Saturday, 14 December 2013

Humor In SF?

I have been asked what I think about humor in Poul Anderson in particular and in sf in general. I have read very little humorous sf. One value of humor is that it enables us to look at familiar or serious issues from a completely different perspective as the Greeks found when they watched a comedy after a trilogy of tragedies. Shakespeare's plays are Histories, Comedies and Tragedies, with Sir John Falstaff appearing in a History and a Comedy.

HG Wells wrote two frivolous short stories about flying and mountaineering with a common narrator, both unlike his usual style. A, if not the, major humorous sf writer is Robert Sheckley, highly recommended by other authors, but I have read almost none of his works. His Dimension Of Miracles is said to be similar to Douglas Adams' later The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, which is good sf humor but is also a classic example of a series continued for too long, even, in the books, adding extra volumes to a supposed "trilogy."

HHGTTG's proliferation through every available medium is also a bit overdone. I have seen the TV series and the feature film and read some of the books but have not heard the radio series or (I think?) the record or read the comic. When the feature film followed the plot of the TV series, I thought, "What is the point of this? It is the same as on TV, " whereas when it differed, I thought, "What is the point of this? It is arbitrarily changing the plot." Did we need two screen versions?

I value Poul Anderson's and Gordon R Dickson's Hoka series and Anderson's The Makeshift Rocket primarily as imaginative sf rather than for their humor. Anderson's best humor, I think, is in some chapters of A Midsummer Tempest but that is fantasy.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Anderson And Wellsianity

Copied from Poul Anderson Appreciation:

Associative processes are spiral, not linear. Setting out to reread The War Of Two Worlds by Poul Anderson, I instead began to read for the first time Threshold Of Eternity by John Brunner, published in the same Ace Double volume. Noticing, so to say, the obvious "Wellsianity" of both novels, I then reflected more generally on Wells and his successors.

Thus, this post belongs more appropriately on the Science Fiction blog and will be copied there. However, most page viewers visit Poul Anderson Appreciation. Further, Wells and other sf writers are discussed here not in their own right but to compare them with Anderson.

CS Lewis referred to:

"...what we may loosely call the Scientific Outlook, the picture of Mr. Wells and the rest." ("Is Theology Poetry?" IN Lewis, Screwtape Proposes A Toast and Other Pieces (London, 1965), pp. 41-58 AT pp. 45-46)

Lewis acknowledges that practicing scientists as a whole do not accept this "Scientific Outlook" and concedes that "...the delightful name 'Wellsianity'...", (p. 46) suggested by another member of the Socratic Club, would have been more appropriate.

Wells' works, both fiction and non-fiction, express Wellsianity as Lewis' express Christianity. Wells' science fiction pioneers four themes:

space travel;
time travel;
interplanetary invasion;
future history.

Wells has many successors, including Anderson and Brunner, and one main opponent. I have argued on the Science Fiction blog that Lewis' Ransom novels are a systematic reply to the four Wellsian themes.

Wells is content to describe:

a single journey to the Moon in the Cavorite sphere, which is lost at the end of the novel;
a single journey to the future on the Time Machine, which is lost at the end of the novel;
a single attack by Martians, who are killed by Terrestrial microbes;
a single historical turning point in the next two hundred years - although, as against this, the Time Traveler's journey to the further future shows him the devolution of mankind and the end of life on Earth.

Wells' successors describe regular space travel, time travel and alien contact and write longer future histories. Anderson's The War Of Two Worlds, like Wells' The War Of The Worlds, describes a war between Earth and Mars and Anderson went on to write many other accounts of interplanetary conflicts. Brunner's Threshold Of Eternity, like Wells' The Time Machine, describes time travel but, in this case, such travel has become routine and indeed a means of conflict.

I have argued previously that Olaf Stapledon and Poul Anderson are major successors of Wells.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Concerning Stories Never Written II

In his "Postscript: Concerning Stories Never Written," Robert Heinlein says that the unwritten story, "Eclipse," would have dealt with the Martian and Venerian colonies becoming independent. He adds that this story will probably never be written because:

"...I have dealt with the themes involved at greater length in two novels which were not bound by the Procrustean Bed of a fictional chart; it would be tedious for both you and me to deal with the same themes again."

