Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Time Out

I have just taken time out from Poul Anderson to reread "The Ethics of Madness" by Larry Niven, an early short story in the Known Space future history, published in 1967. It seems to come from a more innocent age:

technology, including medical technology, would continue to improve;
people would live longer and age less;
work would become easier and working hours less;
the economy would remain peaceful and prosperous throughout the many decades of a large population's extended lifespans.

Poul Anderson always recognised more sharply than Niven that life is not always easy and comfortable.

"The Ethics of Madness" comes from a time when the Known Space history was new and, like Anderson's History of Technic Civilisation, was a worthy successor to Robert Heinlein's seminal Future History. The idea of setting several short stories and novels with or without continuing characters within successive periods of a projected history of the future several centuries or more in length was a genuine innovation. It is fitting that two major sf writers, Anderson and Niven, have  presented versions of the future different from each others' and from that of their inspirer, Heinlein. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Doctor Who And The Real Stuff

When I advise Doctor Who fans to read "the real stuff," the examples I give are The Time Machine by HG Wells, The Time Patrol by Poul Anderson and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger. These unrelated titles form a conceptual sequence:

a temporal vehicle;
a time traveling organization;
a time traveler's private life.

-and correspond to features of Doctor Who:

the Tardis;
the Time Lords;
The Doctor's Wife, an episode scripted by Neil Gaiman.

The Dancer From Atlantis by Poul Anderson is also relevant. It features:

a man in a malfunctioning space-time vehicle;
companions accidentally gathered from earlier periods;
a language teaching device;
a visit to Atlantis (this happened to the Third Doctor).

Monday, 10 September 2012

Doctor Who

Doctor Who will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in November, 2013. Like Superman, Star Trek and Flash Gordon, it is a story that needs to be retold from the beginning, getting it right this time. The Time Lords should be:

not aliens but our future;
not extraterrestrials but extra-temporals;
our evolutionary successors, like Poul Anderson's Danellians.

The originals of the Doctor and his companions against the Daleks are the Time Traveller and Weena against the Morlocks.

On a Doctor Who fan's shelves, I saw:

a boxed set of CD's of the first three Doctor Who stories - the beginning;
a boxed set of DVD's of the two feature films starring Peter Cushing - an alternative beginning;
a "Doctor Who: Lost in Time" CD collection of episodes of early stories that no longer exist in their entirety - truly "lost in time";
the DVD of the television film starring Paul McCann in his single appearance as the Doctor;
CD's of various stories featuring different Doctors;
thus, television and cinema history.

The TV series is called Doctor Who but the first feature film was Doctor Who And The Daleks and the second was Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD so the Daleks take over the titles. In the TV series, the second story is "The Daleks." Curiously, the poster for the second film prominently features not a Dalek but a roboman with Daleks and other figures in the background.

I have stopped watching the TV series which cleverly presented the circular causality paradox in the first "Weeping Angels" story but mishandled causality violation when Rose tried to prevent her father's death. I advise Whovians to read The Time Machine, The Time Patrol and The Time Traveler's Wife.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

"Hard Fantasy"

The premise of Robert Heinlein's "Magic, Inc." is that magic works and is practised like a set of technologies. Magical practice is based on the reality of supernatural entities and forces, not on any new theory, discovery or application of the natural sciences. Thus, "Magic, Inc." is fantasy, not science fiction (sf).

We might call it "hard fantasy" to indicate that the implications of the premise are deduced as rigorously as are the consequences of any new technology in hard sf.

Two other "hard fantasies":

in The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, there is time travel to historical periods with circular causality as in an sf novel but here the time travel is one of several applications of magic;

in Black Easter/The Day After Judgement by James Blish, demons are real.

Blish wrote mostly hard sf. It is possible, when reading his fantasies, to forget that they are a different genre from his sf. Indeed, some of his characters find it hard to believe that their high technology coexists with demons. In fact, Black...Judgement is the second volume of a trilogy about the conflict between secularism and supernaturalism. Volumes I and III remain ambiguous but it is a premise of Volume II that demons exist and are neither technological nor extraterrestrial but supernatural.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

ERBian Series

An indirect sequel to Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter series is his Venus series. A rocket launched from Earth towards Mars but pulled off course by lunar gravity falls towards the Sun, thus crossing the orbit of Venus which, fortunately, is close enough to land on. Before leaving Earth, Carson Napier had contacted Edgar Rice Burroughs because of the latter's known interest in Mars which presumably means his publication of Carter's manuscripts.

Despite this, Napier seems to be uncertain what he will find on Mars. However, the two series are definitely connected through other Burroughs works. Gridley contacts both Mars/Barsoom and the Earth's Core/Pellucidar by radio. He, Tarzan and others visit Pellucidar through the North Polar opening and ERB mentions this visit in the first Venus book.

Thus, half a dozen ERB series are concurrent and sometimes interactive, like a comic book universe. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Structure Of A Series: John Carter

I never got into Tarzan. The character teaching himself to read English from a picture book is impossible and should never have been published. Knowing without being told that the sound "Tarzan" corresponds to the written letters T, A etc is also impossible. The sequence of events, not a plot, in Tarzan's Quest was so implausible and chaotic that I found it the opposite of pleasurable to read it. Tarzan At The Earth's Core I read only because it was a Tarzan/Earth's Core crossover. Since there are over twenty Tarzan volumes, I have read very little of this series.

By contrast, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian series had something going for it. The New English Library republished the eleven volumes annually through my teens so I bought each as it appeared:

an opening trilogy in which Carter saves the lives of everyone on Mars/Barsoom, overthrows the religion of Issus and becomes Warlord of Mars;

one book each about Carter's son, his daughter and a second Earthman transported to Mars;

two Martian warriors' stories transmitted to Earth by the second Earthman;

a return to Carter who now has a granddaughter, fights the Assassins' Guild and visits a Martian moon and Jupiter.

There are three sequel series:

Carson Napier aims for Mars but reaches Venus;

like John Carter and Ulysses Paxton, a third soldier dies on Earth and is projected across space in an astral body that solidifies on arrival - in this case not on Mars but on an extrasolar planet atmospherically linked to several others in a common orbit (a precursor of Larry Niven's Smoke Ring) so that he is able to make an interplanetary crossing by airplane (Beyond The Farthest Star);

in the future, Earthmen and Martians communicate by radio and each planet launches a spaceship towards the other but the Earth ship, the "Barsoom," crashes on the Moon which then invades Earth (the Moon Maid trilogy).

Thus, Burroughs wrote an increasingly intricate sequence of imaginative interplanetary stories -

Two trilogies (almost) recount Carter's adventures:

the opening volumes are a structural trilogy with cliff hanger endings to volumes I and II and a culmination ("...let him be Jeddak of Jeddaks, Warlord of Barsoom!") at the end of volume III;

three later volumes, though not structurally a trilogy, are the welcome return of Carter, soldier, statesman, scientist and scholar, as both narrator and central character, the best way that ERB could have completed the series.

Two heroines are title characters of opening volumes, A Princess Of Mars and The Moon Maid, although the second installment of the Moon trilogy presents a different kind of story, describing an oppressive society.

Two Earthmen go to Mars.

Two children of Carter adventure on Mars.

Two worlds, Mars/Barsoom and the Earth's Core/Pellucidar, are contacted on the Gridley Wave.

Two Martian warriors' stories are transmitted to Earth.

Two other worlds are visited by Carter. (A Martian moon is small but a spaceship and its occupants shrink as they approach so that, when they are on it, it is as large to them as Barsoom with proportionate inhabitants and surface features!)

Two Earth people go to Venus. (A later volume discloses a second mysterious case, more akin to Carter's astral travel.)

Two (or three) planets receive unexplained astral projections from Earth.

