You’ve seen the lists. You’ve heard the way they talk. It would go right past you if you didn’t know what to look for, but really… outside of our circles here it’s as if science fiction just mysteriously leaps from H. G. Wells and Jules Verne directly to Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. There’s a similar skip in fantasy: people act like it emerged from nowhere with Tolkien and Lewis, then there’s a lull that is later picked up with Brooks, Jordan, and Martin. To add insult to injury, it’s in this context of course that the Poindexters arrive to lecture us on how Mary Shelly invented science fiction.
This isn’t normal. It really isn’t. There’s something flatly pathological about it. And it sounds tinfoil hat crazy to come right out and say it, but… it’s as if the field has suffered from a coordinated effort to cut its own heart out.
Once again, the jazz scene provides a model for how sane people approach that canonization process. They aren’t even particularly self-conscious of it, either. Check out how the guy doing the voiceover introduces Dizzy Gillespie in this video of the 1975 Monterey Jazz Festival:
If greatness can be defined as affecting everything that follows, this man truly deserves that accolade.
We are reaching the end of our 2017 subscription drive, and while we have long since been “funded”, we are trying to expand our reader base. That is why a digital subscription to Cirsova will only cost you $1.
There are a lot of reasons why you should check us out.
Castalia House blog contributor Misha Burnett’s Eldritch Earth Geophysical Society teamed up with us for our spring issue. We’re giving Lovecraft fans a break from New Mythos and Cthululz with high adventure stories set on Lovecraft’s pre-historic alien earth.
We’ve got a new Schuyler Hernstrom novella with lizardmen, dinosaurs, ray guns and spaceships.
I want to talk about humility. And I know that’s going to seem like an odd thing, but the subject does come up extemporaneously even if it’s not a common choice for the subject of a blog post. And it does relate to several other things we spend a lot of time digging into around here, so please bear with me as I make my way to the point.
The thing that really gets me about it is that people act like it’s noteworthy or extraordinary. Honestly, I really can’t wrap my head around that. Humility is inevitable. It’s normal. It really is.
Consider Chuck Mangione, the mastermind behind the 1978 Billboard hit “Feels So Good.” Here’s what he had to say on the subject:
I keep telling people to look for the zen masters of music: the Dizzy Gillespies, and the Art Blakey’s, and the Cannonball Adderlies, and the John Coltranes, the Charlie Parkers…. I just consider myself a lucky kid who got a horn and likes to honk on it. So… there’s a lot of other people to check out.
I don’t know a single jazz musician that doesn’t talk like that. Mathematicians…? If you could get them to open up, I’d expect them to be the same way when it comes to Fermat, Euler, and Pascal. If you could find somebody big in computer programming right now, corner them– and then compare them to John McCarthy, the creator of Lisp. First they’ll be stunned, then they’ll be honored, then they’ll struggle to turn down the compliment without coming off as ungracious.
It’s an appreciation of a canon that makes people genuinely humble– and that’s one huge reason why the whole “don’t read anything before 1980” scene is going to have some particularly noxious side effects as things go on. It’s much more than the destruction of common reference points that makes it infinitely harder to convey rich ideas and imagery through easily invoked allusions. It’s an attack on entire generation’s capacity to even develop an essential virtue.
I don’t read a whole lot of YA fiction these days (or ever, really). Even less middle school fiction. And I suppose Have Space Suit—Will Travel, like The Hobbit, would be marketed as middle school fiction were it to be released today. There isn’t a love story, and a book simply must have a love story—preferably a triangle—to be YA. But what it is is good—better than most and certainly different than anything I read. Like The Hobbit, it threatens to be a bit too twee at times, but I never found it overwhelming. It is, like its protagonist, unabashedly earnest; entirely unapologetic in its love of science and engineering and work; and sharply written, showing full well Heinlein’s immense talent for aphorisms—if I hadn’t stopped writing down or tweeting every great line I would still be reading it. It also has two absolutely killer hard science fiction action sequences.
You see, I had this space suit.
How it happened was this way:
“Dad,” I said, “I want to go to the Moon.”
“Certainly,” he answered and looked back at his book. It was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which he must know by heart.
I said, “Dad, please! I’m serious.”