Which two novels? I know of three possible candidates:

Red Planet, a Scribner Juvenile and a volume of the Juvenile Future History;
Between Planets, a Scribner Juvenile, not part of the Juvenile Future History, e. g., different races of Martians and Venerians;
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, an adult novel which, like both Future Histories, has a family called Stone on the Moon.

It would be possible to extend Heinlein's Future History Time Chart by adding a column for parallel timelines. Several works have features in common with the Future History although they do not fit into that History. Podkayne Of Mars has a Venusburg on Venus but its Martians and Venerians are different again from those in the two Future Histories. The Postscript bestows on the readers auctorial permission to read at least two (or three?) of those works with the knowledge that events like these, the gaining of colonial independence, also occurred within the Future History.

Thus, read the History, then read the supplementary volumes.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Fahrenheit 451

A neat gift pack would be:

the novel, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury;
a DVD of Francois Truffaut's film of the novel;
a video of Bradbury's stage adaptation of the novel;
the comic strip adaptation by Tim Hamilton, introduced by Bradbury.

Truffaut changed the character Clarisse from a sixteen year old high school dropout killed by a hit and run car driver to a twenty year old primary school teacher who survives with the hero Montag at the end of the film.

Apparently, Bradbury preferred Truffaut's ending for Clarisse so he incorporated it into his play. Thus, the story exists in four media and Bradbury incorporates an input from Truffaut.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Concerning Stories Never Written

I have read Robert Heinlein's post-script to some editions of Revolt In 2100, "Concerning Stories Never Written," for the very first time. Heinlein neatly summarizes the first three volumes of the Future History and the first three unwritten stories, that might have comprised a volume between Vols II and III:

The Man Who Sold The Moon covers the second half of the twentieth century and ends with very early space travel;
The Green Hills Of Earth describes the exploration of the Solar System in the early twenty first century and "...end[s] with the United States a leading power in a systemwide imperialism embracing all the habitable planets";
Revolt In 2100 begins with the US under an isolationist Theocracy;

"The Sound Of His Wings" would have described the rise of the First Prophet;
"Eclipse" would have described Martian and Venerian independence;
"The Stone Pillow" would have described the growth of the anti-Theocratic underground.

(Heinlein does not mention that the contents of Vols I and II overlap.)

He was right that:

space travel might be marginal, subsidized for military reasons, then die out;
anti-scientific televangelization could, maybe in an economic depression, lead to a dictatorship.

This post-script gives a considerable insight into Heinlein and his series. It is an important part of the History and should be included in any future edition.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Linear And Non-Linear Future Histories

Copied from Poul Anderson Appreciation:

 Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy begins untold thousands or tens of thousands of years in our future. Several later written volumes recount intervening history. After an incoherent time travel scenario, mostly set in other timelines, there is an interplanetary robotic economy, then two phases of extrasolar colonization followed by the growth of the Trantorian Empire that becomes the Galactic Empire.

The Trilogy opens as the twelve thousand year old Empire begins its terminal decline. Hari Seldon's psychohistorical Plan will reduce the interregnum between the First and Second Empires from a predicted thirty thousand years to a mere thousand. The Trilogy covers only the first four centuries of the interregnum. Two subsequent novels add one more century.

Although the series is set so far in our future, human lifespans have not been extended. (By contrast, after the opening volume of James Blish's Cities In Flight future history, the reader does not notice that centuries are elapsing because the anti-agathics preserve a small number of interstellar travelers until the end of the universe - which, however, is brought unexpectedly close to the present for narrative convenience.) Thus, none of Asimov's characters survives for more than a century.

Despite the absence of continuing characters, the Trilogy remains an entirely linear narrative. The Galactic Encyclopedia Foundation on the planet Terminus becomes a Mayoralty, with Traders and Merchant Princes, successively interacting with:

imperial provinces that become independent kingdoms;
the weakened Empire;
the Mule who upsets Seldon's plan;
the hidden Second Foundation that restores the Plan;
the planetary collective consciousness called Gaia that secretly manipulates the Second Foundation;
the immortal telepathic robot, Daneel Olivaw, who is ultimately behind both Seldon's Plan and Gaia and even indirectly the Mule because the latter turns out to have been a rebel Gaian, not after all an individual mutant.

