First contact

Photograph of barrage balloons over London during World War II

Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End
Pan Books 2017 (1954, 1990)

It was on a beautiful summer evening in 1941 …
Scores — hundreds — of gleaming silver barrage balloons were anchored in the sky above London. As their stubby torpedo-shapes caught the last rays of the sun, it did indeed seem that a fleet of spaceships was poised above the city …
In that instant, perhaps, Childhood’s End was conceived.

— From the author’s foreword to the 1990 edition

Childhood’s End is one of many novels over the years to speculate on the end of humanity. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man appeared in 1826, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) covered a two billion year span. Attempts to predict what may happen within a few generations include H G Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and while Childhood’s End is no alternate future history it postulates a climactic end to humanity as we know it in the first half of the twenty-first century — in fact, right now.

When I read such fictions (these are all titles I’ve completed over many years, apart from the Mary Shelley) I find I have to suspend critical judgement once these latter-day Cassandras get things so wrong, as subsequent history tends to prove their forward projections increasingly at variance with reality. Instead I need to focus on the themes the authors are trying to get across, generally to do with philosophical approaches to social organisation or else the impact of technological, environmental and genetic developments.

In Childhood’s End Clarke is quite clear: when he conceived the novel in the 1950s he was happy to speculate on two possibilities that were engaging public attention, namely contact with extra-terrestrials and the paranormal. By the end of the 1980s his natural scepticism had intensified, to the extent that it’s unlikely he would have written precisely this book, though it remained a novel he was quite fond of. If, at the end of the 20th century, the author had become less convinced by his themes, would a modern reader therefore now find the narrative preposterous?

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To savour, and to save

The Human Eye (credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-eye-diagram/)

Joan Aiken: A Bundle of Nerves:
stories of horror, suspense and fantasy

Cover illustration Peter Goodfellow
Peacock (Penguin) Books 1978 (1976)

Nineteen short stories are collected here, the majority originally appearing in Argosy — a British magazine which appeared between 1926 and 1974 and for which Joan Aiken was Features Editor (from 1955 to 1960). They are indeed ‘stories of horror, suspense and fantasy’, and though rather mild — if occasionally racy — by today’s tastes they were, and still are, perfect for the young teenage readership the collection aims at.

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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

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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Not reverting to type

typewriter

I often marvel at how far I seem to have time-travelled in less than one life’s span. We are all, in fact, time travellers, living a life partly dreamt but sometimes barely imagined when we were younger. Driverless cars, 3D printing, seeing almost to the edge of the known universe, was this not the stuff of science fiction in the not-so-distant past?

And how frequently have our elders and betters misjudged our present future in times past: regular visits to the Moon, a pill for everything with no side effects, an end to poverty, superstition replaced by science.

My musings have been kickstarted by simply sitting down to write this post.

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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

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 (possibly in 1977 when the 1973 series was rebroadcast, though maybe earlier). 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.
Continue reading “Evolution or revolution”

Many meanings

cropped-stars.jpgPrimo Levi A Tranquil Star
Translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
Penguin Modern Classics 2008 (2007)

‘A Tranquil Star’ — the last of seventeen short stories which gives its name to this selection of previously unpublished pieces in translation — is as good a place as any to start a consideration of this collection. It begins with a discussion of the inadequacy of superlatives (immense, colossal, extraordinary) to give indications of comparative size, especially when it comes to stars. Al-Ludra is the now not-so-tranquil star when it comes to its convulsive, cataclysmic end; how to describe an event which is beyond the comprehension of most, an event that is measured “not in millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes”? All we can do is relate its death to the impact it has on a human being, something we can more easily understand. On October 19th 1950 Ramón Escojido, a Peruvian married to his Austrian wife Judith, notices something unusual in photos taken from his mountain observatory. His dilemma is this: does he assume it’s a blemish on his photographic plate of the night sky, or does he cancel the planned family excursion to double-check if, in fact, it’s really a supernova?

While some stories may seem impersonal at first sight, underlying them all is the all-too-human individual. Continue reading “Many meanings”

Out of this world

Amazing Stories June 1947 (public domain)
Future transport as envisaged in Amazing Stories June 1947 (public domain)

Another week, another update to the creative writing classes I attend where we look at literary genres: this last week we looked at Science Fiction. And already we’re in difficulty. Is it ‘science fiction’ (where the emphasis appears to be on science), ‘sci-fi’ (which already looks rather passé as an abbreviation, and is often used in a derogatory sense), ‘SF’ (which seems to be the preferred acronym), ‘speculative fiction’ (which is less constrictive, encompassing elements which may otherwise be counted as fantasy) or ‘SFF’ (=SF+fantasy, an acronym which seems to have had its day)? I’m going to use SF, but you can read it how you like.

Let’s start with what it’s not, as popularly perceived. Continue reading “Out of this world”

Quick and quirky guide

Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)
Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)

Paul Wake, Steve Andrews and Ariel, editors
Waterstone’s Guide to
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

Series editor Nick Rennison
Waterstone’s Booksellers 1998

Although getting a bit outdated now (the Waterstones apostrophe, dropped to howls from purists early in 2012, is still there in its full glory) this is a ready reference giving a flavour of the range of authors and works in the three genres. It’s not exhaustive of course — no work could be, especially in these ever-popular genres — but I find it useful to dip into for a quick and often quirky summary of an author new to me. As such it fulfils the aim outlined in the introduction, to answer the question (and variants of it) that staff are frequently asked: “I’ve read Tolkien [or some other big name]. What should I try next?” While of necessity slewed to the UK market as it was in the late 20th century it tries to be as comprehensive as is practical in its 200-odd pages; and, while it’s a mystery why it hasn’t since been reissued in revised editions, I shall be keeping this copy on my shelves for a little while longer.

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