Two spaceships launched towards Mars arrive elsewhere:

the first, deflected by the Moon, reaches Venus;
the second, sabotaged by a crew member, lands on the Moon.

Two moons, terrestrial and Martian, are inhabited.

Two worlds, Earth and its Moon, are hollow spheres with inhabited interiors.

Two worlds, the enclosed Pellucidar and the clouded Venus, are believed by their inhabitants to be bowl-shaped and floating on an ocean. (It would have made more sense for the Pellucidarians to believe that the universe was endless solid rock with many other worlds occupying empty spaces within it and tunneling machines the equivalent of spaceships.) 

Two interplanetary invasions are planned:

Jovians will invade Mars, then other planets;
Moon Men do invade Earth where they rule tyrannically for several generations.

Two outcomes are unknown: of the Martian-Jovian conflict and the extrasolar interplanetary crossing.

Four planets, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and extrasolar Poloda, are visited and we are told that there is a Mercurian civilization.

ERB stays at the still center of the storm, receiving visits and manuscripts from Carter, radio messages from Paxton, telepathic messages from Napier, telekinetic messages from Poloda and accounts of a pre-remembered future from Julian. He does get some action on a future polar bear hunt in 1969.   

In HG Wells' inhabited Solar System, we do not know the outcome of the Martian invasion of Venus because Wells deliberately left this, and the future of life in the universe, uncertain. In the ERBian universe, ERB would simply have continued to add extra installments if he had lived longer. However, he did leave some mysteries unsolved, the strangest being the origin of John Carter who remembers no childhood but has always, in his memory, been an adult. Very near the end of the series, he speculates just once that he might be the materialization of a long dead, potentially, another series remains to be written.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Kipling In Comics And SF

Mike Carey's The Unwritten features both Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling as characters and made me seek out a verse I remembered from The Jungle Book. When I emailed the verse to Mike Carey, he replied with another Kipling verse about "...the old grey Widow-maker."

Neil Gaiman described his Sandman story, "Hob's Leviathan," as " doing Kipling..." (Hy Bender, The Sandman Companion, London, 1999, p. 180). "Hob's Leviathan" includes an Indian king who becomes a mendicant as an Indian Prime Minister did in The Second Jungle Book.

Poul Anderson's Harvest Of Stars Tetralogy names Kipling in Volumes I and III and quotes without naming him in Volumes II and IV and the first quotation is "...the old grey Widow-maker."

Monday, 20 August 2012

Ad Astra

Apart from "The...," what is the most frequent word in science fiction titles? There are references to "Mars," "Space" and "Time" and a few to "Sky":

Farmer In The Sky
Tunnel In The Sky
Orphans Of The Sky
(and Red Planet)

"Get Out Of My Sky"
(and Welcome To Mars)

"Hunters Of The Sky Cave"
(and "The Martian Crown Jewels")

But the most frequent single word has to be "Star" or "Stars":


Star Beast
Starship Troopers
Time For The Stars
Starman Jones
Double Star

The Stars Like Dust
(and "The Martian Way")

The Star Dwellers
Mission To The Heart Stars
They Shall Have Stars
A Life For The Stars
The Seedling Stars
Fallen Star
And All The Stars A Stage
Star Trek (script adaptations)
"Detour To The Stars"

Trader To The Stars
We Claim these Stars!
The Enemy Stars
Star Fox
Harvest Of Stars
The Stars Are Also Fire
The Fleet Of Stars
Star Ways
World Without Stars

Anderson (titles of sometimes overlapping collections)
The Dark Between The Stars
Kinship With The Stars
Time And Stars

Beyond The Farthest Star
(and ten "Mars" titles)

The Stars My Destination

The City And The Stars
(and The Sands Of Mars)

Wreath Of Stars 

Behold The Stars

Star Trek
Star Wars  

Sunday, 19 August 2012


Some sequels should not have been written. Others are clever continuations that enhance the original.

Larry Niven's Ringworld Engineers makes us realize that his Ringworld had told us almost nothing about the place. Each volume of the originally unplanned and unintended Ringworld Tetralogy is different and imparts considerably more information until a history of the construct emerges.

James Blish's "A Case Of Conscience," a work that had been complete although ending ambiguously became, in expanded form, Book One of the Hugo award-winning novel, A Case Of Conscience. His Black Easter ended with demonic victory at Armageddon but, incredibly, his originally unplanned The Day After Judgement continues the story from exactly where the first work had ended and spells out the implications that we had missed. ACOC, ...Easter and ...Judgement, the latter two retrospectively regarded as a single work, form an originally unplanned trilogy with a historical novel.

Poul Anderson's Harvest Of Stars ends with colonists at Alpha Centauri planning to spread life through the universe. We do not expect to see this happen but his The Fleet Of Stars opens in a later colony, one of three, at Beta Hydri. We should also mention prequels. Anderson's Flandry stories, originally appearing in sf magazines, came to be preceded by three "Young Flandry" novels and to be followed by three later novels that could be packaged as "Children Of Empire." However, instead of continuing that or any other series indefinitely, Anderson later wrote new works like Harvest Of Stars.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Comics And Science Fiction

Stories can be narrated, enacted or depicted. Adding extra speakers and actions transformed narrative into drama. Sequential art story telling, like the Bayeux Tapestry, the Stations of the Cross, the willow pattern, scrimshaw bracelets and comic strips, developed from static representational art. All religions have canonical texts – scriptures - but one, Manichaeanism, also had canonical pictures, in the “Book of Images."

Comic strips, like opera, are a composite art form. The former combine pictures with words as the latter combines drama with music. Comics are no longer only comical as novels are no longer new. Comic strips can address any age group and can mediate any genre although they are most closely associated with the one genre that originated in this medium, superheroes. Superman is the transitional character between science fiction (sf) and superheroes as Frankenstein is transitional between Gothic fiction and sf.

Superheroes is a hybrid genre, combining elements of sf, fantasy and action-adventure. Thus, superheroes, powered either scientifically or supernaturally, can meet non-super powered masked avengers or costumed adventurers. Special effects now enable films to present superheroes adequately. Superhero prose fiction has to emphasize characterization rather than fantastic feats.

Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man were pre-comics super-villains. The latter forced a tramp called Thomas Marvel into the non-super-powered sidekick role. Later, Marvel, as the landlord of an inn called "The Invisible Man," secretly possesses but cannot understand the title character's notebooks containing "...the subtle secret of invisibility and a dozen other strange secrets..." 1

Ironically, much later, superheroes included Captain Marvel and Invisible Girl, the latter published by Marvel Comics. No doubt, Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, already incorporating Griffin (the Invisible Man), Cavor, the Time Traveller, Dr Moreau, Wellsian and other Martians, Hyde, Dupin, Holmes, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, John Carter etc, would be able to link Wells' Marvel to the later Marvels. Are the "...dozen other strange secrets..." other super powers? Griffin says that his formula involves four dimensions (as, in other Wells stories, do the Time Machine, Davidson's eyes and Plattner's reversal) and that:

"In the books - the books that Tramp has hidden - there are marvels, miracles!" 2

After Marvel's death, when someone else can read and interpret the notebooks, a new superhero team, atoning for Griffin's crimes, might meet in the cellar of "the Invisible Man."