The subsequent novels diverge from the original Plan first by introducing Gaia and secondly by reintroducing Daneel from the first extrasolar colonization period. Despite this divergence in content, the structure remains chronologically linear with each installment a direct sequel to the preceding one. An indefinite number of otherwise independent stories could have been set, for example, in the Traders period but Asimov did not go down that route. Instead, each new installment had to advance the timeline and progress the Plan, although ultimately Daneel's, not Seldon's.

extremely far fetched;
more about implausible social manipulators than about credible social developments;
differing from the alternative future history model created by Robert Heinlein and followed by Poul Anderson and Larry Niven.

The Heinlein Model:
several successive historical periods with a number of otherwise independent stories set in each period;
transitions between periods explained either by pivotal stories or by background information in later stories.

Heinlein's "If This Goes On -" informs us that the Prophets had seized power and describes their overthrow;
Anderson's "Cold Victory" informs us that the Humanists had seized power and describes their overthrow.

Heinlein devotes several stories to the daily lives of ordinary people on the Moon in the pre-Prophetic period, then two to the changed social conditions in the post-Prophetic period;
to a lesser extent, Anderson shows us daily life on Earth and on a colonized asteroid in the pre-Humanist period.

My point, as ever, is that I prefer Anderson's several future histories to Asimov's single future history! Even Anderson's earliest, Psychotechnic, history proves to be more substantial than expected when reread with sufficient attention.

Friday, 18 October 2013


The same points apply to this post as to the previous one.

The Moon is the only planet visited by any of HG Wells' characters. Some view Mars. Others are attacked by Martians and, later, know that the Martians have also invaded Venus.

ER Burroughs, writing not speculative fiction but "sword and science," gives us the Moon, Mars, Venus, a Martian moon, Jupiter and one extrasolar planet. CS Lewis, replying to Wells, gives us the Moon, Mars and Venus.

Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson all describe human colonists of Venus. This is a strong conceptual link between these three authors' future histories. In Anderson's second future history, the unpleasant character, Snelund, comes from an inadequately terraformed Venus. The Venerians of Heinlein's Future History also appear in Space Cadet, one of five of his Scribner Juveniles that I think can be described as the author's "Juvenile Future History."

Larry Niven, writing after the Venus probes, describes the exploration but not the colonization of that planet. The Venus that either is or can be made to become habitable remains a part of sf mythology but has ceased to be a setting for hard sf.

However, we think of Earth as our mother and our descendants will probably think likewise of any other planet that they come to inhabit. Thus, one of Anderson's Martian colonists applies the feminine pronoun to his adopted planet, obviously entirely forgetting Mars' original masculine persona.

Mature Civilization

This post was first published on the Poul Anderson Appreciation Blog because it followed from other posts there although it is also of more general science fictional significance. Some blog readers might notice that I am not familiar with more recent sf writers. Comments to that effect are welcomed.

Wells' and Stapledon's future histories culminate in mature civilizations. Heinlein's Future History Time Chart culminates in "...the end of human adolescence, and beginning of first mature culture..." (The Man Who Sold The Moon, London, 1964, p. 7), although I dislike Heinlein's idea of that culture in Time Enough For Love.

Asimov's Second Foundation works towards a Second Empire to be based on mental science, not on physical force, but this Plan is superseded by the telepathic robots and their planetary organism working to make the Galaxy a single collective consciousness.

In Blish's Cities In Flight Tetralogy, history is interrupted by the end of the universe. In Anderson's Psychotechnic History, the Third Dark Ages and the interstellar Empires are followed by a multi-species galactic civilization based on mental science and on individual control of cosmic energy. In Anderson's Technic History, the Terran Empire and the Long Night are followed by the Allied Planets, then by the Commonalty.

Six of these seven future histories express the aspiration towards a saner, better organized society. This aspiration is practicable, not utopian, although we cannot know in advance what such a society will be like. As Arthur C Clarke said, any civilization that has had a high technology for a long time must have solved its problems and resolved its internal conflicts because otherwise it would have destroyed itself long ago.

When there is abundant energy and technology, there will no longer be any need to compete in order to survive, to accumulate wealth, to exercise power or to win prestige although creative competition might continue in other forms.

