" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Friday, July 7, 2017

Some thoughts on Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, first pub. 1937, Penguin cover design David Pelham



  I had in the past started and not made any appreciable progress on Stapleton’s classic Star Maker. I haven’t actually finished anything by this important science fiction author, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future had, I recall, some odd beach scene, that sent me in search of another book. But I will try it again. Odd John, oh no, not another superman. I have and will continue to avoid Sirius, because stories with dogs can be hard for me ever since watching Old Yeller or reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and even though it was not a dog The Yearling ehhh!!!! sniff. 

However as part of my get reacquainted with science fiction project I brought along my dogeared, water stained Penguin edition for another kick at the can. As you can see it looks like it has been through the wringer. One nice thing about a reading copy is you can mark it up and I did. Every night before I fell asleep I read a few pages, but I have to admit as I got further into it, to the later chapters on “More Worlds”, “The Community of Worlds”, etc., the page count went up as the concepts Stapledon dispensed with a flick of the pen, versions of Dyson spheres, planetary spacecraft, a civilization of telepathic symbiotes that explore the universe and stay home at the same time, a cloud of birds that comprise an individual mind, civilizations of plant men, creatures that transmigrate through lives in a number of universes, creatures that move backwards and forwards in time depending on their moral choices, universes that were a continuous fluid, others of a “ ‘musical’ type,…, The creatures appeared to one another as complex patterns and rhythms of tonal characters.” (238) enthralled me.

My favourite part was probably "The Maker and His Works " where among the many universes, some of which I mentioned above there was a universe “ constructed as a series of concentric spheres” (240) which reminded me of Dante’s paradise. 

Now I would normally try to offer a brief synopsis but after finishing the novel a quick google search took me to the following link which offers the type of review I aspire to write but have not yet produced. I will be studying it for future reference and I encourage you to look it over for more information about this title.


I also read a review of Star Maker at the SF Site reviews section and found a couple of quick quotes which aligned perfectly with my own experience of reading this book. 

“In my graduate school science fiction seminar taught by the noted critic H. Bruce Franklin, Star Maker was left off the syllabus because it would take too long to read -- not because of its length, Franklin explained, but because every couple of pages you'd have to stop and think over for a while what you'd just read."

from SF Site Reviews
by David Soyka

"As Kim Stanley Robinson puts it, "Every few pages contain all the material of an ordinary science fiction novel, condensed to something like prose poetry." "

from SF Site Reviews
by David Soyka

For the full review see this link. https://www.sfsite.com/09a/sm88.htm

So what is Star Maker , for me it is not a novel but a journey through space and time. 

The narrative is a human male who having quarrelled with his wife has gone out to a hill near his home to cool off. He begins to contemplate the stars, when after some time he realizes that he is immaterial, disembodied, his soul, mind, conscious whatever, has left his body and is capable of moving out into the universe. So off we go, after some time spent adjusting to the logistics of travel, his passage slows if he becomes emotionally upset or unfocused for example, he is finally able to locate another inhabited world. He calls it the “Other Earth”. Here he learns he is able to share the body of one of the inhabitants, to experience life as they see it. He can communicate with them and even take their consciousness with him when he leaves. This forms the pattern of Stapleton’s story. As the narrator moves he becomes part of a larger consciousness of the individuals who choose to accompany him. They may stay of a planet for a brief period or for some years. The merged entity can move through time as well as space.  

It is here I felt the book dragged a bit, Stapledon uses the Other Earth as an allegory for problems within our own society. The theme, repeated through a number of the early encounters with alien civilizations, is the same but thankfully less detailed than the Other Earth section, the narrator encounters a civilization, and follows its technological and spiritual evolution through one or more crisis points.

The engrossing part of the work for me was the sheer scope of Stapledon’s imagination, ideas he tosses off in a paragraph or  few pages could be the stuff of multivolume series in today’s publishing climate. I would love to know which of my favourite science fiction writers read Star Maker and how much of an influence some of Stapleton’s ideas may have had on their work . When reading this book it is important to remember it is not really a novel. Stapledon offers no real characters and few details. The Star Maker  is all breathless scope, Stapledon can take us back to the origins of the expanding universe growing out from a single point to the end of it all.

For history or astronomy buffs Stapledon was had his science up to date.
(Georges LemaƮtre first noted in 1927 that an expanding universe could be traced back in time to an originating single point, scientists have built on his idea of cosmic expansion. )


One (happy) surprise for me, is that the narrative does not limit himself to our universe, for the Star Maker tinkers with multiple universes as part of it’s own emotional or spiritual growth, universes, beautiful or horrific. Universes familiar or virtually incomprehensible for the reader, useless as suggested in the earlier quote, you stop and think about what you have just read. Star Maker can be seen as a allegory or treatise on politics and culture but that sells it short, it is the scope of Stapleton’s imagination that lifts it above this, so it becomes an almost encyclopedic introduction to many of the science fiction concepts in the genre that would follow.

