’s hot and humid July oppressiveness in Odessa on the Black Sea. Here he seems to be on the brink of discovering a link between stars and interstellar matter which he dubs ‘Malianov cavities’.

But he is constantly being interrupted, by phone calls, a delivery from the deli, even a visit from one of his wife Irina’s schoolfriends. And he is not the only specialist who isn’t able to settle to achieving a breakthrough — which is where the physicist, biologist, engineer, orientalist and mathematician come in. What is there to link their inability to progress their work, and who or what is causing it?

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Big Thinks

Illustration for Comus by Arthur Rackham, 1921

The Island of Doctor Moreau
by H G Wells.
Introduction by Adam Roberts (2009).
SF Masterworks.
Gollancz 2017 (1896).

These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes.

Chapter 14: ‘Doctor Moreau explains’

After a collision at sea Edward Prendick survives by being picked up by a ship delivering supplies to Noble’s Island in the South Pacific. But the vicissitudes he has already suffered are as nothing to those he encounters after being reluctantly landed on the domain of a certain Dr Moreau: as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest “the island is full of noises” and Prendick is unprepared for the creatures that produce them.

Francisco Goya captioned his famous aquatint The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters with “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells only just reins in the novella’s impossible monsters with a veneer of rationality, and even then the impossible monsters strain our credulity, reinforcing our sense of a nightmare scenario: the reader will wonder what fresh hell awaits them as they turn each page.

Our protagonist narrates how, despite his biological training, nothing has prepared him for the devastating year he will experience on this slumbering sea-girt volcano. For here in this isolated dystopia he meets horrors he could never have imagined: a House of Pain, a sociopathic autocrat, a drunken assistant with his “man Friday,” M’ling, and other perversions of Creation.

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To try to understand

Octavia E Butler in 2004

Kindred by Octavia E Butler.
Foreword by Ayòbámi Adébáyò.
Headline, 2018 (1979).

Dana Jackson finds herself called back to early nineteenth-century Maryland from 1970s California on her 26th birthday, and it keeps happening again and again over the next few days and weeks. She soon realises it’s because she has to save her ancestor Rufus Weylin from dying—whether by drowning, a fire, a beating, or an attempt to commit suicide—before he has a chance to continue his bloodline and for her to exist.

But Dana, in a mixed marriage with Kevin a decade after agitation for Civil Rights had initiated change in American society, has a culture shock to endure: Maryland was a slave state, and Dana’s arrival on the Weylin plantation as an independent educated black woman is not a welcome development for the white owners, Tom and Margaret Weylin, Rufus’s parents.

What counts as a few weeks in 1976 equates to several months and even years as Dana (and, for a long spell, Kevin too) gets marooned in a period dangerous for slaves, freed blacks and white sympathisers alike. All the while Dana has to forge a tricky relationship with her ancestor Rufus, a red-haired five-year-old, and later a man in his twenties, who isn’t always kind to her despite being (unbeknown to him) her kindred.

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Extraterrestrial parasites

The Possessors
by John Christopher.
Sphere Books 1978 (1965)

The Possessors had a long memory, but not long enough to encompass their origins.

With this opening sentence Sam Youd, writing as John Christopher, establishes that this is speculative fiction. But for all its SF credentials, The Possessors is grounded in human relationships and idiosyncrasies, exposing how a disparate group of individuals isolated in a skiing chalet cope with personal demons and with each other when the chips are down.

With its setting in the Swiss Alps near the fictional village of Nidenhaut we are at times reminded of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but when an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the village the group quickly have to develop a siege mentality as, one by one, the residents start to become other, forming a threat to those left and, ultimately, humankind. Are they changed because of a physical trauma, a psychological weakness, an unknown virus or, as the two locals fear, possession by devils?

Make no mistake, the author is misdirecting us with the title, for this novel is not really about the Possessors: it’s about the possessed.

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Vintage Scifi?

https://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com

I was born the year before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published: it was doubtless written and completed during 1948, with the future date arrived at by simply reversing the final two digits. I’ve now read a couple of titles for Vintage Scifi Month but, as with 1984, Flowers for Algernon doesn’t apparently strictly doesn’t count as “vintage” because it was published in 1966, well after I was born (the rule of thumb for this “not-a-challenge”). But, luckily for me, 1898’s The War of the Worlds indeed does count, and has now been read and reviewed here.