Gladiator (1930) by Philip Wylie was a possible source for Superman (1938). Like the earliest published version of Superman, Wylie's Hugo Danner was strong, fast and invulnerable but could neither fly nor see through walls. Like Danner, Superman intimidated a corrupt lobbyist. 3, 4 Danner imagines becoming either a powerful bank robber and murderer or a super-detective dispensing summary justice. 5 His confidante suggests a super-powered group called "The New Titans." 6

Both Gladiator and the first Superman episode refer to weight-lifting ants and high-jumping grasshoppers. Danner's father says of ants:

"Strength a hundred times our own." 7

Siegel writes:

"The lowly ant can support weights a hundred times its own." 8

Siegel seems to have read Wylie. Superman, definitely descended from the Hebrew Judge, Samson, the Greek Hero, Hercules, and the philosophical concept, the Superman, may also be descended from the hero of an American novel, Hugo Danner. The progression from Superman, via Captain Marvel and Mick Anglo's Marvelman to Alan Moore's Marvelman, re-named Miracleman, is a Samsonian-Herculean apotheosis. Moore's Michael Moran (Marvel/Miracleman) neither despairs like Danner nor conforms like Superman but rules like the Messiah, with weapons destroyed, money abolished, the environment saved, energy abundant, necessities free, politicians redundant, super powers shared, Fundamentalists in hiding, civilization interstellar, physical resurrections and Moran worshiped. Thus, Moore's graphic but superheroes-transcending work restores Biblical, mythical themes but in futuristic, technological settings.

James Blish’s earliest sf, published in the same period as the original Superman stories, contains the kind of fantastic elements that came to be refined into a separate genre. Thus, a secret society uses mental powers against extra-solar invaders in “Citadel of Thought."9 Poul Anderson’s first future history contains the Un-Men and “The Sensitive Man."10 Julian May and Larry Niven incorporate superhero motifs into sf novels.11, 12
Thus, the link between prose sf and comic strip superheroes may be closer than those who read only prose fiction realize. Also, several works by Alan Moore, including the pre-comics characters crossover and the superheros climax mentioned here, are culminating moments of the comics medium.

1. H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), 150.
2. ibid, p. 89.
3. Philip Wylie, Gladiator (New York: Lancer Books, 1965), pp. 169-170.
4. Jerome Siegel & Joe Schuster, Superman in Action Comics (New York: DC Comics, 1938, 1988), pp. 12-13.
5. Wylie, op. cit., p. 129.
6. ibid, p. 188.
7. Wylie, op., cit., p. 6.
8. Siegel and Schuster, op., cit., p. 1.
9. James Blish, “Citadel of Thought” in Stirring Science Stories (Albing Publications, February 1940), reprinted in Blish, The Best Of James Blish (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979.
10. Poul Anderson, The Psychotechnic League (New York: TOR, 1981), pp. 31-198.
11. Julian May, Diamond Mask (London: Pan Books, 1995).
12. Larry Niven, Protector (London: Futura Publications Ltd, 1974).

Cosmic Journeys III

In CS Lewis' Ransom Trilogy:

Out Of The Silent Planet describes Elwin Ransom's journey to Mars and ends when Ransom, back on Earth, writes to Lewis;

Perelandra begins when Lewis visits Ransom, then describes Ransom's journey to Venus;

That Hideous Strength, set entirely on Earth, features many characters including Ransom, MacPhee and Lewis and ends when Ransom returns to Venus.

Thus, the Trilogy is structured as follows:

interplanetary journey, correspondence with Lewis;
conversation with Lewis, interplanetary journey;
conversations and conflicts with several characters, interplanetary journey.

Three other works feature Lewis as character and narrator:

"The Dark Tower" begins when Ransom, Lewis, MacPhee, Orfieu and Scudamour converse, then describes Scudamour's visit to an alternative Earth;

"The Shoddy Lands" begins when a former student and his fiancee visit Lewis, then describes Lewis' visit to the fiancee's mind;

The Great Divorce begins with Lewis already visiting a mysterious realm where he later converses with George MacDonald.

The structure of this loose Lewis trilogy is:

conversation involving Lewis, visit to a parallel realm;
conversation involving Lewis, visit to a mental realm;
visit to spiritual realms, conversation involving Lewis.

One other work fits into this sequence. "Forms of Things Unknown" begins when Jenkin and Ward converse after a lecture, then describes Jenkin's journey to the Moon. The four characters who make cosmic journeys are:
Ransom, to Mars and Venus;
Scudamour, to Othertime;
Lewis, to the Shoddy Lands and to a dream of the hereafter;
Jenkin to the Moon.

Lewis converses, fictitiously of course, with his fictitious character, Ransom, then converses, also fictitiously, with an earlier writer, MacDonald. The line of literary descent is that MacDonald inspired Lewis who created Ransom but Lewis, by entering his own fictions, converses with both the others.
"The Dark Tower" was written before Perelandra and as a sequel to Out of the Silent Planet so I propose that the "Lewis trilogy" should be read between Volumes I and II of the Ransom Trilogy. That Hideous Strength, published in 1945, describes some technological advances after the War and "Forms of Things Unknown" describes the further technological advance of flight to the Moon so I propose that "Forms..." be read after the trilogies. (Weston's earlier space journeys were not made public and Weston died on Venus so that flights to the Moon - there were three before Jenkin's - came as a new development.)

"The Dark Tower" and Perelandra are direct sequels to Out Of The Silent Planet but "The Dark Tower" and its two "sequels" (I argue that they can be seen as such) change the direction, replacing Ransom with Lewis until the former returns in Perelandra. Although Ransom appears in four of the seven works and MacPhee in three, Lewis is in six. He becomes the central or continuing character of the sequence before returning that role to Ransom. Most people know of Narnia and many have read Ransom but it may not be widely recognised that Lewis himself plays such a major role in his own fiction. 

CS Lewis: Fictitious Correspondence

Lewis used fictitious correspondence three times:

Ransom writes to Lewis;
Lewis writes to Malcolm;
Screwtape writes to Wormwood.

Of course, in reality, Lewis wrote both Ransom and Screwtape although Screwtape then made a name for himself. Screwtape exists only to write his letters and, later, to propose a toast. Malcolm exists only to receive letters from Lewis. By contrast, Ransom is the central character of a Trilogy and writes to Lewis only at the end of Volume I.

The Screwtape Letters and Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, two entire volumes of fictitious letters, refer to fictitious characters - the man tempted by Wormwood, Malcolm's son who becomes ill - and conventional novels could have been written about these characters. Instead, Lewis used the fictitious correspondence form to address temptation and prayer.

Lewis' fictitious letters indirectly interacted with James Blish's fiction:

(i) In Black Easter, which is in memoriam CS Lewis and includes quotations not only from Lewis but also specifically from Screwtape, a demon announces the death of God. Lewis, of course, could not respond to Black Easter, written after his death, but does tell Malcolm how he would respond to a hypothetical death of God. 

(ii) In The Day After Judgment, the sequel to Black Easter, a magician refers to Screwtape as a real demon communicating with Lewis: an unexpected element of humor in an otherwise horrific scenario.

(iii) Both Lewis' Screwtape and Blish's Goat refer to Satan as "Our Father Below."

CS Lewis: WWII and After

World War II looms large in CS Lewis' fiction:

children are evacuated in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe;
Lewis wakes from the dream of The Great Divorce to the sound of a siren;
the man tempted by Screwtape's nephew is killed in an air raid;
the volumes of the Ransom Trilogy are set respectively before, during and after the War.

The Ransom Trilogy, Vol III, That Hideous Strength, was published in 1945 but set "after the War," thus was near future fiction. It features both technological advances and political events that did not happen in our history. Thus, this novel, like many works by other authors, soon became a "past future." Although That Hideous Strength is not a future history, its characters envisage and advocate alternative human futures and the novel is Lewis' response to Wells' and Stapledon's future histories.

"Forms Of Things Unknown" is set later along a timeline of continued technological progress so it makes sense that it be read after That Hideous Strength in the proposed "Cosmic Journeys" sequence. In this sequence, Vols I and III are interplanetary, Vol II involves journeys that are made without leaving the surface of the Earth and Vol IV is in the future.  

