What is Historical Fantasy?

I attended a panel at a Con not that long ago which was advertised as addressing the subject of ‘historical fantasy’.  I didn’t enjoy it at all.  Some of my gripes were quite legitimate – the manifestly poor preparation and the frequent off-topic digressions – regular blights upon many of the panels that are served up to the hapless punters these days.  But it later struck me that I might have been a bit harsh in my judgement, in one area.

You see, I have a particular idea of what historical fantasy is, and my definition may well be narrower than that of most people.  Let’s take a look.

I tend to limit my definition of historical fiction to fiction that is broadly based on known historical events, or on the life of an historical figure, even where details or subplots are made up.

If the story takes place in an historical time but the events and characters are mostly invented, then that to me is historical fantasy.  The fantastical elements of the story, such as they are, are drawn from the historical period in question, whether they be mundane things, that seem fantastical to us today simply by dint of their very remove, or actual fantastic things, that put flesh on the folklore or legends of the period in question.

If a story takes place in an historical time period, but creates gates to other worlds, brooking an insurgency of aliens or robots, it’s not historical fantasy any more, irrespective of the time it is set in, it’s just fantasy.  That’s my view at least.  From which you can guess the flavour of supposed ‘historical fantasy’ central to the panel that I was grumbling about.

Naturally, in my own writings I adhere to my own definitions.  I’d consider my stories set in the time of the Russian conquest of Siberia, featuring motifs like Zlata Baba – the Golden Woman of the Ugra, the fortress of Serponov, and Saint Basil of Mangazeya, to be historical fantasy, but others might disagree.

So what well-known works would I consider to be proper historical fantasy? Some examples would be Talbot Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace novels, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, and  Men Went to Cattraeth, by John James, which to my mind, is probably the finest historical fantasy novel ever written.

Cattraeth is based on a mediaeval Welsh poem, the Gododdin of Aneirin, and contains the most brilliant twist regarding the ulterior motive behind sending the three hundred heroes to their doom.  To me, it’s pure historical fantasy though I know some critics regard it simply as historical fiction.  James wrote several other historical fantasies including the fabulous The Bridge of Sand, where a small Roman force, lost in Wales, is cut down, one man at a time, by the magic of druids, and the high concept Votan and its sequel Not for All the Gold in Ireland, both of which I hated (The American Gods style trope underpinning the stories didn’t gel with me).

The thing I really like about Mundy’s Tros books, is how Julius Caesar keeps popping up at critical moments to complicate everything: he’s the Joker to Tros’ Batman.  It’s one of the best uses anywhere of a real historical cameo, in an invented story.

The Anubis Gates, is typical of the works of Tim Powers set in historical periods, in that it ratchets up the weirdness: On Stranger Tides and The Stress of Her Regard are other good examples of Powers’ style.  What I particularly like about the first two, is Powers’ literal representation of the principals of sympathetic magic, as understood by the alchemists of eighteenth century England.  By way of cameos, at the climax of Gates, there is a fine one from Samuel Taylor Coleridge who dismisses the monsters all around as phantoms brought on by an opium-induced bender.  Gates of course also has an SF element to it as the protagonists travel back in time to the historical period in question, so it’s borderline historical fantasy, even by my own tenets, but then again, it features the poet William Ashbless, so I’ll forgive it almost anything.

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An Open Letter to the Members of Dublin 2019 (Worldcon 77)

Dear Dublin 2019 Members,

you may already be aware, from my previous posts here and on social media, of my disquiet at the idea that we may shortly be voting to award Worldcon 79 (2021) to a bid locating it in the United States of America, in Washington DC.

This disquiet comes from my belief that the current immigration rules in place at the US border, are not compatible with the inclusive, diversity-embracing values of our science fiction community.  I believe that a vote for DC in 2021, a) sends a message to fans of certain nationalities, ethnicities and of Muslim faith that the rest of us don’t care if they have difficulties attending in 2021 or are even prevented from doing so, and b) signals that our community is, at best indifferent to, or at worst, endorses the onward march of the US towards fascism.