This time he closed the book on a finger and said gently, “I said it was all right. Go ahead.”
“Yes . . . but how?”
“Eh?” He looked mildly surprised. “Why, that’s your problem, Clifford.”
Pretty much everything you need to know about Have Space Suit—Will Travel is in that quote. (Don’t worry, I have more to say.)
(Note: my brief history of Japanese SF will continue next time as I track down some references.)
Heroes. Who needs them!
Just another holier-than-thou vehicle for someone’s personal hangups.
Just another overinflated cardboard cutout, a power fantasy made flesh.
Too strong, too competent, too perfect.
Real life isn’t like that.
Real people aren’t heroes.
And heroes have no place in serious fiction for mature adults.
Penny Kenny writes in:
Thanks again for putting together the varied, thought-provoking content you do at the blog. I’m not a gamer, so when I read the gaming posts, I’m always learning something. Just off the top of my head, I’m also enjoying the series about the roots of Japanese SF. Alex’s Planet Stories reviews are always entertaining – and I’ve enjoyed the digression into the G-Men Detective magazine, too. And as I mentioned before, I’ve really gotten a lot out of the Ship of Ishtar pieces.
About a year or so ago, I had just about decided I didn’t really like SF. I thought liked the idea of it and enjoyed some visual SF – especially the older (70s-80s-era) anime, TV shows, comics, and movies. And, of course, I enjoyed Burroughs’ Mars series, Brackett’s Stark, some of Schmitz’s Telzey and friends books, Alexander Key’s juvenile SF, some of Clifford Simak and older Andre Norton, the Stainless Steel Rat, some of Lee & Miller’s Liaden books, the early/young Miles books of Bujold (I really wanted to love her Ivan book, but it was just ok), Retief, and a few others; but I couldn’t seem to find anything on the new shelves that I spent more than a few chapters on before giving up – if I even brought it home. Then I found within a month’s time at several different thrift stores, E.E. Doc Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series, and on-line your Appendix N reviews. I fell in love with Skylark’s opening book and Lensman was even better. It seemed like I kept bumping into the books you were reviewing and I snapped those up and found I enjoyed many of them – Moorcock just doesn’t work for me and I haven’t been able to get into Vance yet, though I hope he hits me right sometime in the future. Between the books and your ever expanding discussion, I realized I did like SF. I just didn’t care for the box it had put itself into by dropping the more adventurous, romantic aspects and I wasn’t the only one. So keep up the great work and keep introducing people to the past and inspiring the future.
Spengler is chiefly known for his political columns, but back in 2003, he wrote an unusually perceptive article in the Asia Times about the close relationship between Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings and Wagner and the Ring Cycle.
Tolkien well may have written his epic as an “anti-Ring” to repair the damage that Wagner had inflicted upon Western culture…. Tolkien himself despised Wagner (whom he knew thoroughly) and rejected comparisons between his Ring and Wagner’s cycle (“Both rings are round,” is the extent of his published comment). But the parallels between the two works are so extensive as to raise the question as to Tolkien’s intent. The Ring of Power itself is Wagner’s invention (probably derived from the German Romantic de la Motte Fouque). Also to be found in both works are an immortal woman who renounces immortality for the love of a human, a broken sword reforged, a life-and-death game of riddles, and other elements which one doesn’t encounter every day. Here is a compilation derived from sundry websites, along with a few of my own observations.
The details are far less important than the common starting point: the crisis of the immortals. Wagner’s immortal gods must fall as a result of the corrupt bargain they have made with the giants who built Valhalla. Tolkien’s immortal Elves must leave Middle-earth because of the fatal assistance they took from Sauron. The Elves’ power to create a paradise on Middle-earth depends upon the power of the three Elven Rings which they forged with Sauron’s help. Thus the virtue of the Elven Rings is inseparably bound up with the one Ring of Sauron. When it is destroyed, the power of the Elves must fade. More than anything else, The Lord of the Rings is the tragedy of the Elves and the story of their renunciation.
What Tolkien has in mind is nothing more than the familiar observation that the high culture of the West arose and fell with the aristocracy, which had the time and inclination to cultivate it. With the high culture came the abuse of power associated with the aristocracy; when this disappears, the great beauties of Western civilization and much of its best thought disappear with it. That is far too simple, and in some ways misleading, but it makes a grand premise for a roman-a-clef about Western civilization.