CS Lewis: Cosmic Journeys II

I proposed that seven works by CS Lewis be regarded as a "Cosmic Journeys" series (see here). The series could be published as a tetralogy:

(I) Out Of The Silent Planet.
(II) "The Dark Tower," "The Shoddy Lands" and The Great Divorce.
(III) Perelandra.
(IV) That Hideous Strength and "Forms Of Things Unknown."

The proposed Vol II is what I have called "a Lewis trilogy." The unity of the tetralogy is fairly clear:

(I) begins with Ransom and ends with Ransom writing to Lewis.
(II) begins with Lewis, Ransom and others together and ends with Lewis.
(III) begins with Lewis visiting Ransom and ends with Ransom.
In (IV): That Hideous Strength contains both Lewis and Ransom; "Forms Of Things Unknown" expresses a thought of Ransom in Perelandra.

The proposed Vols I, II and IV are the Ransom Trilogy. If the fragment, "The Dark Tower," had been completed, then it would have become Vol II of the Ransom series although it takes a curious turn because it is neither Ransom nor Lewis but another, younger, character who visits the alternative Earth. Lewis then remains on stage as the cosmic traveler in "The Shoddy Lands" and The Great Divorce before handing the narrative back to Ransom after the opening chapters of Perelandra. Thus, the proposed Vol II, beginning as a continuation from Out Of The Silent Planet, becomes a curious and interesting digression that nevertheless leads the reader back to the expected interplanetary adventures of Ransom in Perelandra.

Lewis corresponds with his friend Malcolm in Letters to Malcolm and somehow accesses a demonic correspondence in The Screwtape Letters. Perhaps he is also the first person narrator who dreams The Pilgrim's Regress. He also at one point converses with Lucy in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. Thus, Lewis as character plays an active role, to a greater or lesser extent, in the works of Lewis as author.


CS Lewis: Cosmic Journeys

CS Lewis wrote the seven Chronicles of Narnia whose characters visit:

the Wood between the Worlds;
the world of Charn;
the world of Narnia, Archenland and Calormen;
Aslan's country.

I suggest that seven further works by Lewis form a less uniform sequence of "Cosmic Journeys" whose characters visit:

the "Shoddy Lands" (another character's mind);
an alternative Earth;
a grey city which is Hell;
the foothills of Heaven;
the Moon

 - three heavenly bodies, three spiritual states and one alternative Earth. 

"Cosmic Journeys" incorporates not only the Ransom Trilogy but also an unexpected Lewis trilogy "within" the Ransom Trilogy.

(i) In Out Of The Silent Planet, Elwin Ransom visits a planet called Malacandra by its inhabitants, returns to Earth and corresponds with CS Lewis.

(ii) In "The Dark Tower," Lewis and Ransom confer with other colleagues one of whom is then mentally transferred to an alternative Earth.

(iii) and (iv) Lewis alone visits a woman's mind in "The Shoddy Lands" and the hereafter in The Great Divorce. "The Dark Tower" and "The Shoddy Lands" share a University setting. 

(v) In Perelandra, Lewis visits Ransom who then travels to Venus which is called Perelandra in the Solar language.

(vi) Lewis is a less visible first person narrator in That Hideous Strength which ends when Ransom returns to Perelandra. Two accounts are given of life in the Moon.

(vii) In "Forms Of Things Unknown," an unrelated character travels to the Moon but the story is connected because it is based on a quotation from Perelandra.

Thus, the characters recur as follows:

(i) Ransom, then Lewis;
(ii) Lewis, Ransom and others;
(iii) Lewis;
(iv) Lewis;
(v) Lewis, then Ransom;
(vi) others, Lewis and Ransom;
(vii) one other.

Ransom passes a baton to Lewis who runs with it, then returns it to Ransom:

(i), (v) and (vi) are the Ransom Trilogy;
(ii), (iii) and (iv) are a Lewis trilogy;
(vii) is an appendix.

If Lewis' sf story, "Ministering Angels," had been set in a space station or a lunar base, then it might have fitted in with this sequence as a sequel or companion story to "Forms Of Things Unknown." However, it is instead set on a realistic Mars, thus contradicting the fantastic Malacandra. Since the sequence incorporates an alternative Earth, it could also, of course, incorporate alternative versions of Mars but that is not the intent of this story and the first Ransom novel as they stand. They are simply unrelated fictions.

Lewis' fictional sequences are connected:

the being called Aslan in Narnia is called Maleldil in the Field of Arbol, the Lewisian Solar System -

Arbol, the Sun;
Viritrilbia, Mercury;
Perelandra, Venus;
Thulcandra, Earth;
Sulva, the Moon;
Malacandra, Mars;
Glund or Glundandra, Jupiter;
Lurga, Saturn;
Neruval, Uranus;

in The Great Divorce, Lewis' mentor George MacDonald, refers to the Ransom Trilogy;
the foothills of Heaven are part of Aslan's country;
Lewis hears Aslan/Maleldil's voice in the Shoddy Lands;
That Hideous Strength
refers to a forest in a wardrobe.

Readers might notice other connections. 

CS Lewis: "Forms of Things Unknown"

"Forms of Things Unknown" by CS Lewis reads like "hard sf" (scientifically and technologically accurate science fiction) until the last sentence. However, Lewis has prepared the reader for this ultimate intrusion of fantasy. The story is prefaced by a quotation from Lewis' novel, Perelandra:

"...that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other." (1)

Before Jenkin sets off for the Moon, his friend derides the idea of animated lunar stones as "...mere science fiction or mythology." (2)

Thus, sf and myth are bracketed together. Jenkin replies:

"Going to the Moon at all was once science fiction. And as for mythology, haven't they found the Cretan labyrinth?" (2)

Thus, the reader is prepared for the idea that, if the labyrinth existed, then perhaps mythological beings did as well. Also relevant is Jenkin's remark that, after a disappointing relationship with a young woman, he doesn't feel anything about her or indeed about women. In fact, he is "A bit petrified." (3) There was a female mythological being who literally petrified anyone who saw her.

The petrification theme continues when Jenkin, en route to the Moon, realizes one of his motives for volunteering. Because the affair had indeed frozen or petrified him, he now:

"...wanted to feel again, to be flesh, not stone." (4)

He will get the opposite of this wish.

There is a less explicit echo of Perelandra. A conscious reason why Jenkin had volunteered was a wish to be "...'outside,' in the sky...," in space, where, if anything, there might be a danger of agoraphobia. (4) Instead, he is claustrophobically enclosed in "...a little metal container...very like a coffin." (4) In Perelandra, Ransom had been angelically transported to Venus in a transparent white coffin but there the symbolism was of death to one world leading to new life in another whereas Jenkin's situation suggests merely death.

Lewis' unfamiliarity with technology is shown by his use of the word "...gimmicks.." for the instruments that Jenkin must use. (5) On the Moon, he finds statues of the men who had preceded him there, had started to transmit to Earth, then stopped. The statues show them in their spacesuits, looking over their shoulders. Believing that he has encountered lunar art, Jenkin, happy, no longer petrified, starts to transmit, sees the shadow of a human head with thick writhing hairs approaching from behind him and remembers that there is no wind on the Moon as he turns...

"His eyes met hers." (6)

(1) CS Lewis, "Forms of Things Unknown" IN Lewis, The Dark Tower and other stories, London, 1983, pp. 124-132 AT p. 124.
(2) ibid., p. 127.
(3) ibid., p. 125.
(4) ibid., p. 128.
(5) ibid., pp. 128, 131.
(6) ibid., p. 132.


CS Lewis: Planetary Environments

Each volume of CS Lewis' Ransom Trilogy presents a fanciful account of another planet. Lewis' Malacandra, Perelandra and Sulva, nominally identical with Mars, Venus and the Moon, are imaginary worlds unlike their counterparts in the astronomical Solar System. All three are inhabited and humanly habitable. Malacandra has "canals."

