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

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon
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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Destroying an empire

Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Robert Silverberg Sorcerers of Majipoor
HarperPrism 1998 (1996)

Is it true, as is often said, that there are no new plots in literature? That every story we hear or read or imagine has appeared countless times before? Whether there is just one basic plot or seven or whatever number one can conjure up — and the numbers do vary, despite one theory that there are only seven — it can be argued that pretty much every narrative conforms to an ur-pattern. One might think that there is no need to create new tales when they already exist in one form or another.

Well, of course there are infinite reasons why we continue to invest in narratives, many of them explicable in psychological terms. It’s maybe worth looking in detail at our need for novelty: if there are indeed no ‘new’ plots it’s how we dress them up that creates originality, as when mannequins are arrayed in different clothes and accessories. In any given narrative it’s the combination of elements, often reminiscent of other narratives, that gives it distinction, and this is certainly true for Robert Silverberg’s Sorcerers of Majipoor.

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Richly resonant

Holman Hunt Scapegoat Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (Wikipedia Commons)

Robert Silverberg Kingdoms of the Wall Grafton 1993

This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death.

So begins this richly resonant novel, set on some distant planet — well, all planets are distant, aren’t they? — in a part of that world which is dominated by a inconceivably vast mountain called the Wall. From a community which is made up of distinct villages surrounding the Wall forty youngsters are chosen periodically to attempt the scaling of the mountain. Despite the honour accruing to the chosen ones, few of them ever return, and those that do seem unable to give a coherent narrative. Poilar is determined to be the one who not only achieves the ascent but to return and give an account. Despite the very first sentence providing the most monumental spoiler ever, Silverberg’s novel maintains a very palpable will-he-won’t-he tension throughout: Poilar’s nickname, Crookleg, is just one of the most obvious obstacles to him ever making his dream a reality. Continue reading “Richly resonant”

Mixing genres

the-planet-earth

Robert Silverberg
Tales of Majipoor
Gollancz 2013

“They came from Old Earth.” When a Prologue begins with portentous words like these you might automatically assume you’re reading a science fiction title. Especially when you’re told the colonists have migrated to Majipoor, a giant planet with low gravitational pull, three large continents to inhabit and expand into, an indigenous population to interact with and aliens from other worlds to transplant onto.

And yet, science doesn’t feature too much in these short stories, though fiction of another genre does. Of the seven tales, three are specifically about magic, one implies magic with the ‘sending’ of vivid and detailed dreams and another includes what can only be called magical talismans to call up images of past events. We are indubitably in the realm of fantasy now, albeit fantasy on another planet instead of a supernatural Otherworld, and with intelligent alien life forms instead of elves and fairies.

Then what are we to make of the faintly philosophical themes that Silverberg touches on, themes such as the ethics of restoring historical artefacts, or claiming ‘divine inspiration’ as your own creation, or the nature of sacrilege and how that conflicts with scientific truth? Continue reading “Mixing genres”

Evolution or revolution

Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books
The planet Trantor: Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books

Isaac Asimov Foundation Voyager 1995 (1951)

‘A great psychologist such as [Hari] Sheldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.’ — Salvor Hardin in Part II: The Encyclopedists, Foundation

I was first introduced to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the 1970s when listening to the BBC Radio dramatisations (probably in 1977 when the 1973 series was rebroadcast). Though I at first liked the concept of psychohistory which underpins the storylines I became less enamoured of it in time after reading other fictional future histories, such as H G Wells’ 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come which, though it successfully predicted war (beginning in 1940 and ending ten years later), thereafter got it spectacularly wrong in prophesying the demise of religion, the rise of a global benevolent despotism and a subsequent universal utopia. If short-term prediction (albeit by just one individual) could go so wrong, what chance another fiction-writer postulating any more reliably a future history in millennia to come?

And yet — as I had hoped — a re-read, even one as long delayed as this, has helped me revise some of my first hasty opinions.
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Despised of men

"Rhinogau panorama" by Velela. Licensed Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rhinogau_panorama.jpg#/media/File:Rhinogau_panorama.jpg
“Rhinogau panorama” by Velela. Licensed Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rhinogau_panorama.jpg#/media/File:Rhinogau_panorama.jpg

Olaf Stapledon
Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz 2011 (1944)

In the 1920s Cambridge scientist Thomas Trelone attempts to increase the capabilities of the human mind by experimenting first with dogs. By injecting hormones in pregnant bitches he produces some super-intelligent sheepdogs with large capacity brains; but it is only with a predominantly Alsatian puppy called Sirius (after the dog star) that he manages to breed an individual capable of human mental processes and feelings. Unlike normal dogs Sirius ages and matures at the rate corresponding to that of humans and is even just able to form intelligible speech. But here’s the conundrum: what kind of being is this, and how should one treat it?

By presenting his work as a fiction the author manages to raise big philosophical questions around what it means to be human as well as trying to get the reader to gauge what their emotional response should be. It’s to Stapledon’s credit that he largely persuades us to invest in Sirius as a credible character. We see the puppy, brought up by Trelone’s own family in a Welsh farmhouse, treated much the same as Plaxy, a girl close in age to Sirius, to the extent that the two — like siblings or even twins — remain almost inseparable. We learn how Sirius finds the lack of hands frustrating but still manages to engage in everyday human activities. He develops skills as a working dog herding Welsh sheep but is well able to act on his own initiative; he participates willingly in aptitude tests and assessments at Cambridge University; he experiences life in the deprived and disadvantaged East End of London. But the Second World War is looming, and when it comes disaster not only threatens but strikes.

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A richly imagined future

the-planet-earth

Eifion Jenkins If You Fall I Will Catch You Seren 2008

Gwidion is a boy an the verge of manhood to whom 9/11 means nothing. But in 2084, the psychic shockwaves of an event that once shook the world are still felt in his village — all that is left of Wales. Gwidion’s unusual mental powers bring him to the attention of the planet’s remaining politicians, desperate for a way to escape the failing Earth. But in a world which has lost track of its history, Gwidion is determined to find out the truth about his past. His efforts to answer his own questions propel him from his sheltered rural community, via the mysterious Soma Academy in Madrid, to a new life in the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Publisher’s description

A remarkable first novel, If you fall I will catch you is set in a richly imagined future where the narrative shifts from south Pembrokeshire to Spain, Peru and a world several light years away. Eifion Jenkins spins a tale that, following the arrow of time, springs out of the events of September 11th and the World Trade Center at the beginning of this millennium. It gradually becomes clear that while you can’t change the past you can influence the shape of future events by just little apparently inconsequential acts, sometimes by just being yourself.
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