Golden Age of Science Fiction: Sir Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust

A Fall of Moondust

A Fall of Moondust

A lot has been written about Sir Arthur C. Clarke (he was knighted in May of 2000). He wrote 2001 A Space Odyssey, which grew out of his short story The Sentinel. I also read Rendezvous with Rama. Fortunately I did not read those books first. I found everything to do with the Rama mythos and novels boring, over done and just dry as can be. Sacrilege I know but they are just not to my taste. And clearly Sir Arthur C. Clarke loves the idea because he wrote several incarnations of it.

The first novel I read of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s was A Fall of Moondust. I found it absolutely fascinating. The descriptions of the moondust and its effects on the mechanical apparatus of the vehicles were superb. The characterizations were a bit weak but still, I was young and it was the first of his novels I’d read.

Because I found A Fall of Moondust so much to my liking I went searching for anything else of his I could get my grubby little hands on. I read The City and The Stars and The Deep Range. I loved many of his short stories: The 9 Billion Names of God, A Meeting With Medusa and The Star all captured my imagination and made me think about things.

I recently bought and read Richter 10 by Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay and while there were moments of brilliance, I found it just overwrought with murky characters who were at best disagreeable and at worst completely sociopathic. There were places in that book where I could actually tell what Clarke had written because the style was his style. It was a good idea that got too caught up in intrigue and clever characters that dragged the story down and made it a slog to get through. So much time was spent setting up these awful characters that the ending was anticlimactic. Not enough time was spent on the science fiction part.

What was supposed to be a paradigm shift in the reader’s idea of what it means to be human, of what life and death are, falls flat because very little time is spent in the story even mentioning this very important aspect of the plot. Instead too much time spent on introducing and developing these ugly characters so the reader is left with a bad taste in their mental mouth about characters possibly cheating death, rather than what it means to be human and to be alive.

I, personally, find that I like the earlier, hard science fiction that Clarke wrote. I didn’t and still don’t much care for the later stuff that gave rise to and became 2001. I feel that Clarke’s work is strongest when he is working with the science fiction, the speculative fiction of his stories. He postulated the proper orbits for the communications satellites. The geosynchronous orbit that our modern technological civilization relies on is named after him: It’s called the Clarke belt. This man was and could still be a true visionary.

The City and The Stars

The City and The Stars

This is not to say that he doesn’t have anything to say about things like religion and politics. The short story The Star is very thought provoking. But he shouldn’t let that part of the story run away with the entire work. He is strongest in his craft when he maintains a balance between how deeply he delves into his characters and how clearly he presents the science fiction. K.

The Golden Age of Sci Fi: H. P. Lovecraft

The Necronomicon Omnibus

The Necronomicon Omnibus

The Necronomicon Omnibus

Sometimes, when I sit down to write about something I wonder what I can possibly say that is new or different. This is especially the case when it comes to the next golden age author I would like to examine: H. P. Lovecraft. Ok so he was a little bit before the golden age but there’s some overlap there. Not only was he an unrecognized genius of his day, but also a tortured man who wrote about what he feared, fictionalizing it probably to cope with it. There are legions of fans who have analyzed and written about his life and works far more thoroughly than I will in my little corner of the internet. So what can I offer? What can I add? Only what I have not seen before.

H. P. Lovecraft captured not just the horror of an intelligent being losing his sanity but he also expertly guides and leads the reader through constructs of reason that are exquisitely rational. He had a talent, a gift for engaging the emotions of the reader, for getting the reader to follow him down dark pathways into a primitive part of our collective psyches where nameless horrors live, the part of our being that wonders what that unexplained bump in the night was and imagines something terrible, even when we know it has a rational explanation. Once he’s led the reader there, to that place where a creaking floor board or expanding joist is somehow more sinister than temperature differentials would account for he pulled things from those depths and committed them to paper so that we all can make that journey from the illusional safety of our favorite reading chair.

These things we know about the works of H. P. Lovecraft. We also know that he created his own mythos. He imagined elder gods and lesser gods, ancient and terrible beings with names too terrible to repeat. What he also did, as easily as he drew breath, was captured the culture of his time. If you look at the givens, the basis for where he launched his wonderful and terrible stories (not terrible as in bad but terrible as in terrifying) you will see the popularity of eugenics that took the public by storm in the early 1900’s.

Charles Darwin had made his now famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands and published his Origin of the Species in 1859. From there it was only a few short decades before people began to popularize the idea that humans evolved and that some humans were of a superior evolutionary line. We all know how badly this ended as a popular idea. It sadly still endures today in pockets around the globe.