Perelandra has oceans. Sulva has a troglodyte race to that extent reminiscent of the Wellsian Selenites. Malacandra and Perelandra are visited from Earth whereas Sulva is merely described by characters who remain on Earth. The lunar race that is great according to one account is cursed in the other. When Lewis tells us of a wondrous realm on the far side of the Moon invisible from Earth, he, of course, presents mythological, not scientifically based, fiction.

By contrast, in "Forms of Things Unknown," Lewis tries to imagine what the lunar surface might really be like. His character lands in a crater and ventures out in a spacesuit. The surface is "...rock, not dust (which disposed of one hypothesis)..." (1) There is of course no sound. The lack of atmosphere means that the light, whether directly from the sun or reflected from the rock, is dazzling. Shadows are " Indian ink..." (2) The lack of atmosphere prevents any sense of distance. The remote crater wall looks as if it could be touched. The peaks look small and the stars near - although Lewis does not also mention the relative closeness of the horizon due to the smaller size of the Moon.

Despite all this, I argue that "Forms of Things Unknown" can be read as consistent with the Ransom Trilogy. Jenkin transmits to Earth so he has landed on the near side of the Moon. He remains on the surface so does not see any troglodytes. It is stated in the third Ransom novel that the eradication of organic life from the surface has been a deliberate policy of the Great Race. In the concluding paragraph, Jenkin is surprised by the sudden appearance of a character from Greek mythology on the lunar surface but the story had begun with a quotation from Perelandra:

"...that what was myth in one world might always be fact in another." (3)

The mythological being kills Jenkin as it had killed the members of three previous expeditions, leaving High Command on Earth with no clue as to their fate. This is consistent with the idea in the Ransom Trilogy that Earth, the "Silent Planet," is besieged and that consequently travel beyond the lunar orbit has been banned. Weston was allowed to reach Mars and Venus but only because this served a greater purpose and Ransom tells Lewis that "...'Weston' has shut the door..." (4)

"Forms of Things Unknown," considered as a single fictional work, exists only to shock the reader with its surprise ending whereas relocating it into a broader narrative context necessitates an explanation for the manifestation of a myth on the Moon. However, the Ransom Trilogy, with Ares and Aphrodite respectively presiding over Malacandra and Perelandra, has more than enough mythological content for this purpose. Here, "Mars" means both the planet and the deity albeit within Lewis' imaginative classical-Christian context. Science and myth collide when lunar airlessness contradicts Jenkin's impression that an approaching figure has long, thick hairs blowing in the wind... 

Like HG Wells and ER Burroughs, CS Lewis presents, in several sometimes indirectly linked works, a Solar System where inhabited planets interact.

  (1) CS Lewis, "Forms of Things Unknown" IN Lewis, The Dark Tower and other stories, London, 1983, pp. 124-132, AT p. 129.
(2) ibid., p. 130.
(3) ibid., p. 124.
(4) CS Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, London, 1952, p. 187.


The Ransom Trilogy

The Pan Books omnibus edition of CS Lewis' science fiction trilogy is called The Cosmic Trilogy, an inappropriate title because the novels describe only local interplanetary journeys. In fact, the first novel addresses the appropriateness or otherwise of the term "cosmic":

"The dangers to be feared are not planetary but cosmic, or at least solar..." (1)

No doubt the intervention of the mysterious being Maleldil in Thulcandra, the "silent planet," Earth, is an event of cosmic significance. Indeed, we are shown how the event affects a newly inhabited world, Perelandra, Venus, and we are also told that its effects will be more widespread. However, curiously, Maleldil's opponents, the rebel eldila, are confined to Thulcandra so that the conflict with them is not cosmic in scope. We are not told what might occur elsewhere.

The Trilogy can be adequately described by reference either to its author, "CS Lewis' interplanetary trilogy" or to its central character, "the Ransom Trilogy."

Out Of The Silent Planet, 144 pages in the omnibus edition, has a very small cast of human characters:

Weston, Devine and Ransom travel to Malacandra, Mars;
before leaving Earth, they interact with a woman and her son, Harry;
on Mars, they meet members of three intelligent species and some extra-planetary beings, eldila;
back on Earth, Ransom corresponds with CS Lewis;
thus, there are six human characters.

Perelandra, (204 pages) has an even smaller cast:

Ransom and Weston travel independently to Perelandra, Venus;
before leaving Earth, Ransom converses with Lewis and with an eldil;
there are as yet only two Venerian human beings, the Perelandrian First Parents;
Ransom's other dealings on Venus are with a demon possessing Weston, with two other eldila and with Maleldil;
thus, there are only five human characters, two of them extraterrestrial.

That Hideous Strength, 405 pages, has an uncountable cast:

Jane Studdock
Mark Studdock
a first person narrator who is not named but who is consistent both with Lewis the author and with Lewis the first person narrator of five other works, including the previous Volumes of the Trilogy
Lord Feverstone, formerly Devine
James Busby
Canon Jewel
Mrs Dimble
Cecil Dimble
Ivy Maggs
Ivy's husband
John Wither
William Hingest
Professor Filostrato
Miss "Fairy" Hardcastle
Camilla Denniston
Grace Ironwood
Joe, a driver
an unknown couple
Mr Fisher-King/Ransom
Denniston, addressed as "Frank" by Camilla but as "Arthur" by Dimble
the tramp
Mr Bultitude, a bear
five planetary eldila
Captain O'Hara
Canon Storey
Merlinus Ambrosius
a demon speaking through Alcasan's guillotined but artificially preserved head
Father Doyle
Inspector Wrench
the terrestrial Venus and the hyper-cosmic Maleldil as encountered by Jane
Sid, a driver
Len, Sid's mate
a lorry driver
a kindly elderly landlady
the chilly man
the ticket collector 

I have cast the net as widely as possible. A few of the names listed here are mere names in the novel. Usually, however, we get at least a short insight into the character. In many cases, the characters are well-rounded and substantial. Is Richard Telford a character in the novel? He remains off-stage but is mentioned twice and described once.

Lewis as a writer and a Professor of Literature knew that authors must understand and control narrative points of view. If an entire novel is not written from a single point of view, then each Chapter or at least each section of a Chapter, each passage of continuous prose narrative between changes of scene, should have a single point of view. That Hideous Strength breaks some rules of points of view but in interesting ways. It contains:

several viewpoint characters;
one first person viewpoint character;
an imaginary observer;
a first person narrator of other passages in the novel;
an omniscient narrator of yet other passages in the novel.

I identify the first person viewpoint character with Lewis because he tells us:

"...I am Oxford-bred and very fond of Cambridge..." (2)

The opening and closing viewpoint character of the novel is Jane Studdock. The main continuing viewpoint character throughout the novel is Mark Studdock. In fact, the novel principally follows Mark's moral and  spiritual development. Temporary view point characters during the novel are Lewis, Ransom, Dimble, Frost, Wither, the tramp, Mr Maggs, Miss Hardcastle, Feverstone, Filostrato and Mr Bultitude. When Lewis is the viewpoint character, he narrates in the first person. However, a first person narrator, presumably also Lewis, sometimes imparts information about other characters. For example, of the fleeing tramp we are told:

"I have not been able to trace him further." (3)

At one point, this first person narrator invites the reader to imagine an observer placed high enough to see both a car carrying Mark and, later, a train carrying Jane from the town where they live. "...our imaginary observer..." has what we call a bird's eye, or god's eye, view of some English countryside. (4) An imaginary observer who saw not just at one place and time but at all places and times would be an omniscient observer and would thus share one attribute of the God in whom Lewis believed. Such an observer would have been promoted from a god's eye view to the God's eye view. The omniscient narrator who is present in much fiction and in some parts of this novel is presumably an omniscient observer who narrates some of what s/he observes.