Postscript:

 "Freeman Dyson was also a fan, admitting to basing his concept of Dyson spheres on a section of the book, even calling "Stapledon sphere" a better name for the idea."

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Maker

Friday, June 30, 2017

Mutation Planet by Barrington J. Bayley; Weird Fiction Review Your Non-Denominational Source for The Weird




   "Zeed’s golden eyes seemed to dim and tarnish. “We all inhabit a vast dark,” he repeated, “in which there is neither rhyme nor reason.”"


All quotes in this post are from Mutation Planet by Barrington J. Bayley 
read at Weird Fiction Review Your Non-Denominational Source for The Weird.


A couple weeks ago I found a webpage called Weird Fiction Review, as someone whose interest in science fiction has always skirted the weird tales of authors like Howard Philip Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Donald Wandrei etc., authors who produced works clearly identifiable as science fiction, I was intrigued. What I found were some stories that were clearly science fiction even if some of them were quite unusual, including the quirky and whimsical "The New Abyss" by Paul Scherrbart (1863-1915).

http://weirdfictionreview.com/2016/07/the-new-abyss/

But a story that really grabbed me was Mutation Planet by Barrington J. Bayley originally published in 1973 in a Roger Elwood anthology Frontiers 1. I have read Bayley’s novel Pillars of Eternity, and several short stories including "All the King’s Men", which appeared in Judith Merrill’s anthology England Swings SF, and "Bees of Knowledge" in Wollheim’s 1976 Year’s Best Science Fiction. I liked them all, the short stories in particular interested me because both dealt with the problems involved in understanding alien cultures.

I have always been interested in aliens in science fiction but they are often not all that alien. Larry Niven’s Puppeteers (possibly my all time favourite aliens) are in the final analysis, a manifestation of the all too human attributes of caution and cowardice, and his Kzin the human qualities of impulsiveness and violence. C.J. Cherryh gives us the Hani bipedal lions, Frank Herbert's The Dorsal Experiment offers the Gowachin giant frogs, etc., and often these aliens are all too easily understood because they act from all too human impulses and tendencies. Would Bayley again offer something different, you bet.

http://weirdfictionreview.com/2015/06/mutation-planet/

We start with the Dominus surveying his world wide empire while travelling along a continent long roadway he built himself from materials extruded from his own body.

“Filled with ominous mutterings, troubled by ground-trembling rumblings, the vast and brooding landscape stretched all around in endless darkness and gloom. Across this landscape the mountainous form of Dominus moved at speed, a massed, heavy shadow darker than the gloom itself, sullenly majestic, possessing total power. Above him the opaque sky, lurid and oppressively close, intermittently flared and discharged sheets of lightning that were engulfed in the distant hills. In the instant before some creature fed on the electric glare the dimness would be relieved momentarily, outlining uneven expanses of near-barren soil. Dominus, however, took no sensory advantage of these flashes; his inputs covered a wider, more reliable range of impressions.”

However, the peace if it can be called that is due to be disturbed because a spaceship is landing. The ship contains two humans, Eliot Harst, his assistant Alanie Leitner and aliens from three different planets, Balbain, whose people created the ship, Abrak and Zeed. The ship is on a voyage of discovery surveying different planetary systems and the life forms they contain. Originally Balbain piloted the ship by himself but in the course of the journey he has invited the scientists of other races to join him. The narrative begins after the expedition has been on Planet Five for six months and they have just completed experiments on one of the life forms. They were only able to capture some of the extremely well "armed" life forms with the apparent assistance of DominusThe planet itself is racked by incredibly violent weather systems and the native lifeforms use energy from the constant lightning strikes to metabolize the elements they need from the scanty vegetation, the soil and air. Indeed the inhabitants of Planet Five are unique in the experience of the members of the expedition. 

To avoid spoilers I will stop there but I do want to provide some of my own thoughts on the story. I want to note that it marred by unnecessary sexism, despite the fact that we are told Alanie’s IQ is higher that Eliot’s she is relegated to role of assistant and love interest, the following passage is one of her most prominent appearances in the story.

Alanie gave a deep sigh that strained her full breasts voluptuously against the fabric of her smock. “Well, what now?” she asked. “We’ve been here six months. I think we’ve solved the basic mystery of the place. Isn’t it time we were moving on?”