As a matter of interest, I decided to see what did qualify as vintage SF for someone of my age. And, depending what one counts as Science Fiction, it turns out the answer is … “quite a lot”, providing one includes scientific romances, allegories and other speculative titles that seem to cross genres.

Here then is a list of what I currently estimate as a personal Vintage Scifi, calculated from a couple of online timelines of the genre: I shall be travelling backwards in time which, in the circumstances, seems quite apt.

(Links are to my reviews on this blog. And here’s some discussion on what constitutes science fiction.)

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The speculative philosopher

Mars, the ‘red planet’

The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.
— ‘Evolution and Ethics in The War of the Worlds‘ by John Huntingdon (1982).
Penguin English Library 2012 (1898)

And before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Though we’d rightly take issue with the narrator’s term “inferior races” for the Tasmanians, he is correct to refer to genocide as one atrocity among many that humans have long visited on populations, along with species extermination. Throughout Wells’s alien invasion story he constantly has the narrator compare the Martians’ treatment of humans with our lack of concern for social insects like ants, bees and wasps, or gets him to comment on the belief that animals are only useful when treated as a food source.

But The War of the Worlds isn’t only framed as a moral tract (the narrator identifies himself as a speculative philosopher): it pretends to be a journalistic first-hand account of a few weeks in June in the last decade of the 19th century, from the first intimations of activity on Mars to the arrival of the supposed vanguard of a colonising force, the devastation of the hub of a global empire, and finally the defeat of the aggressors by the humblest of terrestrial allies, microbes.

Yet Wells is also having fun with his apocalyptic scenario as described by his unreliable narrator, and even while he includes scenes of horror and of wanton destruction and death he’s alert to his story’s satiric impact.

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Blue jewel in the darkness

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books 1996

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

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The Land of Nod

Photo © C A Lovegrove

The Death of Grass
by John Christopher,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1956)

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
— William Blake.

Imagine, if you will, a deadly virus emanating from China, one that seems unstoppable despite efforts to find an antiviral solution, and which disrupts societies and causes widespread deaths as it moves across the globe. How will humans, collectively and individually, react, and will their actions be altruistic or selfish?

John Christopher envisaged such a scenario over six decades ago, a few years after the Second World War, but his imaginary Chung-Li virus, unlike coronavirus, didn’t directly affect humans: instead it killed off the grass on which herbivores such as cattle and sheep fed, and grains like rice, wheat, barley and rye which provided many of the staple food products humans relied on.

Against this unfolding catastrophe the author tells the story of how John Custance, his family, friends and others struggle to survive, and how they aim to reach the safety of a secluded defensible valley in Cumbria to establish a new settlement.

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Home is the sailor

Islands off Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Gradual
by Christopher Priest,
Gollancz 2017 (2016)

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea”
— from ‘Requiem’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

In many ways a genre-crossing novel, The Gradual exhibits the kind of features I have now come to expect of Christopher Priest’s books, a sense of viewing reality in a distorting mirror — solitary or alienated protagonists — a planetary romance blending aspects of science fiction with the kind of magic we associate with fantasy — allusions and illusions that create dream-like images and sequences.

Above all there is his literary sleight of hand which seems to be part of his trademark style, consisting of a bit of mystification assisted by misdirection. He is kind enough however to reveal to his reader sufficient clues for them to partly work out what’s going on, only to then introduce a plot twist which turns the tables on us.

The Gradual is the testament of one Alesandro Sussken, composer and musician on a world simultaneously similar to but yet completely different from ours. And just as a music composition is an unfolding in time of a sequence of sounds, so Priest’s novel too is about sounds, and time, and even space.

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A meditation on solitude

nagasaki

Z for Zachariah
by Robert C O’Brien,
Puffin 1998 (1974)

In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about nuclear bombs detonating, the images of blinding flash and mushroom cloud familiar from countless newsreel clips of the Hiroshoma and Nagasaki attacks, the subsequent atomic bomb tests by the major powers and the Cuba missile crisis.

I had also watched the BBC TV docu-drama The War Game when it was shown in cinemas in 1966, and that had made a huge impression on me, reinforced when I read Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. All these impressions were re-awoken when I finally got round to reading Z for Zachariah and coloured my first responses to it, centred on the absolute futility of nuclear war.

But the more I think about this novel, the more I wonder at its richness in respect of what is implicit as well as what is explicit.

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