When political philosopher Hannah Arendt studied the rise of fascism in 1930’s Germany she was able to summarise the mechanism behind it in a single neat phrase: Participation is Support.

In the current climate, any international event organiser in the US deciding to authorise their event to go ahead is signalling that, whatever their own personal politics, they’re OK with the immigration rules currently in place.  In other words, they’re participating.

-oOo-

If, like me, you share these concerns, please consider voting in Dublin for ‘None of the Above,’ on the 2021 bid ballot.  A victory for ‘None of the Above’ shifts the decision on 2021 back to the Worldcon Business Meeting.  This body is largely free of constraints on how it can act, in such an instance.  The one thing that several correspondents familiar with Worldcon procedures who have been in touch with me these past few days have been at pains to point out, is that it is paramount to respect the will of the voters.  For this reason, I think it is unlikely that the Business Meeting would overrule the ‘None of the Above’ choice and rubber stamp the Washington DC bid.  ‘None of the Above’ therefore seems to me to offer the best chance of achieving a different outcome.

Thanks for spending time to read my letter,

Nick

Why We in the Science Fiction Community Should Reject Washington DC in 2021.

I’ve been a lifelong member of the science fiction community.  My first event was the 1984 Eastercon in Birmingham, my first Worldcon was Brighton in 1987.  In the 80’s and 90’s, I paid my volunteering dues in spades, projecting 16mm for the punters at all hours of the day and night.  When the technology moved on, I never found another niche I felt comfortable in, and so I became just another attendee and occasional programme participant, giving talks on the International Space Station, parts of which I designed. Since moving to Ireland in the late 1990’s, I’ve been a regular participant in the science fiction scene here.

But I’ve never been the activist type – it just doesn’t suit my temperament.  Goodness, I tried when I was young, knocking on doors for Labour in south London in the 1980’s, but the emotional investment just took too much out of me.  I’m much more useful in a back room, making tea for those resilient enough to hustle the sharp end.  Nowadays, it takes a lot to make me stick my nose over the parapet.

But it strikes me that the science fiction community that I love is about to sleepwalk over a cliff, and I’m not hearing any other voices of alarm.  So needs must.

In a little over five weeks a group of people in Dublin – some hailing from Ireland, the rest from many other countries – are going to be making a decision: they’re going to be voting on the location for the 79th Worldcon, to be held in 2021.  Put like that, it doesn’t sound difficult, but there’s a complicating factor: at present, there’s only one bid on the table, and it’s from Washington DC.

Let me put it another way.  Our community, which in general has an excellent record of embracing all kinds of diversity and inclusivity, is going to be asked to rubber stamp a location in a country, the current immigration policies of which will ensure that some science fiction fans who would like to attend are going to be prevented from doing so, because of their religion, homeland or ethnicity.  More still will run the risk of intrusive personal inconvenience or other unacceptable disruption to their travel plans, during the immigration process.

You think I’m overreacting?  It was these exact same policies that prevented Star Wars: Rogue One star Riz Ahmed from attending an event in the US in April.  If a public figure like him can have problems, what hope is there for the ordinary fans?

In all honesty, I don’t understand why the Washington DC bid organisers haven’t looked at the current situation in the US and said, “Y’know what, this won’t do, so we’re just going to put plans on hold for a few years, until the open, welcoming America we once knew and loved, has come back again.”

But maybe I’m doing them an injustice.  Maybe they have examined all this already.  Maybe they plan to offer pre-travel support to fans who want to get a G-28 form in place, just in case.  Maybe they plan to have teams of immigration lawyers working pro-bono, ready to deploy at east coast airports in the run up to the con.  Maybe they are going to provide a free pool of burner smartphones and tablets for attendees to use while in the US, so they don’t have to risk bringing their own devices through immigration.  But on the other hand, maybe once they realised that they ought to do all that if they went ahead, the other option should have been a no-brainer.

Or maybe they’re just hoping that the problem will go away in 2020.  From where I’m sitting that doesn’t seem so likely and in any case, wouldn’t it have been more prudent to wait and see?

