The other science fiction of Pierre Boulle

E=mc^2, Histoires charitables, Contesde l'absurde et Quia absurdum

E=mc^2, Histoires charitables, Contesde l'absurde et Quia absurdum

Continuing perhaps the trend of discussing lesser known works of various science fiction authors, I am turning my attention to an omnibus volume (in French) of the four books (apart from Le planète des singes which in English is called Planet of the Apes) by author Pierre Boulle.  These are four collections of short stories which to my knowledge no one has bothered to translate, for reasons that become obvious upon  reading them.

The first collection of short stories included takes its name from Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 which relates energy to mass and vice-versa in the contexts of such things as nuclear reactions and vacuum production or annihilation in particle physics. As an example, he lead story Les luniens is a Cold War farce in which both the Americans and Russians establish a moon base in the surety that the other of the two powers cold not possibly do so. They then encounter each other’s base personnel and assume these are native inhabitants of the moon. Even as a child of the Cold War myself, I just don’t find the irony intended that effective.

The next collection included is Histoires charitables. After that comes Contes de l’absurde and finally Quia absurdum. These too aspire to poignant irony. Sadly they never achieved the level of Boulle great science fiction novel Le planète des singes which while also intended to be ironic not only succeeds but can be haunting in its effect.

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Mr. Adam by Pat Frank

Mr. Adam cover

Mr. Adam cover

While Pat Frank is rightly well known for his classic novel Alas, Babylon, he is also the author of the humorous novel Mr. Adam, which was in fact his first. One should recall that at the time the latter book was written, within the genre of science fiction, sex was an essentially forbidden topic; even female characters let alone romance of any kind was extremely rare. Certainly this book does not deal directly with sex, but the topic is strongly implied throughout due to the fact that producing babies is at the core of the story.

The narrator of the story is a reporter who specialized in human interest stories as the story opens. The premise slowly revealed in the book is that due to a nuclear accident, all human males on earth everywhere become sterilized by a previously unknown form of radiation. Due to fear of creating a worldwide panic, that point is kept secret as long as possible. The secret breaks however one man, a married man with the surname Adam, and his wife have a baby. As the matter is investigated, it turns out that Mr. Adam (whose name the narrator notes as a propos) was deep in a mineshaft at the time of the accident and hence shielded from the effects of the radiation.

Naturally he quickly becomes an international sensation while at the same time he is copiously poked and prodded by medical team looking to help cure others. While on the one hand, I find the somewhat ironic ending realistic, it is also nonetheless disappointing. The novel touches on so many deep questions and yet really addresses few of them– even humorosly.

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The Jungle by David Drake

The Jungle by David Drake

The Jungle by David Drake

The novella I actually bought the book I have just been reading for was the classic Clash by Night by Henry Kuttner. One would never know from the cover that this ground-breaking work was included in that book at all; only by looking at the table of contents does one see this fact. I’d had the good fortune though of dealing with a now retired on-line merchant I knew as well as one can someone on a different continent whom one has never actually met. I had emailed asking if Kuttner’s Clash by Night were available. The response was that one could not find it then in print as a separate volume, but that the book The Jungle by David Drake included it; so I bought the book. I did not bother until now to read the work emblazoned on the cover and first in the volume. After all, I had never then heard of the science fiction author David Drake and knew he was certainly writing well after the Golden Age in which I was then almost exclusively interested.

Now several years later, I have read The Jungle by David Drake, who described the novella in his afterword as “not a Kuttner pastiche” (emphasis his) but rather an homage set in the world created by Kuttner in that novella. My opinion of Drake’s work is frankly mixed. On the one hand, Drake both tells a good story and in terms of the overall plot and themes, the author is firmly in the territory of good solid science fiction— the kind of themes that make science fiction as a genre great.