One thing to understand is that the scientists who first theorized and promoted the idea of eugenics believed that the pinnacle of evolution was the white male; specifically the white, Anglo Saxon protestant male. Now the main reason for this is that most scientists of the day were WASP’s. It never occurred to them that the reason for this was because the only people who could afford the education and leisure to be scientists were the wealthy and the wealthy were almost uniformly white males.

H. P. Lovecraft wrote when the idea of eugenics was growing towards its peak and the way he writes makes that such a given that it is almost unnoticeable. He uses language adroitly to mix old with new, not unlike the way steampunk mixes high tech with Victorian stylization today. He liked to use an antiquated British English in his writings. He was never hateful, mind you. He didn’t go out of his way to put anyone “in their place.” But you see it in the way his investigators talk about degenerate evolution and how a particular family line has devolved into something less than human. It is a part of the horror he writes about.

We know now that eugenics is an ugly, hateful thing but we, as a culture and as people had to learn that. Especially with some scientists telling people it was natural. Over the course of his life Lovecraft learned that as well and that is another thing we can see in his writing; that growth, the education that conquered ignorance.

Some of my favorite Lovecraft stories are The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innmouth and my very most favorite At The Mountains of Madness. While he is perhaps billed as a writer of non-supernatural horror, what I find is that he was a superlative science fiction writer who explored the dark side of what it meant to be human and how we could push ourselves beyond what we were mentally ready for. Today we live in an age where our technology is fast outstripping our ability to assimilate what it can do much less adapt to it. I can only imagine how Lovecraft would handle technology like ours in his works if he’d somehow been granted a glimpse into the future.

What Lovecraft excelled at, for those who can truly follow what he’s getting at, is taking the reader to the brink of what they can wrap their minds around. And when he gets there he jumps off into elder gods and amazing, horrifying things. When he gets to the point that our minds can no longer follow the very measured and rational path he’s laid down, he shows us madness.

Lovecraft played with the idea of what the limits were to the human mind and imagination. These were ideas that haunted him and affected him deeply in his life. They are also imminently human topics. To examine what our limits are and what might happen to us should we exceed them is a very powerful kind of writing. I tend to like science fiction that explores topics like that.

Also if you take the time to read his works in chronological order you can see a growth pattern where he becomes less racist and sexist, where his innate genius and gentleness lead him away from the ugly institutional racism of his time. If you doubt, read At The Mountains of Madness and you can watch a remarkable mind come to the realization that being human is more than our physical bodies.

I count H. P. Lovecraft among my favorite authors and find his stories thought provoking on many levels. It is a mistake to try to whitewash history or demonize someone for the culture they come from, especially if you see the effort to overcome. It is far better to look at history and learn from it and reading fiction, the stories of the time, is an entertaining way to get a feel for a culture. K.

RIP Richard Matheson; Legendary Sci-Fi & Horror Writer

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

June 24th 2013 Richard Matheson passed away. He was born in New Jersey on Feb 20th 1926 and his first short story Born of Man and Woman was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950.

The first work of his that I read was his novella I Am Legend and it was one of the most amazing works of fiction I have ever read. The ending was so unexpected, so original and so masterfully done that I am sorry it wasn’t a full-length novel. Don’t even waste your time with that movie they made. It destroys the story. I like Will Smith but what they did to I Am Legend when they made that movie is a travesty against science fiction and horror. The story Matheson wrote was the single best vampire story I’ve ever read.

There were other stories in that collection of his I bought. Prey stuck with me for weeks after I read it. That man could create a sense of foreboding in words that is outstanding. I dare say he equaled H. P. Lovecraft in his ability to create that ominous weight of horror on a page.

He also wrote What Dreams May Come, which I still haven’t seen but I’ve been told I should. I think I’d like to read it first. For those who enjoy the classics Richard Matheson wrote The Shrinking Man, which became the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. He also wrote The Twilight Zone movie as well as contributing to the original Twilight Zone series. His work was not limited to the past. As recently as 2011 he wrote Real Steel.

I’m always saddened when an author whose work I enjoy passes. Not only has the world lost a gifted writer and an extraordinary imagination but also I will miss finding new works by him on the bookshelf to enjoy. My heart goes out to the family who will miss him for far more profound and personal reasons than I. Thank you Richard Matheson and RIP. K.

Anthologies: The Golden Years of Science Fiction Third Series

The Golden Years of Science Fiction Third Series

The Golden Years of Science Fiction Third Series

The Golden Years of Science Fiction Third Series

This edition of The Golden Years of Science Fiction presents stories from 1943 and 1944. Two things stand out about this anthology. First the stories are very much concerned with what the human species might evolve into and how that evolution might take place. Some of the speculations about what we become and what it costs us are down-right horrifying. The second is that a couple of the authors were women. So there are the giants; Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. Van Vogt, Lester Del Rey and right along with them, Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore.