Really, come on, couldn’t someone just edit out any sentences combining the word breasts and voluptuously?

Other than that I did enjoy the story, I always like to see what elements appearing in a story connect me to other stories I have read, the gigantic Dominus and his dark forbidding environment immediately reminded me of William Hope Hodgson’s The Nightland, the expedition itself A.E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle and Balbain’s recruitment practices carried a whiff of Olaf Stapledion’s Star Maker. As I am big fan of Charles Darwin and have an interest in evolutionary theory I was also quite interested in the discussion of the evolutionary history of Planet Five and the inheritance of acquired characteristics, (the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics is the subject of renewed interest in the field called epigenetics.)

If you are interested there is a good article on epigenetics here:


For a relatively short story there is a lot going on and the alien human interactions offer lots of plot twists. I certainly intend to read more of Bayley’s work, I have been collecting his novels for some time but I now will also be looking for his short stories as well. I also have to say that the Weird Fiction Review has a lot of interesting content to offer readers of science fiction.


"An image came to his mind of the endlessness of space in which galaxies seemed to be descending and tumbling, and the words: an unfathomable darkness without any common ground. "

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Grayson & Grayson London, Bleiler, Dikty, Conklin, van Vogt and more

Grayson & Grayson appears to have been a UK publisher 
that reprinted science fiction published in the US for 
the UK  market from 1951 to 1957. (I looked at their 
listings in ISFDB). I became interested in them when I saw  
this cover illustration, 


I knew it had to be an illustration
for one of my favourite works of sociological SF, 
"And Then There Were None" by Eric Frank Russell.  
Published in 1953, the anthology was edited by
Bleiler and Dikty, the cover is signed by illustrator 
Mudge Marriott who does a number of covers for this
publisher. Additional contents include, "The Hunting 
Season "by Frank M. Robinson, "Flight to Forever" by Poul ,
Anderson and "Izzard and the Membrane" by Walter M. 
Miller, jr. 

The Miller story is a really interesting computer AI 
story that I will discuss in more detail another day,
 but it originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction,
in May 1951 and the US and UK editions of this "best of
anthology" and then does not seem to have been reprinted
again which I think was very unfortunate.

By now it should be clear that I love this type of bright, 
garish 1950's illustration with alien landscapes and big rockets
so I really liked Mudge's work. I also like small or lesser known 
presses so I began looking for more books by Grayson & Grayson 
and Mudge Marriott.

Score, while A.E. van Vogt has suffered a lot of criticism 
from some, he was as popular as Heinlein in his heyday 
before his unfortunate foray into Dianetics. He was Canadian,
 "eh" and he produced Slan, The Voyage of the Space Beagle,
The Weapons Shops of Isher, and Null-A series among
other novels and short stories, love them or hate them
people read, discussed, debated them and generally had 
a good time reading his work.

My buddy Doug would want me to point out the Coeurl should 
be red again I say it is a trick of the lighting. 

This edition was published in 1951, cover uncredited.



A 1952 reprint of a Conklin anthology, with a snazzy radio 
antenna, power station, secret headquarters or whatever?
Again by E. B. Mudge Marriott 



  

And another "Best of" anthology this time from 1952 with another 
cool rocket, the name Mudge Marriott appears on the cover.


As I  noted earlier, my wife and I are taking a trip to the London 
in the fall and hopefully I can find acquire more Grayson titles,
this time without the hefty shipping charges.


  

Monday, June 19, 2017

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction review – almost all non-human life is here, Barbican London




The Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and two of
my favorite of Ray's  films.

(all photos for this post from my collection not the exhibit)

As my wife and I are planning to be in London this fall she alerted me to a show on science fiction material appearing at the Barbican in London. Sadly we will miss it by several weeks but I thought I would mention it here in case it was of interest to others.

The exhibit sounds wonderful, and as you might guess it contains material on Ray Harryhausen's work.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jun/18/into-unknown-journey-through-science-fiction-barbican-review?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

I was interested because of course I enjoy science fiction in many forms as does my wife. 

We are also both interested in architecture and the Barbican is one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture.

The Barbican  link discussing the exhibit


http://www.barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown/ more on the exhibit

Link to the history of the Barbican

http://www.barbican.org.uk/about-barbican/history

The third reason for me is the Barbican is the headquarters of, as well as the name, of the European Men in Black type organization represented by the wonderfully realized Immacolata Sexton, found in Caitlin Kiernan's brilliant Agents of Dreamland.   