Yet I have several quibbles with the execution of the work. For example, throughout, Drake uses the phrase water spout to mean the water which cascades upward from the surface of a body of water when a large powerful projectile hits it, instead of the standard meaning of that phrase (also written as a compound word waterspout) to mean a storm which is essentially a tornado that occurs over a body of water. Had this occurred once or twice, one could just shrug it off, but this erroneous usage is so frequent that one cannot help but think that either the author himself or at least his editor should have caught the blunder before publishing the novella. Next, the author’s descriptions of life in the Keeps (the domed underwater cities characteristic of the world Kuttner envisioned) seem to emphasize the lewd and crude behavior of incidental characters in a way that suggests the work might have been written by a horny teenager. For example, why would one care that a woman at a party who plays no significant role in the story wore a dress cut such that when she moved other guests at the party could see her pubic hair? Another example occurs much later in the novella when a character refers to something being better than sex after a week at sea (and yes I have bowdlerized here). The problem with that incident is again that it is distracting; the viewpoint character would be highly unlikely to be thinking of sex when he is otherwise so focused on just staying alive. Finally, the copious use of curse words and other obscenities just seems sloppy writing. The principal problem with using words such as f–k, especially in the non-literal sense, is that the word has become such a catch-all that it means literally nothing. Different inflections in the voice can make it either very good or very bad and it can be substituted for other words about as arbitrarily as the word smurf in the the Smurf comics or cartoons. A writer should use words precisely to tell a story and convey his themes without distracting the reader from these but the use of empty verbiage and distracting details undermines this part of the craft. That such language never occurs in Kuttner’s Clash by Night so that doing so appears inconsistent with the milieu in which Drake has chosen to set his novella just makes all these point worse so that the cumulative effect of these quibbles becomes a significant detraction from an otherwise fine work.

Putting those issues aside though, The Jungle offers the reader a novella which (apart from issues of its execution) embodies what makes science fiction great as literature. The story is told in two parallel storylines with each chapter consisting of two dated sub-chapters. The first portion of every chapter deals with what could be regarded as the main storyline which focuses on a group of soldiers from a mercenary company (termed a Free Company) who crew a hovercraft which operates much like a conventional torpedo boat. The world in which this story is set is a Venus covered largely by water and which is populated by highly dangerous plant and animal life because the process of terraforming the planet was interrupted at a critical stage. (At the time Kuttner wrote both the novella Clash by Night and the novel Fury, the latter set on the same world by much later, the notion of the planet Venus being covered largely by water was considered plausible in scientific terms.) In this main storyline, the crew of the hovercraft crash on an island and in the process the equipment they would otherwise use to contact their main fleet is damaged, but a laser communication device which requires line of sight survives. The result is that the crew has to climb to the top of a mountain on the island. Unfortunately both the plant and animal life on the island and in the water are nightmarishly dangerous,and the island is covered by jungle. The second storyline (using the term admittedly loosely) consists of flashbacks portraying the background of the characters who have crashed on the island.

The two principal characters are the commanding officer (CO) of the hovercraft crew, a man named Brainard, and his executive officer (XO) who is named Wilding and from one of the twelve aristocratic families ruling the planet. Both the CO and the XO credit the other man with being seemingly impossibly brave in the situation and with having the greater credit for keeping the crew alive– although at least one man is killed. The men get an exaggerated idea of the courage of their officers as well, but all of it seems plausible– at least as much as I can say having no military background myself.

In the course of the background story we learn that XO Wilding is effectively head of his aristocratic family and that he joined the mercenaries in order to learn leadership abilities. What he wants to do ultimately is lead not only his family but the people they rule to better things, including colonization of the land surface of the planet; the idea is to try to make Venus a planet on which humans thrive rather than marginally surviving. To that end, Wilding took a degree concentrating on studying the plant and animal life of the planet’s surface, all of which is highly mutated from the original forms once found on earth, before the inhabitants of that planet made it uninhabitable. Similarly CO Brainard who originates in the lower classes also has long striven for something better than the pointless existence of life in the Keeps. The bonding experience of the struggle to survive on the island jungle solidifies mutual respect between Wilding and Brainard, as well as the men under their command. Not only do they get off the island and back to the fleet, even after their laser signaling device is also destroyed, but in the epilogue Wilding has used his position to begin efforts to colonize the planet’s land surface supported by Brainard and his former men. In other words, the crew has banded together to strive for something to benefit humanity on the planet and are making it work.