Rick Stump picks up on a couple of recent topics we’ve touched on here: the abuse of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template in film, the way the industry relentlessly un-imagines characters from before 1980, and of course… Conan:
This is another reason the arc of ‘avenge my father’s murder’ is slapped onto the Conan movies; the writer’s want to motivate Conan, they want to give him a reason to pursue all these adventures, to travel to all these places, to fight all these creatures. They assume that for a man to conquer incredible odds and do incredible deeds of heroism he needs a motivation that is almost singular, one that would obsess an man. So they kill his father (and mother) in front of him.
But in Howard’s tales, why did Conan leave home? What drove him to be a mercenary in the frozen North, a thief in the desert metropolis, a pirate, a nomadic horseman, a soldier, a general, and a king? What great event forced him to leave his home village and put him on the path of the hero? Was it murder? Death? A lost love?
According to Howard, Conan walked the world because… he was bored at home. Conan wandered the land and sea, fought monsters and wizards, and became a mighty king all because he was restless and easily bored.
It seems legit. I joined the army very literally because I knew it would be hard and I wanted to be hard enough to do it. A friend of mine joined because he wanted to travel for free. Hundreds of reasons, all legitimate, all interesting.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a sucker for a good romantic arc in a story. I mean, come on. I’m a Macross fan, and Macross is about three things: fighter planes in space, pop music idols, and love triangles. Don’t get me wrong; I’m here for the explosions, more often than not. But ages ago, when I was a fledgling teenaged writer I noticed something interesting: as much I was watching Babylon 5 to see Sheridan lead his war against the Shadows and Earth, I was thoroughly invested in his relationship with Delenn. In reading the Robotech novels, I discovered, to my teenaged discomfort, that I had very definite opinions about how the Rick-Lisa-Minmei triangle should play out– and so did all of my friends.
I think there’s a tendency to blow character stuff off in favor of “gosh wow” sense of wonder and action and plot. And that’s probably fair enough. If characters spend too much time staring into each other’s eyes and daydreaming/moping/whatever, you’re firmly in Lifetime and Hallmark Made for TV movie territory. But on the other hand, love launches a lot of ships and draws a lot of swords. It’s part of that visceral, human experience that lends truth to our fiction. What’s worth fighting for without love? What’s worth dying for if not love?
So with that said, here are a few of my favorites:
Strong opinions piss people off. Strong opinions, expressed forcefully, piss people off even more.
To those offended, I say this:
Campbell, confreres, and successors have—for seventy-nine years—pumped out self-serving propaganda that paints the Pulps as worthless. Constant recitation of a litany of calumnies has succeeded in erasing not only the virtues of the Pulps, but even the memory of their existence.
You can likely recite the litany as well as I:
“Pulp is puerile, childish, and inartful. The stories are simplistic and obvious, the science sloppy and embarrassing, and the language purple, baroque, and overdone. They focus on action more than science, and that is Just Not Proper Science Fiction.”
Well, the Pulp Revolution is here and it’s time to set the record straight: Pulp stories are amazing.
You know, I never really liked it but I kind of understood where people were coming from when they eliminated the cleric from their old school D&D games. Not everyone wants to have a flagrantly Catholic Van Helsing style archetype folded into their bizarre post-apocalyptic science fantasy weird future Mediaeval setting. People just can’t handle that sort of freaky mashup these days. They want something that fits with their conceptions of what fantasy is, not something that would have been normal back when Electric Light Orchestra and Earth Wind and Fire were the new hotness.
But at some point this “fixing” of classic D&D just goes way too far, as it does when Olde School Wizardry says Adios to the Thief:
One of my first two characters (in about 1981) was a thief, so I’m cool with the concept, but after recently cutting the cleric class loose in my B/X house rules, I’m thinking about whether to drop the thief class too.
Are thieves just fighters in light armor?
Now… this is the meanest thing that you can possibly say on the internet today, but I have to say… you just don’t understand classic D&D if you come out and say stuff like this. And the sort of “fixing” that is done in this spirit is not something that is done from some kind of creative decision. It’s more to do with a complete lack of imagination.