The Road to Science Ficton: From Gilgamesh to Wells – James Gunn

Fair use.As the title aptly suggests, this anthology traces the prehistory of science fiction from ancient fantasies like Lucian’s A True History to prescient Gothic tales like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It contains a mix of short stories and extracts from longer pieces. While I enjoyed this collection, I’d only recommend it to academics investigating sci-fi history or die-hard fans.

A True History – Lucian of Samosata
Now I think of this author as the ancient Greek version of Douglas Adams. Mainly known for writing comedic science-fiction with a tendency to mock religion… Lucian certainly does fit the bill!

A True History parodies the improbable events that are common in ancient mythology, such as everything that occurred in the Odyssey, The main difference is that Lucian admits he lies. The story describes how Lucian, wishing to explore the world, rides a sailing boat over a blow-hole and is blown to the moon! There him and his crew are embroiled in a Hellenic space opera between the king of moon and the king of the sun over the rights to colonise a distant star. The war involves ant-soldiers, a Buzzard Cavalry, and “elephantine radishes”. The fearsome Cloud Centaurs are too late to join in the fighting.

Gunn offers only an extract of the first part. You can read the whole thing at Project Gutenberg.

Somnium – Johannes Kepler
The son of a witch travels abroad to learn astronomy at a prestigious university, before returning to his homeland to learn the truth of his mother’s career and being taught by a daemon about precisely what goes on at the moon. Counter-intuitively, the story is at its most interesting before we leave the planet. The protagonist’s world, with its contrast between his primitive superstition and the newborn science he discovers overseas, is completely fascinating. Once we’re dealing with the moon it’s just a barrage of facts and figures which I do not doubt are as accurate as Kepler could make them, but are nonetheless unengaging. The whole thing ends with Kepler waking up to realise that the whole thing was a dream.

Still, the protagonist’s story prior to thinking about the moon could be expanded into a great novel. The co-existence of the rigorously-researched moon and the fanciful demons are just the icing on the cake.

Rappacini’s Daughter – Nathanial Hawthorne
Italian dude falls in love with a toxic woman. Literally!

So this student moves next door to a mad scientist called Rappacini and his beautiful daughter, and their funky garden. The scientist is a pro at poison, the student’s academic mentor makes this explicitly clear. Rappacini’s daughter has spent her life her father’s dubious garden, resulting her the air she exhales and likely most of her bodily fluids fatal to the common man.

I don’t really like Nathanial Hawthorne, but he gets points from me for explicitly referencing the Alexander Romances at one point in the story.

The classic Old Time Radio show Weird Circle did a great rendition of this story. I can still remember it while playing Spyro

The Diamond Lens – Fitz James O’Brien
This story creeped me out, and not in the good way.

It started out with the author bio written by Gunn. Apparently the author died fighting for the South in the American Civil War. I could overlook that, plenty of old writers were dodgy like that.

The story is about an obsessive microscopist who falls in love with a miniature woman, who is surprisingly enough hauntingly beautiful. The only way he can see her is with the lens made from a diamond he stole from his Jewish neighbour, who he killed. The protagonist is later driven insane when the tiny woman he spies on dies of old age, which really serves him right. Also, the protagonist is completely fine with slavery!

As unpleasant as I found the main character, I think this story could be adapted into a decent film if the screenplay focused on the protagonist’s voyeurism and antisemitism. Make him into Norman Bates with a microscope. Make it seem that his unfortunate end is what he deserves. This would work as a black and white Vincent Price kinda film.

Others
Gunn offers us an extract from Frankenstein that I skipped, because I read the entire novel twice during my final year of high school. I think that Victor Frankenstein was bipolar and probably gay. Here’s a link to the Gutenberg version. Watch out though: it’s recursive. I mean, really recursive. Really, really recursive. Really, really, really, recursive…

We also get the Laputa episode from Gulliver’s Travels, the bit where Gulliver hangs out on a floating island scowling at all the absurd things the native scientists do. This is probably my favorite classic of English literature.

The anthology closes with a H. G. Wells story called The Star. An apocalyptic story, it tells how a foreign body enters our solar system and collides with Neptune before traveling before the sun. Wells gives an account of how the diverse people of the world react to this spectacle in away that recalls Will Eisner’s comic Life on Another Planet.

The rest of the book’s content is written in that cramped, oblique style that I’ve come to expect from old English literature. The bright spots are the translated material, as they have been rewritten to be easily comprehended by the modern reader. For this reason I’d recommend this collection mainly for academic readers. After all, most of the truly great stories are available online.