Thus, Drake’s The Jungle fits the classic mold of science fiction in which ordinary people work to achieve things on a great scale, even starting from humble beginnings. That theme of people as individuals dealing with the great issues facing their society is common throughout the genre of science fiction literature, and Drake accomplishes an admirable work in that respect. Yet at the same time the irrelevant crassness, both of language and of details, detracts from that greatness because the quality of the writing itself suffers. So the novella The Jungle by David Drake could perhaps have been great, but the author chooses to pander to the lower elements of his readership so that the result just misses the mark of greatness it could otherwise have achieved.

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Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet

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This book first appeared in 1938 but became the first part in what is most commonly referred to as the Space Trilogy, with its sequels Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Like virtually all of C.S. Lewis‘ writings, the book comes from a particular Christian point of view which frankly may seem odd even to other Christians, let alone non-Christians such as myself. Yet Out of the Silent Planet can be read as science fiction with social commentary throughout– as is frankly common in the genre and always has been. While some compare this work to Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, I would say that unlike that book this one is readable by those who want object to pedantic diatribes. Of course, this excludes to some extent the climactic scene in which the main character Ransom attempts to translate a speech by the villain Weston.

I would largely say that what we see in the plot of this book is the main character Ransom doing inititally things which seem in retrospect foolish but which nonetheless make sense for the character as he relies on social conventions which the villains flout. Thus he ends up kidnapped and taken to Mars where he is to be handed over to local creatures called sorns for reasons which are not known but presumed to be along the lines of human sacrifice.

Having learned of his captors’ intentions, Ransom escapes on Mars, which the locals call Malacandra, the only name by which the planet is identified to him. The locals turn out to be friendly and Ransom gets to know one particularly well. Yet eventually he is brought to the planetary leader and finds that no one ever had human sacrifice or any other kind of violence in mind except his fellow Earth-men.

In many ways, this book questions what Lewis in his preface which appears in some editions considers the underlying assumptions of most science fiction– that man can and should colonize other worlds particularly. As I have mentioned, I am not a Christian of any sort and so the theological arguments that are implied in the narrative mean little to me, but the question nonetheless is an intriguing one.

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The Lost Fleet: an otherwise well done example of an unfortunate trend

SF Books

SF Books

While for the most part I intend this blog to concentrate on science fiction classics, most fundamentally the discussion is about the genre of science fiction as literature– the good and the bad. To my mind, one of the worst trends in recent science fiction (especially of the past ten years or so) is the type of series in which each book may be compared to an episode of a TV series. What makes these series different than previous series of books is that the central story becomes simply a backdrop against which smaller episodic stories are told, to the  detriment of the central story as a story itself. That central background story is open-ended and may not necessarily progress in more than a nominal sense in any given book of the series. One of the leading authors to make this trend popular is Robert Jordan. What distinguishes this class of series from previous series is that the reader is largely teased with a central problem which is not genuinely dealt with for the bulk of the series, rather like a protracted television series. One may think of the need to get off the desert island in the classic TV series Gilligan’s Island.

The reason such a type of series is a bad thing is that inherently it lessens the literary quality of the works by encouraging authors not to as fully develop characters or situations because whatever one writes in one book will restrict whatever books may follow. Moreover, the central problem of the series, i.e., the background story, will generally be what gets the readers’ attention and so those readers are subjected to a bait and switch whereby they are strung along without genuinely reading the story they want to read. (Clearly, some will disagree.)

Relatively recently I read an example of this unfortunate trend in recent science fiction– namely the first three books of the series The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell. Let me state though from the outset that the books are very well done apart from the inherent limitations of the trend I want to discuss: namely, the interminable series or ones that are nearly so.