Before leaving the first person narrator, Lewis, we can note that he sometimes adopts the first person plural, as when he refers to "...our imaginary observer...," thus getting the readers on his side. (4) When he refers to the British press as "...our papers...," he again identifies himself as one of us, a citizen who reads the same newspapers that we do. (4) The omniscient narrator would refer merely to "...the papers."

However, the omniscient narrator is also present and tells us things that the first person narrator could not have known: something that Curry thinks but immediately and permanently forgets; what Frost, Filostrato and Wither were thinking as they died. This narrator could have told us where the tramp went.

Mark confronts Dimble. Conventionally, their conversation should be described either from Mark's or from Dimble's viewpoint but not from both. However, the narrator of this passage tells us how they both felt. Dimble's effort not to hate Mark gives his face a fixed severity which Mark misinterprets as loathing.

"The whole of the rest of this conversation went on under this misunderstanding." (5)

The omniscient narrator would know this, of course, but Lewis might have learned it later by conferring with both men so we are not sure which narrator speaks here. The author has indeed complicated the viewpoint issue - as Isaac Asimov did at one point in the Foundation Trilogy when an "I" appeared unexpectedly in what had until then been the omniscient narrator's account of different modes of consciousness in the far future. In that case, one critic objected to the ambiguity in Asimov's narrative whereas I welcomed the extra layer of mystery presented by a narrator who, on the one hand, knew something about future mental powers but, on the other hand, admitted to the same level of ignorance as the readers about what it would be like to experience such powers.

There cannot be many parallels between works by CS Lewis and Ian Fleming. James Bond is Fleming's viewpoint character. However, one Fleming short story presents a bird's eye view of two converging figures crawling through long grass - towards a third party whom both intend to assassinate. This odd perspective is explained by the fact that three stories, including this one, were based on screen treatments for a proposed TV series.

Lewis the first person narrator came on stage on p. 136 of Out Of The Silent Planet, after Ransom had returned to Earth.

 "At this point, if I were guided by purely literary considerations, my story would end..." (6)


"This is where I come into the story." (6)

We learn that Lewis has fictionalized the names of "Ransom" and "Weston" in order to publish as fiction an account that a very few readers will recognize as the truth. The postscript is "...extracts from a letter written by the original of 'Dr Ransom' to the author..." (7) In one extract, 'Ransom' addresses Lewis by name.

At the beginning of Perelandra, the first person narrator visits Ransom and is again addressed by name. 

"The Dark Tower" features Ransom, MacPhee and, as a first person narrator, an "Oxford man" who dislikes the nick-name "Lu-Lu" and who "...had been mixed up with..." Ransom's strange adventure described " another book..." and is indeed referred to as "Mr Lewis." (8)

"The Shoddy Lands" has a first person narrator visited in his college rooms at Oxford by a former student. 

The Great Divorce has a first person narrator who admired George MacDonald and is clearly Lewis. Here the story overlaps with that told in Lewis' spiritual biography Surprised By Joy.

Thus, whereas first person narrators are not usually identical with their author, in this case they are.

(1) CS Lewis, Out Of The Silent Planet IN The Cosmic Trilogy, London, 1990, pp. 1-144 AT p. 138.
(2) CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength IN The Cosmic Trilogy, London, 1990, pp. 349-753 AT p. 359.
(3) ibid., p. 719.
(4) ibid., p. 395.
(5) ibid., p. 578.
(6) Out Of The Silent Planet, p. 136.
(7) ibid., p. 139.
(8) CS Lewis, "The Dark Tower" IN The Dark Tower and other stories, London, 1983. pp. 17-91 AT pp. 17, 22, 29, 39.           

The Best SF Series?

Although Robert Heinlein's Future History began by incorporating "all" of his sf stories at the time of writing, it soon became only a small part of his complete works and does not incorporate several novels clearly set in closely related timelines. The military hero Dahlquist, the blind singer Rhysling, the Lunar family Stone, the Space Patrol, Martians who "grow together" and swamp-dwelling Venerians occur both in the Future History and in some of Heinlein's Scribner Juvenile novels. The same Martians also appear in Stranger in a Strange Land. In fact, five Juveniles could be classed as a Juvenile Future History consistent with the "Green Hills of Earth" period of the (adult) History. However, longer future histories can become diffuse whereas Heinlein's remained concise. Dahlquist and Rhysling each make a significant contribution by appearing in only one story although, like real historical figures, they are also referenced in other possible futures.
Like Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series, the Future History could be collected in two omnibus volumes with the first page of Volume II following directly from the last page of Volume I. The Time Patrol and the Future History are candidate "best" series, dealing respectively with past and future history. Both are definitely superior to Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, which won an undeserved Hugo Award as "Best Ever" sf series.

Larry Niven's Known Space future history, now rather diffuse, contains a Ringworld Tetralogy as a series within the series. The Tetralogy should be read in conjunction with Protector and the Beowulf Shaeffer stories if not also with the rest of Known Space. Again, this series is more imaginative and substantial than Foundation, as are Asimov's own I, Robot, James Blish's Cities in Flight and Anderson's several future histories.

All these series are developmental. Their installments go somewhere, unlike interchangeable episodes of a TV series. Readers of this piece will know of other candidate "best" series, possibly unknown to the present writer. In my opinion, Heinlein's Future History successfully competes with its successors. Heinlein, starting in 1939, skilfully built stepping stones from 1952 to the twenty second century. (See here.) Stories about technological advances were followed by a "first man on the Moon" story, then by several stories set in Luna City before Mars and Venus were colonized. The entrepreneurship that had opened space became economic imperialism with effective slavery on Venus before political tensions on Earth led to an American theocracy and temporary cessation of space travel. Revolution against theocracy had further consequences.

Wells cannot be considered here because he wrote no series. I would vote for Time Patrol as the best sf series (see here) with the Future History as a close second.    

Some Details in Stapledon and Heinlein

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon is a history of the next two hundred million years. One of the Last Men on Neptune induces Stapledon in the twentieth century to write a history of the future. Stapledon thinks he is writing fiction and, in fact, the central nervous system of a First Man distorts most of the Neptunian's thoughts.
The Future History by Robert Heinlein is stories and novels set in the period from 1952 to the twenty second century. Let us suppose as a fictional premise that the Future History occurs in a parallel timeline mentally accessed by Heinlein while writing and that there was distortion. We may then deduce that Rhysling, the Blind Singer of the Spaceways, must have written better poetry than the verses attributed to him by Heinlein. Perhaps poetry is particularly difficult to transmit between universes.

Heinlein had frog-like Venerians who found eating obscene and had to do it alone. Stapledon had had frog-like Venerians and also Neptunians. Some of the latter found eating obscene and had to do it alone. Some of Heinlein's characters travel physically to the past or future. Stapledon's characters can visit only the past and then only by occupying the central nervous systems of earlier beings.

Heinlein was the first American future historian whereas Stapledon followed Wells in British sf. Both followed Wells in writing about time travel, space travel and alien invasion.  


...Or An Independent Story

An alternative reading of " - We Also Walk Dogs" (see here) is that, despite being listed in the Time Chart and despite being included in a Future History collection, it does not really fit into Heinlein's Future History. Its newly invented gravity control technology is not mentioned in later stories where it would have made a difference. It refers to seven extra-terrestrial races in the Solar System whereas other Future History stories mention only two: Martians in "Ordeal in Space," Venerians in "Logic of Empire" and both in "The Green Hills of Earth." Further, these Martians and Venerians seem unlikely to engage in the kind of interplanetary power politics suggested by " - We Also Walk Dogs." The story mentions Luna City but a lunar colony of that name could exist in almost any future involving space travel. 

Because the Future History is a series, not a serial, most of its installments could be read and assessed separately. "Common Sense" is a sequel to "Universe" and "The Man Who Sold The Moon" was written as a prequel to "Requiem." The latter, about Harriman's death, would have remained a valid story even if Heinlein had not later added the longer account of Harriman's earlier career.