Have your read this book? Or any of the stories I’ve mentioned? You could say something in the comments

Saints – Gene Luen Yang

17210471This is a companion piece for Yang’s Boxers, concerning a Chinese girl who converts to Catholicism during the Boxer Rebellion. And it is excellent.The story of Saints interweaves with that of Boxers, showing us the same events from different perspectives. Reading both books gives you a decent understanding of the motivations and beliefs on both sides of the conflict.

To be honest, most of the things I said in my review for Boxers applies here. The art is beautiful, the characters likeable and the historical detail seems accurate. Just replace the Chinese gods with Catholic ones – I mean Jesus and Joan of Arc.

I still reckon that both Boxers and Saints belong on a secondary school curriculum somewhere. Get one class to read the former and the other the latter, and then get them to fight it out, debate-style.

I say this book is great. Go read it!

War Games – Brian Stableford

Fair UseBrian Stableford’s War Games had some interesting ideas, but I don’t feel he executed them very well.

The time is during an ancient intergalactic war between humanity and the Veitch, kinda like the conflict in Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence. The place is the desert planet Heidra, where an archaeologist hopes to uncover an end to the war in the ancient ruins of an advanced alien race. He is assisted by the protagonist Remy, a human deserter. Remy’s an interesting character in that he’s involved in an intimate relationship with a Veitch woman, but none of the individual characters’ stories find an satisfactory conclusion.

One of the interesting ideas I referred to in the introduction is the novel’s take on the origin of life. The Veitch and humans are genetically very similar, as are most intelligent species in the galaxy. The consensus view is that convergent evolution is to blame, but the archaeologist reckons that some spooky precursors are to blame. I also liked the Optiman, genetically engineered superhumans who lacked only the ability to procreate.

The main problem I had with War Games is that some characters have a tendency to speak in exposition. Characterisation was also not great, with me having little reason to care about anyone in the story. Granted I was in the final throes of my minor thesis, but there should have seen something.

I’d recommend this only for Stableford fans. Great cover, though.

Oahspe: A New Bible – John Ballou Newbrough

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I don’t get it. Is this astrology? Are they flying? Who can say?

Oahspe: A New Bible is one of the craziest books I’ve ever read. And I’ve only read about five percent of it.

Look, this is a bible. A Kosmon bible, at that. Even with the pictures it’s long. And when I was reading it I was at the final stages of my Minor Thesis. I didn’t have time to read any sort of Bible. I just wanted a sample, and a sample is what I’ve got.

This is a book produced by an American dentist with automatic writing in 1882. Newbrough invented a prodigal mythology bursting with manic gods, giants, lost continents, angels, divine bureaucracy, vegetarianism, levels of reality, religious syncretism, astrology, invented terms and power struggles between unknowable forces. There’s a lot of material here for an author to steal, say for a sci-fi or horror book…

The overall impression Oahspe gives me is a feeling of literary vertigo, that I’m about to read something that I have no chance of comprehending. (In fact, this book was one of my inspirations for Blue Blue City.) Oahspe what I imagine the Necromnicon to be like. It certainly is creepy and exotic enough.

Another interesting thing is that Newbrough’s split some of his pages in half, so they’re telling two stories at once. The Book of This will be on top, and The Book of That will be on the bottom. I’d like to steal this technique for a less esoteric story. Maybe for one about the effects of time dilution on heterosexual relationships. Each partner gets half a page each. One partner gets on a Very Fast Train, and the difference in the two characters’ relationship to time is represented by one narrating their tale in stretched out letters. Could be cool. Could be literary.

If you want to get your mind screwed, click on this link and check out Oahspe at the Sacred Text Archives. You miss the split screen, but you won’t miss having to pay to read it.

Infinite Kung-Fu – Kagan McLeod

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Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung-Fu is a loving tribute to martial arts cinema.

There’s no question that the art is excellent. Kagan has taken grey-scale shading as far as it can go, and the detail of the character’s costumes and faces as well as the inventiveness of their environments is beautifully impressive. I remember one particular backdrop, a giant mountain carved in the shape of a Buddha. That was pretty cool.

The story was the major stumbling block for me. We’re in a post-apocalyptic world, presumably of the nuclear variety, and the Chinese gods have summoned the Ten Immortals to the heavens to help them sort things out. The Immortals train ten disciples to take their place while their attending to their heavenly duties, but these disciples later become corrupted. There’s zombies, an Emperor trying to destroy the world, and one soldier from his army is chosen to put an end to it. McGuffins are collected, asses are kicked, but the whole sequence of events feels improvised and the characterizations arbitrary. It’s as though the writer has drawn up a list of cool set-pieces without thinking about how they logically connect.

The art was good and the story was indifferent. I’d only recommend it for kung-fu fans.