The Lost Fleet series itself is only six books long, making it less interminable than some, but a reader has no indication of this in at least the first three books. The premise is compared somewhat justifiably to Xenophon‘s Anabasis, in which Greek mercenaries called afterwards the 10,000 retreat from the heart of the Persian empire where they had been fighting in a Person civil war for the side that lost. In Campbell’s work a space fleet has been lured into a trap in the heart of enemy territory in an effort to end a century-long space war, but the fleet survives the trap and has to slowly fight its way home. The other key element of the scenario is the main character John Geary who at the beginning of the first book (entitled Dauntless, which is also the name of the fleet’s flagship) becomes suddenly and unexpectedly the fleet commander.

Dauntless cover

Dauntless cover

As described in the novel Dauntless, John Geary was the commander who managed to get his people out safely after suffering a surprise attack in an engagement which started the war, but he had to stay behind himself in order to do so. A century has since passed during which Geary has been in suspended animation in a survival pod (i.e., the equivalent of a lifeboat) while unbeknownst to him, he has become a legendary hero. Due to a technicality and a posthumous promotion, Geary becomes the senior officer when the enemy captures and executes all fleet rank officers, who have come over to the enemy fleet to negotiate as per the enemy demands. The Admiral who has been fleet commander also leaves Geary as acting fleet commander in his absence, although Geary at this point in the story has only been found a couple of days previously.

Fearless cover

Fearless cover

The reader is never told how far exactly the fleet has to go in order to get home nor what to expect in any definite terms. Campbell skillfully describes space warfare in a realistic manner which generally gets the science correct, apart from occasionally confusing the orbit of a planet and its actual position. How Geary deals with the fleet politics, the cultural changes and tactics are all dealt with in detail. Deeper issues like the attractiveness of power and hero worship get short shrift as of course our hero is never genuinely tempted. Conveniently the century of warfare has undermined the use of tactics in battle rather than refining it. The reader never sees anyone emotionally dealing with grief or loss, and even the enemy’s atrocities are taken in stride; the explanation why this should be the case is a little too pat. So one then proceeds to the stories of Fearless and Courageous, which are again ships in the fleet– albeit not central to the respective books’ plot in the way even Dauntless is.

Courageous cover

Courageous cover

Each book in the series begins with Geary being confronted with a problem for the fleet on both a strategic and a personal level and culminates in a space battle whereby Geary resolves the immediate problems. As a reader, one is never left in doubt which characters one should like and which characters one should not. Teasers of issues to be addressed later are of course always included, but need for deep thought is not. I would not so much compare the books to a serving of mental candy floss as a marathon of episodes of Hogan’s Heroes.

The fault is not Jack Campbell’s ability as a writer by any means. Throughout, one sees flashes of something deeper and more interesting straining to get out, but publishers of science fiction have decided that literary quality is not what science fiction readers want. In their minds, if we did, we would not be reading the genre. Good quality science fiction like The Time Traveler’s Wife is increasingly mainstreamed and sold without any mention of the genre of science fiction. That trend is both good and bad. Largely it means that readers and publishers generally respect science fiction, so long as one doesn’t mention that that is what the book is.

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The robot stories of Isaac Asimov

The Complete Robot

The Complete Robot

The order in which I choose to discuss classic works of science fiction and which works I choose specifically are not generally intended to have any conscious implications. Thus, I start with an old favorite which I happen to have largely re-read relatively recently, the collection The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov. If one is going to have any single volume to represent Asimov’s robot stories, without a doubt this book is the one to have, simply because it contains the essential stories– including all the stories from the more famous collection I, Robot. Admittedly, it also includes a few some would not consider properly part of the series, although all the stories do involve robots.

As described in his introduction (in my Book Club edition from Doubleday at least) the stories included were written between 1939 and 1977. More importantly, these stories in general mark a dramatic departure from previous stories about robots, as Asimov himself loved to point out. Rather than dealing with robots as either monsters or other form of menace or in contrast as misunderstood or oppressed metal people, Asimov approached robots primarily as machines— albeit machines capable of tasks one normally only associates with people. (His story The Bicentennial Man, an homage to the latter type of previous stories which he terms robot as pathos stories, is exceptional.)

