The first desperate struggle

Sir Hiram Maxim’s flying machine, 1891-4, on its rails

‘The Argonauts of the Air’ (1895)
by H G Wells,
in Selected Short Stories.
Penguin, 1958.

“… this story, which was written only to tell how the first of all flying-machines was launched and flew.”

In the last decade of the 19th century men like Otto Lilienthal and Sir Hiram Maxim experimented with gliders and heavier-than-air craft to attempt the conquest of the air. Maxim effectively stopped practical trials after an unfortunate accident in 1894, leaving it to fiction writers to imagine how the first powered flight might turn out until the Wright Brothers actually achieved success in 1903.

H G Wells rose to the occasion in his short story ‘The Argonauts of the Air’, first published in 1895, the year following when Maxim ceased his trials. He borrowed some aspects from Maxim’s abandoned flying-machine, but sited his craft’s launch track southwest of London rather than to the east.

Are the Wellsian engineers more successful than Maxim’s? Do his argonauts actually make it into the air? The writer leaves us guessing right to the final page or so.

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Aliases and anomalies

John Verney, The Island (Bournemouth & Poole College Collection)

The Evidence by Christopher Priest. Gollancz, 2021 (2020).

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Shakespeare, ‘Richard II’

Against his better judgement a crime writer, invited to an overseas conference, attends, and not only has to suffer huge inconveniences but is then reluctantly fed ideas for a plot based on a true crime by a retired cop.

No, that’s not quite the sum of it. In The Evidence we find ourselves on another world, one girdled by an island archipelago, which suffers gravitational anomalies and, in places, something called mutability which somehow changes the reality of events. And while much of the technology feels both contemporary and familiar the social and geopolitical systems are either arcane (as in feudal) or polarised (as in totalitarian versus more liberal systems).

On the other hand – how many hands do we have? – this is pure metafiction: an author describes the processes of writing fiction in this, an actual work of fiction, where sleight of hand, distraction, misdirection and mistaken perceptions are discussed and then perpetrated on the actual as well as the hypothetical reader. You either like what’s been done here or you feel you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes. Is the narrator reliable or is he too affected by mutability at the deepest level?

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Evolution or revolution

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

Foundation
by Isaac Asimov.
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

Part II: The Encyclopedists

I was first introduced to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the 1970s when listening to the BBC Radio dramatisations (probably in 1973). Though I at first liked the concept of psychohistory which underpins the storylines I became less enamoured of it after reading other fictional future histories, such as Olaf Stapledon’ Last and First Men (1930) or H G Wells’ 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come – which, though successfully predicting 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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Love, hate, or indifference

Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si (credit Daphne Lee)

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.
Macmillan, 2021.

“She wasn’t Malaysian or American. Just as she wasn’t straight but she definitely wasn’t gay, if anyone was asking. She wasn’t her family’s Min, but she wasn’t the Jess who’d had a life under that name, before her dad had gotten sick. […] She was a walking nothing—a hole in the universe, perfect for letting the dead through.”

Chapter 17

Jessamyn Teoh accompanies her parents from the US back to Penang in Malaysia, a country she barely remembers. So it’s a shock for her to hear a very opinionated voice in her head claiming to be the ghost of Ah Ma, her maternal grandmother.

First shock over, Jess discovers Ah Ma had fallen out with Jess’s mother, and it’s something to do with Ah Ma having been a medium for a powerful local deity called Black Water Sister, named from a neighbouring locale. The third shock comes when she realises that Ah Ma, now a spirit herself, wants Jess to stop Black Water Sister’s shrine being developed by a powerful gang boss.

Jess – or Min, to use her Malaysian Chinese name – is therefore placed in a very difficult position, having to balance demands from all fronts – her parents, her secret girlfriend Sharanya, her relatives, her grandmother’s ghost, the boss, his gangsters, the boss’s son, construction workers, assorted gods and ghosts including, of course, the enraged Black Water Sister herself. What’s a girl to do?