I discussed her novel on my HPL site and the link to my comments can be found here.

http://dunwichhorrors.blogspot.ca/2017/04/agents-of-dreamland-by-caitlin-r-kiernan.html

For SF buffs Kiernan's novel lies at the wonderful intersection of science fiction and horror that can be found in the works of authors like George RR Martin and Richard Matheson. (Read it)

But I digress, there are a couple of things about the review of the show at the Barbican I wanted to discuss. The author Rachel Cooke starts with the following statement. 

"The most brilliant definition of science fiction I know comes courtesy of the writer Brian Aldiss, who once described it as “hubris clobbered by nemesis”. " While Aldiss's
Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, as well as his extensive list of science fiction novels and short stores has given him a well deserved stature in the field, this does not appear to be a useful definition of anything. Just had to get that off my chest.



The second observation I found interesting was her statement. "Dinosaurs used to be a metaphor, a means of addressing our most deep-seated fears. They roared and we trembled; we fought them to win. Now, though, they bring with them a prelapsarian longing." I asked my wife about this, we both grew up in the 1960's. The dinosaurs we saw in the works of Ray Harryhausen ( my hero ) and his mentor Willis H. O'Brien, (O'Brien worked on The Lost World, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen created the dinosaurs that appeared in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Valley of Gwangi among others) were menacing but they were not metaphors for fear in our minds. I wonder if that is a generational difference, possibly after films like Jurassic Park dinosaurs assumed this metaphorical role I cannot say. Certainly in the 1960's as now, dinosaurs were everywhere, in films, cartoons, books, advertising, tchotchkes of every kind and in my case as plastic dinosaurs on a birthday cake, thanks Mom.


This illustration is from a post on science books on my nature website. 

But if they were metaphors then, I think they were metaphors for the mysteries unlocked by science. Science then was the lens by which we were examining the mysteries of the earth, of time and of the universe. We had the past via dinosaurs and archaeology, the first exploration of the ocean depths with submarines, bathyscopes and aqua-lungs and outer space with our telescopes, satellites and rockets. And of course all of this became the stuff of our science fiction dreams and sometimes of our science fiction nightmares.



Friday, June 9, 2017



    Some time ago it occurred to me that I was buying far more books than I was reading, much less discussing and reflecting on. Part of the reason is that I enjoy books not just as text, but as physical objects with bindings, fonts, print runs and cover artists. I also see science fiction books as historic artifacts reflecting politics, society, science, current conditions and future extrapolations all changing over time. They move from religious allegories, to utopias, lost race, planetary romances, time travel, alternate history, juveniles. The atomic age, and cold war paranoia are followed by hard science fiction, feminist science fiction, anthropological science fiction, new wave, cyber punk, mainstream science fiction and post colonial science fiction all merging with and informing each other. And then you have the outliers like Cordwainer Smith, stories or authors that seem to come out of no where and disappear the same way, like fireflies that flash for only a moment, So when I have spare time or money or both I buy books this means I also read about the books, the authors and the historical trends they represent. Add to this the ever present social media which saps my time and energy and demonstrates very clearly that many of us are determined to replicate the science fiction dystopia as our preferred political model (hence it’s absence for the list above) and I realize I have not been reading enough.

   So I have brought a number of books to the cabin, some “classic” works or important authors I have never read and some old friends. I have also tried to incorporate more female authors, Canadian authors, and Russian authors. Given that the cabin already contained some volumes of Gunn’s excellent The Road to Science Fiction and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame I am well served. By design this grouping does not contain a great deal of very current SF. Bud Webster the great science fiction historian/ fan/writer used to talk about how he was a geeky, some what picked on kid, looking for the refuge when he found it in the science fiction section of the public library and the books of Raymond J. Healy, Groff Conklin, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton and others. 

 “But the library was sanctuary for me. Nobody would chase me, nobody would yell at me, and best of all, nobody there would rag me for reading books. I'd have stayed there forever if I could have. It was quiet, cool, and it's where I became addicted to books, both as artifacts and because of the content.

I was probably all of nine years old when I first found the thick, heavy collections of stories edited by Conklin and Healy & McComas for the first time. But there they were, that pair of behemoths: Adventures in Time and Space (ed. Raymond J. Healy and Francis McComas, Random House 1946) and The Best of Science Fiction (ed. Groff Conklin, Crown 1946). They changed my life, and without a doubt altered the way I read science fiction, and I wasn't the only one.”

Anthopology 101: The Best of Time and Space, by Bud Webster

I was that kid's twin living in a different city and country but holding the same books in a similar library. I want to see if I can find him again, (okay maybe a bit less geeky). So I have chosen books I hope will help on that journey, Later today I will raise a beer to toast Bud and see how I do.