If " - We Also Walk Dogs" is read separately, then it need not be seen as leading to the worsening political conditions of "Logic of Empire." Instead, its protagonists look forward to profiting from the application of the "O'Neil effect" to space navigation, colonization and recreation. One comments that, "There's always money in giving people what they want." That sounds like a utopian future for all: the public gets what it wants and their suppliers get "...gobs of money..." in the process. In practice, of course, many members of the public might not be able to afford luxury items and a market economy can be guaranteed not to expand indefinitely but we still seem to be looking at a brighter future than the one described in the ensuing episodes of the History.

A Pivotal Story

Some stories in Robert Heinlein's Future History are pivotal whereas others are not. Thus, three works, "Blow-ups Happen," "The Man Who Sold The Moon" and "Delilah and the Space Rigger," are collectively pivotal between Earth-bound stories and Luna City-based stories. The stories cover the development of an escape velocity rocket fuel, the landing of a man on the Moon and the construction of a space station necessary for regular Earth-Moon flight. "The Green Hills of Earth" is pivotal between Luna City and the wider Solar System. "Logic of Empire" pivotally shows that interplanetary exploitation does not benefit everyone while an extreme political alternative gains ground on Earth. "If This Goes On -" is pivotal not only between the first interplanetary period and the Prophetic Interregnum but also between the latter and the post-revolutionary Covenant which is pivotally broken in Methuselah's Children. Pivots become more frequent as political change moves to the foreground of the series.

By contrast, some stories are set in a particular period of the History but do not advance the History beyond that period. This is certainly true of the three Moon-based stories added later. However, I argue for the pivotal status of " - We Also Walk Dogs." This story informs us that Earth has gained a planetary government although national legislatures remain. This sets the scene for the United States seceding from the Federation later in the series. The story features a world-wide general purposes organization called General Services. This organization's ubiquity might explain why the phrase, "Can I do you a service?," sometimes abbreviated to "Service," becomes the polite greeting in a later period. The story generates the impression of being set in a utopian future but only because it focuses on the lives of the rich or of those who earn high salaries by providing them with quality services. "Logic of Empire" shows economic divisions and inequalities. However, the move towards a utopia is more nearly realized in the sequel to "If This Goes On -," "Coventry."

Gravity control, discovered in " - We Also Walk Dogs," must be lost in the Interregnum because it is absent from Methuselah's Children and "Universe" where interstellar spacecraft are spun to generate centrifugal force. Martians, Venerians, Jovians, Titans, Callistans and two other unnamed Solar races are mentioned although only the first two make brief appearances elsewhere in the History. (Since the first successful interstellar explorers meet two extra-Solar races in a single round trip, the galaxy of the Future History seems to be  well populated.)

Unlike "Logic of Empire," " - We Also walk Dogs" gives no hint that "Things are bound to get a whole lot worse before they can get any better" but that is because it reflects a different segment of a complicated future society where one highly paid General Services operator has a pocket phone. The background information and optimistic tone of the story make positive contributions to the Future History.        

Heinlein's Future History and Social Change II

I mentioned regular space travel and alien contact as features of Heinlein's Future History that have not yet materialized in reality. We can add that, if there is to be any alien contact, then it will have to be extra-solar. Neither the humanly habitable Venus nor the easily colonized Mars, let alone the swamp-dwelling Venerians or the contemplative Martians, really exist.

Also, we have neither a world federation nor an imminent religious dictatorship in the United States. A federation is unlikely in the foreseeable future. How about a US religious dictatorship? There are certainly potential First Prophets.

In the Future History, the post-Revolutionary Covenant is followed by social unrest, then by a "mature culture." What would that be like? To a writer like Heinlein, a mature civilization might be based on something like a crisis-free capitalism. However, Marxists argue that crises are inherent in capitalism because competitive re-investment necessarily causes the rate of profit to fall. Such questions will be answered in real political conflicts but science fiction writers can try out some answers in advance.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Heinlein's Future History and Social Change

Heinlein's Future History celebrates the social impact of technological change. As such, it celebrates the world in which Heinlein lived and in which we live now that some of our year dates correspond to those in the series. It is to be hoped that we will have a, beneficial, "Revolt in 2100," if not sooner.

Although Heinlein anticipated future changes, we are already living in a technologically changed world. This has been true since the beginning of agriculture and increasingly true since the seventeenth century. Imagine that we inhabit a fictitious future history written in 1900 and read by people who really expected their pre-1914 regimes to survive till 2014 or later.

Heinlein shows the impact of technology on daily life, economics, politics and popular religion as well as the political and religious misuse of communications technology. Much of what he describes is paralleled in the real world. No one lives on the Moon yet because, despite the arguments of Heinlein's character, Harriman, and of Heinlein's successors, Anderson, Niven and Pournelle, the capital expenditure of space travel is too great in relation to any perceived profit. The US seems to have raced to the Moon to develop rocket and computer technology for use on Earth.

We are not in contact with any Martians or Venerians, which are in any case marginal in the series. These were science fictional props that were not necessary for Heinlein's speculations about rocket technology although he did expect contact to be made with Martians. Despite the existence of other intelligent species in and beyond the Solar System, the Future History becomes mainly an account of the future of humanity comparable to works by Wells and Stapledon. 

The Structure of a Series: Robert Heinlein

(i) Four stories about near future technological advances on Earth:
a "baronovitameter" or (in another edition) a "chronovitameter," for measuring the length of a life;
solar power;
moving roads;
a dangerous nuclear power plant that will be placed in orbit.

(ii) Four stories about early Earth-Moon travel:
the financing of the first Moon landing;
the construction of Space Station One;
regularized Earth-Moon travel;
old Harriman, "the Man who sold the Moon," makes it to the Moon.

(iii) Four stories about regular life on the Moon:
the Space Patrol honors a hero;
an accident;
a lost child;
a Moon-dwelling couple return to Earth but realize that they belong on the Moon.

(iv) Three stories added later about life on the Moon:
low gravity sport and romance;
a second lost child;
lost Boy Scouts.

(v) Four stories about interplanetary travel beyond the Moon:
Rhysling and others cross the Solar System, colonizing Mars and Venus;
a spaceman who knows Martians overcomes his fear of falling;
representatives of several intelligent species meet on Earth;
colonists are enslaved on Venus but a Prophet rises on Earth...(he will establish a theocracy between stories).

(vi) One novel and two stories about an interruption to space travel:
life under the Prophets and the anti-Prophetic Revolution;
after the Revolution, anti-social individualists, surviving followers of the Prophet and advocates of a strong state are sent to the ungoverned area, Coventry, beyond the Barrier;
also after the Revolution, space travel is resumed and asteroids are moved to orbits between Earth and Mars where they are adapted as space stations for refueling and rescue.

(vii) One novel and two stories involving interstellar travel:
a crisis in the Covenant leads to an interstellar round trip;
some members of the crew of the lost first interstellar spaceship learn that their large enclosed ship is not the entire universe;
some crew members escape from the ship.

(viii) Six "stories-to-told" that were never written although their proposed content informed the background of the series:
the Antarctican revolution;
resistance movements on Mars and Venus;
the First Prophet's early days;
early resistance to Prophetic rule;
a work to be called "Da Capo" that would have been set centuries later.

(ix) A Time Chart listing stories, characters, events, technologies and social backgrounds. 