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A history of human stupidity

Cat’s Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut.
Penguin Books, 1965 (1963).

“Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?” — Felix Hoenikker

In early 1961 the world teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction at the height of the Cold War. Barely a decade and a half before this the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been virtually annihilated by atomic bombs, those supposed children of theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

Meanwhile, another scientific polymath – Irving Langmuir, with whom Vonnegut’s brother worked – was developing techniques in the 1940s to de-ice aircraft wings and to seed clouds for the purpose of inducing rainfall (though Langmuir’s attempts to lessen the force of a hurricane only succeeded in increasing its intensity). Around the same time, as a prisoner of war Kurt Vonnegut famously survived the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden by sheltering in a slaughterhouse’s meat locker. Motifs from all these historical events, along with much more, will find their way into Cat’s Cradle (1963).

The author, born in November 1922, had lived through momentous times, and unsurprisingly this novel reflects them. But it also has an extraordinary historical footnote of its own: in 1970 Vonnegut persuaded the University of Chicago to accept Cat’s Cradle in place of the thesis for his master’s degree in anthropology which he’d never completed. In effect it was a “history of human stupidity” such as that referenced in the final sentence of the novel.

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A being darkly wise

Roadside Picnic
by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.
Translated by Olena Bormashenko,
foreword by Ursula K Le Guin,
afterword by Boris Strugatsky, 2012.
Gollancz, 2012 (1972).

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

From ‘An Essay on Man: Epistle II’ by Alexander Pope

Superficially a speculative thriller, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic for me turned out to be a deeply philosophical novel under its science-fictiony veneer. For the most part it focuses on a character called Redrick, a chancer who lives for the pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, gambling and occasional sex, living at some unspecified future time somewhere in North America. So, initially, a not very edifying tale.

The ostensible premise is that extraterrestrial visitors have touched down at six points on the Earth’s surface and then just as mysteriously departed, leaving behind their detritus in what turn out to be highly dangerous, disturbance-filled Zones. It is for this debris that Redrick and others enter the Zone adjacent to Harmont, to retrieve alien junk for the black market.

But there are deeper matters to think about than mere cupidity. At the central point of the novel we find ourselves listening to a conversation about the implications of this First Contact, implications that should matter to all humankind but which if ever considered are soon forgotten. In its underhand way Roadside Picnic encourages us to quietly consider those implications.

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A novel of its time

Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons
Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson.
Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2006 (1970).

A few centuries hence fifty specialists, twenty five of either gender, set out on a journey to the star Beta Virginis to colonise a new planet.

Their transport is the Leonora Christine, an interstellar spaceship powered by a Bussard ramjet, capable of accelerating to near light speed (tau zero).

Just before their halfway point, while still accelerating, disaster strikes with damage to the propulsion, meaning that the craft will continue its acceleration and not only miss its target but potentially never stop. How do the crew cope, and do they survive?

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#WitchWeek2022 begins: Polychromancy

#WitchWeek2022

Welcome to this year’s Witch Week event! The brainchild of Lory, of Entering the Enchanted Castle, it runs from Halloween on 31st October to Bonfire Night, 5th November. Co-host Lizzie Ross, writer and I aim to celebrate fantasy books and authors during the week designated by Diana Wynne Jones – in her fantasy called, of course, Witch Week – as “a time when anything can happen.”

This year’s theme is Polychromancy, a word concocted via Greek from polychromos (‘many-colours’) and manteia (‘divination’) to suggest a focus on fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds. The idea is to explore the work of SFF authors who identify as or celebrate Black, Asian, Indigenous, or people of specific ethnicities such as Roma – or indeed who claim a multiethnic ancestry.

The schedule, below, includes a readalong that complements our theme: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, a Malaysian author based in the UK. A number of bloggers have already conducted an online discussion of this, but please feel free to comment on the conversation we had.

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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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