When The Bough Breaks by Lewis Padgett is one of my favorite stories in the book. I think the way it expresses the way people thought of evolution as it relates to human beings at the time is exquisite. It also leaves the reader with something to contemplate, as the best fiction tends to do. Halfling by C. L. Moore is very interesting and a bit jarring as it uses words in ways that demonstrate how very much language can change in 70 years or so. Terms like “geek” and “Halfling” have very different meanings today than they did back then, especially if one is a fan of Dungeons & Dragons.

I have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the stories in these anthologies and I am sorry that I only have the third and fifth of the series. I think I am going to spend some enjoyable Saturdays checking out used bookstores to see if I can find some of the others in the set.

Also, reading these short stories by the masters of the genera is helping me improve my own writing. As a writer myself, now, I find that I am paying more attention to sentence structure and how these extraordinary authors created emotion without extraneous words or unnecessary descriptions. Not only are the stories potent and concise but also they convey ideas that let the imagination soar. I want my writing to be like that, well I’ll probably never be that concise but I would like to write potent stories with not too much extra stuff getting in the way of the story. I want to inspire my reader’s to think and to dream. Good science fiction is food for the imagination. K.

Anthologies: The Golden Years Of Science Fiction Fifth Series

The Golden Years of Science Fiction Fifth Series

The Golden Years of Science Fiction Fifth Series

The Golden Years of Science Fiction Fifth Series

One thing I love about anthologies is that you can get a lot of stories from a variety of different authors for one price. This particular anthology; The Golden Years of Science Fiction Fifth Series, pulls short stories from some of the masters of science fiction from the years 1947 and 1948. This is a bit of a transitional period when science fiction was emerging from the golden age into what is called the diamond age.

Another nice thing about an anthology, because it is a collection of stories from a well-defined time period the reader can get a sense of what was popular in the cultural consciousness at that time. For example in this anthology there is a lot of experimentation with the unexpected and exploration of what it means to be human. The authors experiment with perception and reality, they play with scale both of space and time in these stories.

In an anthology a reader can find new favorites without committing to an entire novel. If there is an author the reader doesn’t care for, there are likely several others whom the reader will enjoy. At least that’s how it works for me. Also writing short stories is an art form all its own. To be concise and still set a tone, create a gripping narrative and manage to tell a compelling story in just a few brief pages is, to me, nothing short of amazing.

In fact if you ask me, Stephen King is best when writing short stories, especially science fiction short stories. I’m planning on doing a post about some of his work so I’ll say no more here.

To let you know how amazing this book is, it contains stories, excellent, engaging stories by some of the giants of science fiction. This book list, among other authors and stories: Zero Hour by Ray Bradbury, Dormant by A. E. Van Vogt, Thang by Martin Gardner (possibly my favorite of the book), also Tiny and the Monster by Theodore Sturgeon, Little Lost Robot by Isaac Asimov, The Fires Within by Arthur C. Clark, oh and Tomorrow’s Children by Poul Anderson.

Now I got this used at a second hand shop but look at all of those huge names in science fiction. Granted these authors and the other amazing authors in this anthology were struggling writers at the time. They didn’t become the grand masters until their stories had withstood the test of time.

Where else is a reader going to be able to sample such high quality science fiction at such a reasonable price? I have to say that you can find some amazing things in second hand bookstores; or, these days, eBay or Amazon. This one is not available in eBook format.

A Retrospective on E. E. Doc Smith With Social Commentary

Books 2, 3 & 4 of The Skylark of Space series

Books 2, 3 & 4 of The Skylark of Space series

Books 2, 3 & 4 of The Skylark of Space series

Best known for the Lensmen series, E. E. “Doc” Smith is considered by many to be the father of Space Opera. The Lensmen series is a brilliant story that betrays itself as a product of its time in many ways. Sadly the most glaring is the sexism that takes as a matter of course that women not only have incompatible brains with men, but that this incompatibility is of necessity indicative of a lesser being.

Personally I liked The Skylark of Space series much better. While this was eventually slotted into the over arcing narrative of the Lensmen universe I found the Skylark books more engaging for reasons that can only be put down to personal taste.

One of the things I love about pre-golden age science fiction is that it truly is a glimpse into another world. A world the reader can find still familiar enough to be relatable yet culturally different. History books are so dry. They tell names and dates, they read like grocery lists but the fiction of an era gives the reader real insight into how the people lived, what their social mores were and what they expected of their society. In science fiction it also gives the reader insight into how the author viewed the future, what he, or she, hoped we would become, where we might go.