Monday, 16 September 2013

World Con

I do not usually attend sf cons but there is a World Con in London next year so will any readers of this blog be there?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Judgement And Doomsday

The Day After Judgement by James Blish and After Doomsday by Poul Anderson sound almost interchangeable. However, Blish's Judgement is spiritual and supernatural, a literal Armageddon, whereas Anderson's "Doomsday" is secular and scientific, the sterilisation of Earth by aliens. In other words, Blish's novel is fantasy whereas Anderson's is science fiction (sf).

CS Lewis begins Perelandra by pointing out that we imagine non-human intelligences as either supernatural or extraterrestrial, then informs us that his character, Ransom, met on Mars beings that were both. That shook me when I read it.

A few other sf writers have had similar ideas. In two of Heinlein's novels, the Martian "Old Ones" are ghosts. In Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, Martian "Old Ones" are spiritually evolved Martians. In Brian Aldiss's Helliconia Trilogy, Helliconians have contact with their hereafter which contrasts strangely with the Terrestrial observation station in orbit above their planet. (When, in that station, orderly life broke down, Aldiss wrote an italicised descriptive passage including this marvelous sentence: "Everything depraved flourished.")

Starting with a reflection on two superficially similar but essentially contrasting titles, I have drawn a few parallels between six great names in sf: Blish; Anderson; Lewis; Heinlein; Bradbury; Aldiss. 

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Must Reads

When I was a teenager in the 1960's, I wanted to read everything by Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Robert Heinlein and Clifford Simak. (Heinlein had not yet completely degenerated.) I caught up with Simak, read his, at that time, most recent publication and then forgot about him although he continued churning out novels, probably as many again after that. I thought that he had become repetitive and self-parodying. James Blish, whom I continued to revere, disliked Simak's three instances of talking dogs.

Poul Anderson was not then among my Must Reads. I read some of his works but not others. Now, of the writers mentioned so far, only Blish and Anderson are Must Reads and Anderson, because of his volume and range, is the only one about whom I can blog indefinitely.

After the 1960's, he wrote a lot more and my respect for what he had written increased. Once, when I browsed a novel of his, the blurb described an interstellar spaceship crew returning to Earth to discover that a Social Welfare Party had gained office in their absence. To me at the time, this did not sound sufficiently new so I returned it to the bookshop shelf. Let me end with a question: can any reader of this blog identify that novel from the description given here? Or maybe I am mistaken and it was not an Anderson novel? 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

"Great Books"

Britannica published a Great Books of the Western World series, two volumes of summary and discussion followed by fifty eight volumes covering three thousand years of epics, drama, history, philosophy, logic, mathematics, science, theology, psychology, economics, political theory and novels, from Homer to Beckett.

If the series had been able to include one single work of science fiction (sf), then I suggest that it should have been HG Wells' The Time Machine, an admirably brief speculation about the nature of time and the future of mankind with vivid imaginative descriptions of "time traveling." If an expanded edition of the series were to include a volume of sf, then I suggest that the contents should be:

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus;
The Time Machine;
Last And First Men;
the first page of Superman from Action Comics no 1, June 1938.

Frankenstein, the first sf novel, addressing the issue of the legitimacy or otherwise of scientific inquiry, is listed as "Additional Reading" on "Science," one of the 102 "great ideas of Western thought," from "Angels" to "World," identified by the Great Books editors. The Time Machine is listed for "Progress" and "Time."

I think that Superman should be included among the works of fiction because:

it can be represented by a single page;
whereas the Great Books includes Nietzsche among the philosophers, the comic book Superman was created by an American Jewish writer-artist team during the period when the Nazis were in power in Germany;
this Superman not only represents a transition of media from prose fiction to sequential art but also initiated the transition of genres from sf to superheroes, just as Frankenstein had initiated the earlier transition of genres from Gothic fiction to sf;
it should be recognized that narrative, drama and sequential art are the three story-telling media;
superheroes, also known as mystery men, are a major modern multi-media mythology mainly in magazines and movies;
the "Additional Reading" for Superman would include the seminal sf novel, Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a possible source for Superman, and Alan Moore's major work, Marvelman/Miracleman, which not only expresses but also reflects on ancient and modern mythology.