That is it. Any works added later are no good. Several other works are closely related, even referring to common characters and alien races, but they do not fit into this linear sequence. Given that the Future History was never going to comprise the entirety of Heinlein's science fiction (sf) output, the question becomes: did he successfully organize part of that output into a coherent history? Yes. The integrity of the series is not compromised by the existence of closely related works that are not fully consistent with the History. In fact, several of his juvenile novels almost form a divergent though parallel history. A short story about Dahlquist, the Patrol hero, and one about Rhysling, the Blind Singer of the Spaceways, are in the Future History. A juvenile novel that refers to Dahlquist and another that quotes Rhysling's songs are not in the History. But the History as a series remains substantial.
Because of Heinlein's attention to technical details, the series takes six stories to reach the common sf starting point of regular space travel and even then only between Earth and Moon. The original series, collected in five volumes, comprised four groups of four stories, then two novels each followed by two shorter pieces: (4 x 4) + (3 x 2) = 16 + 6 = 22 items. The pre-Prophetic stories, about ordinary people in a common future setting, do not present a political history and therefore might not seem to comprise a future history series but they are seen to be substantial when read or re-read individually. Politics is in the background:

there is a transport strike and attempted revolution in the moving roads story;
Harriman describes Communism as "still a menace," though only to manipulate the media - he argues that a sovereign Lunar state established by private enterprise is preferable to a Lunar Soviet aiming nuclear warheads at Earth (the latter gives him nightmares...);
the UN cancels space flights that would pass too close to its orbiting nuclear weapons;
Dahlquist prevents a nuclear strike and military coup by fellow officers in the peace-keeping Patrol;
later, a planetary government convenes the multi-species conference - national legislatures like the British Parliament still exist but the confederation treaty recognizes the planetary government as sovereign.

Private investment opened space ("The Man Who Sold The Moon") and imperialist exploitation developed Venus ("Logic of Empire"). Thus, Harriman's idealism and entrepreneurship eventually led to indentured servitude. Heinlein's Future History Time Chart says that Antarctican, American and Venerian revolutions ended interplanetary imperialism. The stories show only some of the details. Free men organize on Venus. Later, the US is a theocracy. Later again, that theocracy which, according to the Time Chart, began with a US "revolution," is overthrown by the more appropriately named Second American Revolution.

The Prophets' followers, the "Angels of the Lord," must be derived from Christianity although this is not confirmed. Terminologically, they combine Christianity with Islam -

Christianity: God Incarnate;
Islam: the Prophet;
Angels: the Prophet Incarnate.

Like some Muslims, the Angels reject Church-State separation. Medieval Christendom had a Pope and an Emperor (in England, a King and an Archbishop), and conflict between them, whereas, after the election of President Scudder, the United States has only a reigning Prophet. Heinlein's other nasty Christian derivative is the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation in Stranger in a Strange Land. Both Angels and Fosterites claim direct contact with Heaven. Archangels tell the Fosterite Supreme Bishop exactly when a couple who have left their property to the Church will go to Heaven and the Church organizes a farewell party... None dare call it murder. The First Prophet is said to return in the flesh annually at the Miracle of the Incarnation. Heinlein knew that modern communications technology could be used to broadcast nonsense. We, the readers, meet neither the hedonist Foster nor the ascetic Scudder in person - but we know that Scudder's successors do not adhere to his asceticism. The revolutionary Cabal cannot take the deposed Prophet alive because his Virgins get to him first.
Some stories are stepping stones to later works. Escape velocity rocket fuel is developed at the end of the fourth story, "Blow-ups Happen," about nuclear power. Harriman puts a man on the Moon in the fifth story, "The Man Who Sold The Moon." A space station, necessary for regular flight between Earth and Moon, is constructed in the sixth story, "Delilah and the Space-Rigger." The seventeenth story, "The Green Hills of Earth," about Rhysling, the Blind Singer of the Spaceways, bridges the gap between passages referring only to Luna City and those also referring to colonies on Mars and Venus. Rhysling, blinded by radiation while exploring the asteroids, had regularly flown between Earth and the Moon before joining the first deep space trip, to Mars. He later visited Venusburg and wrote songs that are sung, in the eighteenth story, "Logic of Empire," by indentured men who relax in Venusburg. That story ends with a reference to the political preacher, Nehemiah Scudder, and the next work, "If This Goes On -," begins with its narrator guarding the apartments of the Prophet Incarnate. Technological, economic and social changes have at last generated a religious/political upheaval. Questions about government have moved from the background to the foreground of the series.

"If This Goes On -" refers back to a World War III, an important event not mentioned in the Time Chart, but also refers to the Federation, the UN-derived planetary government dating from the first interplanetary period which prevents wars by monopolizing nuclear weapons. When the Angels are overthrown, Heinlein conveys revolutionary turmoil: argument in the constitutional convention; the Onward Christian Soldiers' resentment of the timing of the Cabal's insurrection. The Prophets had seceded from the Federation. The latter does not immediately recognize the new regime and will not authorize nuclear weapons to end a civil war. Thus, in a few background-establishing sentences, Heinlein contextualizes the Second American Revolution. The UN had established the Patrol and become the Federation which will oppress the Families (see below) but will, according to the Time Chart, be succeeded by a mature culture.
After the madness of the Prophets, a sane society is built but its peace is threatened by mass envy of the Howard Families' longevity. Obliged to lead his persecuted fellow Howards out of the Solar System, Lazarus Long unintentionally provides a further fulfillment for Harriman's dream of space travel. When, after difficult experiences in two inhabited systems, the Howards discuss whether to return to the Solar System, Lazarus has Rhysling's song, "The Green Hills of Earth," played over the PA.

The Future History could be packaged in five sections not exactly corresponding to the original five volumes.

Earth: six stories set on Earth or in Earth orbit ("The Man Who Sold the Moon" is set entirely on Earth although the first Moon landing, in 1978, occurs off-stage).
Moon: six stories in the original History plus two more added in The Past Thru Tomorrow plus one more added in Expanded Universe.
Interplanetary: four stories plus possibly "Tenderfoot in Space," which I have not read, if it is set on the same version of Venus.
Interregnum: the Prophets, revolution and after.
Interstellar: the rest.
Appropriate volume titles for such a repackaging would be:

The Man Who Sold The Moon;
The Black Pits of Luna;
The Green Hills of Earth;
Revolt in 2100;
Orphans of the Sky.

This involves swapping two stories between collections, then splitting one volume and amalgamating two of the original five. The Moon story, "The Black Pits of Luna," is, as far as titles go, a companion piece to "The Green Hills of Earth." Rhysling's song refers to "...harsh bright soil of Luna..." The song as a whole refers not to a life spent on Earth but to spacemen's nostalgia for "...the globe that gave us birth...," as they travel beyond the Moon and further into the Solar System.

Revolt in 2100 remains unchanged in the proposed repackaging. The original Orphans of the Sky collected the two stories set in an interstellar spaceship whose crew are "orphans" because they are lost, having forgotten even where they came from. However, the title characters of Methuselah's Children, the Howards, become "orphans" when they flee from the Solar System. Therefore, Orphans... would be an appropriate title for a collection of all three works that would be a culmination of the History.

Pivotal characters in the series as a whole are:

Harriman who sold the Moon;
Dahlquist who defended freedom;
Rhysling, the "Blind Singer" who was on the first trip to Mars;
Scudder who destroyed freedom for three generations;
Novak of the Covenant;
Long who freed the Howards.

It is difficult to finalize this text because a wealth of details deserves to be mentioned. Heinlein's Preface said that this fictional history was at least as real to him as Plymouth Rock. This is true for many of his readers. 
The early part of a future history can set the scene for later action:

Wells analyzed then current world affairs before moving into the future (he had described a first Moon landing in a separate work);
Niven's Known Space series begins with four stories of interplanetary exploration;
Anderson's Technic History begins with one story of interplanetary exploration and one of interstellar exploration;
Blish's Cities in Flight begins with regular interplanetary travel, then describes the two discoveries that make interstellar travel possible.

All sf writers are indebted to Wells. Blish, Anderson, Niven and others are also indebted to Heinlein, particularly for his Future History.