The innovation was the development of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics by means of which humans build fail-safes into robots for protection and which first explicitly appear in the story Runaround. Thus the later stories deal in dilemmas arising from the application of those laws.

For any fan or scholar of the genre, the stories are a must-read. My recommendation is not to read them in the sequence they appear in the book (which is topical) the first time reading them but in publication order. One will in that way truly see the evolution of Asimvo’s own conception of robots as reflected in his writing.

Admittedly the social mores reflected also evolve. For example, the recurrent character robot psychiatrist Susan Calvin is today a bit stereotypical as a female character. Yet at the time, having a woman lead character at all was a departure from the norm, and Asimov clearly intended the portrayal to be positive.

All of this goes to one of the central points of this blog. When science fiction is set in the future (which it is now always) the stories are not about the future. Rather the current issues and human perceptions are projected into a future setting.

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Introduction to science fiction as literature

This is the cover to the January 1953 issue of...

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Science fiction as a genre of literature (generally novels and short stories) tends to differ greatly from what passes as science fiction on TV or in the movies. The differences while difficult to delineate tend to be easy to understand when one has read a good deal of science fiction, especially the classics of the genre. So what exactly is science fiction then?

The best way to answer that question is to discuss the history of the genre, as will be done in brief below, but a word addressing some common myths about the genre of science fiction may be in order. Science fiction literature does not attempt to predict the future as it actually will be or even necessarily realistically might be. The key element in science fiction is the depiction of how people deal with change and especially those changes driven by science and technology. That the genre began to flourish at the same time the effects of scientific and technological advances began to be seen in daily life and where this was most the case (especially the United States, Britain and what was then the Soviet Union) is hardly a coincidence. I do not mention France because, while the genre owes much to France, it has until recently (if even then) not gained the social acceptance needed for the genre to genuinely thrive. That degree of social acceptance has been rare outside the English-speaking world, possibly apart from the Russian-speaking world.

The two co-founding authors of the genre and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The fact that both these authors are known for their social commentary should be seen as fairly indicative; science fiction has always involved social commentary to varying degrees. The elder of these two authors, Verne, was known for his travel literature, and his science fiction in many ways grew out of it in the sense that his science fiction consisted of travel tales using technology that (while as theoretically possible as he could make it) involved technology or other means of travel which did not currently exist. Even his novel Voyage au centre de la terre (translated as Journey to the Center of the Earth) was theoretically based on the then current hollow earth theory postulated to explain tropical fossils found at the poles. Wells took the next logical step which genuinely set the genre apart from other forms of literature by postulating a type of travel with a theoretical scientific basis but without even a theoretical technological mechanism in The Time Machine. Yet Wells also departed from the roots in travel literature more than Verne did. Ironically Verne’s main work of futurism (a genre to which science fiction is also indebted and in which in contrast Wells wrote his first published work) has only been published posthumously, namely Paris dans le vingtième siècle (translated as Paris in the Twentieth Century).

Within a relatively short span of time, science fiction began to thrive, especially in the form of short stories in magazines. The reason the shorter form thrived more than novels generally was because space in the magazines was limited.The early works were often not written to high literary standards, but notable exceptions do exist.

The Golden Age of science fiction is defined by the term of editor John W. Campbell as editor-in-chief of Astounding magazine, and Campbell in known for demanding literary quality from all his authors. Other magazines had to offer similar standards in order to compete. Horace L. Gold at Galaxy magazine matched the quality of Campbell but never reached the same level of pre-eminence. Meanwhile both sides in the Cold War used science fiction as much as they could for political propaganda, whether officially or not. (Much of this blog will concentrate on Golden Age science fiction literature, especially from the English-speaking world.)

After its Golden Age, science fiction has continued to adapt and evolve as literature. Much of the early optimism is gone, but that reflects a societal change more than anything else. Like all literature, science fiction is aimed at the people of its time. As author Frank Herbert is quoted as having once said, “Aliens don’t buy books; people do.”

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