I also find it at once astounding and a bit sad that the same brilliant minds that could cast their thoughts across the stars and imagine alien intelligence were incapable of recognizing the intelligence standing right next to them. How is it possible that they could imagine intelligence equal to or greater than their own in every conceivable shape but not in women? I don’t want this to be about the regressive attitudes of the past but they must be mentioned.

Our technology doubles at an exponential rate and yet women are still locked out of political task forces that discuss women’s health care. We landed a rover on Mars using a sky crane but still blame women for being victims of crimes committed against them by men. We don’t appear to have come all that far as a civilization in 100 years.

The stories from before the golden age of science fiction are vast and these writers dared create universes in their remarkable imaginations. There is a freedom to the ideas that E. E. “Doc” Smith was able to play with that sometimes I think we rarely see any more. Our dreamers seem more constrained by what science says they cannot do than those of days past.

When E. E. “Doc” Smith wrote The Skylark of Space he postulated a process by which he could convert matter to energy, cleanly and with 100% efficiency. Of course we know that is impossible according to the laws of physics and that knowledge hobbles writers today. Science Fiction is about making the impossible plausible but critics and “know-it-alls” are quick to point out any error or impossibility and so they shackle the creative spirit. You see it every time a Star Trek movie gets released. Invariably there follows a series of articles and reviews that pick apart the “science.” These things are not being presented as scientific treatises; they are clearly stated science fiction. And yet there is a legion of supposed fans that treat every detail as if it were presented as a scientific fact. This cannot help but make authors cautious about what they will publish and that crushes imagination.

The other thing I think hobbles creative license is that the publishing industry only wants a sure thing. Even back in 1920, many publishers routinely rejected what are now classics. The Skylark of Space was considered too “far out” for readers. Eventually Doc Smith spent more on postage than he ever made from the first Skylark book just submitting it to publishers.

With the advent of self-publishing, now authors can publish their own work. Sure that means there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam to sift through but I suspect, in the end it will be a boon to the imaginative and skilled wordsmiths out there. I think we can find new ideas in books that will become classics and I hope that their visions of the future are just as daring, and more inclusive than they classics of old, however beloved. K.

Leading Our New Science Fiction Focus: Isaac Asimov As Paul French

Lucky Starr (David Starr): Space Ranger & Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

Lucky Starr (David Starr): Space Ranger & Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

Lucky Starr (David Starr): Space Ranger & Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

Isaac Asimov, as many of you well know, was one of the most important writers and arguably the most prolific one of the big three during the golden age of science fiction. Depending upon how you count it, he wrote between 400 and 500 books. That’s rather a lot. Not all of those were science fiction. Asimov had a doctorate in Biochemistry and several other honorary doctorates. He wrote non-fiction, text books and a couple of autobiographies too.

He is often named along with Heinlein and Clark as one of the big three science fiction writers of the period. Those who have read his work know it as hard science fiction and love it, and him, for it.

Asimov wrote such groundbreaking works as the Foundation series, the Galactic Empire series, and Robot series. Each series stands on its own and yet Asimov wove them into a single universe. The Caves of Steel, the first robot book, gives little indication that it will join with the Foundation series, although The Stars Like Dust (one of my early favorites), the first Galactic Empire book does hint at the coming empire we see in its aged decline in Foundation.

What I would like to share with you, gentle reader, is that Asimov also wrote what was called juvenile fiction at the time. We call it young adult fiction now. In 1951 he assumed a pseudonym, that of Paul French and wrote a delightful series of space adventures called The Lucky Starr series. It follows the adventures of a young orphan named David Starr who becomes a space ranger.

I read what Lucky Starr books I could get my grubby little paws on as a teen. They were hard to find. It took me years to put together the set and they are beat up, used books for reading. I don’t have a mint copy of any of them. I don’t even have original printings. I read several as an adult and loved them still. Those interested will have a somewhat easier time finding them as they were reprinted in 2001 as an omnibus collection through the Science Fiction Book Club.

Lucky Starr Omnibus cover from Science Fiction Book Club

Lucky Starr Omnibus cover from Science Fiction Book Club

I really enjoyed them. They are hard science fiction but they are appropriate for younger people. Asimov never talks down to the reader either. He just seems to know how to explain things within the dynamics of a great storyline. He expects a certain amount of curiosity in the reader, it’s almost like he expects the best of the reader. If you are, or know a teen or precocious pre-teen (or even an adult since these stories are brilliant for any age) who likes their science fiction dry, on the (space) rocks and shaken but not stirred, I highly recommend the Lucky Starr books. K.