For these reasons I believe the science-fiction community has a duty to reject Washington DC as the venue for the 2021 Worldcon. It would be grossly delinquent of us to act in any other way.  And if we do sleepwalk over that cliff in Dublin in a month’s time, then the virtual red caps that will appear on our heads and the virtual red armbands materialising on our shirts will ensure that from that moment forth, we can never represent our community as a champion of diversity and inclusiveness again.

UPDATE 16/07/2019

Yesterday I sent an email to the address provided for the Dublin Worldcon Business Meeting, enquiring how I should proceed.  I have so far heard nothing back.  But others have kindly informed me online that the Business Meeting has no control over the voting process.  I have now looked at the relevant ballot paper.  It seems that if a majority of voters select the None of the Above option for the 2021 Worldcon location, then the Business Meeting is supposed to decide where it should be located.  On this basis, I’ll be voting None of the Above in Dublin.

UPDATE 17/07/2019

I’m very grateful to all the online correspondents who have helped to clarify things for me.  It does seem that under the current rules, if there were a None of the Above vote, then the Business Meeting would have little option other than just overruling it and going back to the bids on the table.  Since there is just one, from Washington DC, then its success is effectively ring-fenced, whatever the outcome of the popular vote.  I suppose it would be possible to try and change the rules, to give the Business Meeting the option of deciding  ‘no award’ as an alternative.  However, since the deadline for motions is today, and since the Business Meeting has not, so far, engaged with me (even though I asked for advice in my email, and even though the Dublin 2019 website invites people to contact us at that address in advance if you need help crafting your proposal into the correct format), I don’t see that there is enough time left now for a motion to be formulated, (even assuming that such a motion would be admissible and not out of scope).

It’s a good thing that some debate occurred.  It makes me feel a bit less dispirited knowing that we’ll at least be deciding what we decide with our eyes open. I’ll still be voting None of the Above in Dublin, as a point of principle. Other than that, I don’t see what more I can do.

Last Year at the Island of Dr. Morel.

And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad. 

– Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel.

I’d have been eighteen or nineteen years old when I first saw Last Year at Marienbad, and I immediately fell in love with it.  It is a movie with the simplest of plots: amongst the guests at a château, a man seeks to persuade (or jog the memory of) a woman, that they had met the previous year at the resort of Marienbad, and agreed to run away together.

I have watched it umpteen times since, as well as devouring Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novelisation (Robbe-Grillet co-wrote the screenplay with director Alain Resnais), and all the time, the feeling has never left me that beneath the utterly straightforward veneer, there must be something entirely fantastical going on. I’m not sure quite where this idea came from, but perhaps it is the cumulative effect of the glacial pacing, the rather stilted characters and the über-arty cinematography.  Yet now, to my considerable surprise, I find that this total leap of faith has been perfectly vindicated.

I discovered a couple of months ago that Marienbad was partly inspired by the 1940 novella The Invention of Morel by Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares.  Naturally, I had to track it down, and now I’ve read it.

The first noteworthy thing is that Morel is an absolutely full-on work of science fiction.  This I had not expected, since ‘Bioy’ as he is invariably known, was a protégé of J. L. Borges, so I started out thinking more in terms of a magical realist solution to the mystery surrounding the people that the narrator finds himself sharing a remote island with.

But no [spoilers].  Morel is the archetypal mad scientist.  Bioy supposedly chose the name because of its similarity to Moreau, channelling H.G. Wells.  But whereas Moreau used vivisection to populate his island, Morel has invented a recording machine and thus the narrator finds himself in the midst of, effectively, a holographic movie of such verisimilitude that the images are indistinguishable from real people.  The movie lasts a week and is on endless repeat.  In it, Morel seeks to convince one of the women, Faustine, to go away with him.  Though the narrator cannot interact directly with the images, he concocts a fantasy that he and Faustine are lovers, by inserting himself into the times and places she appears on the island.

So.  Just wow!  I can’t wait to watch Marienbad again, with all this new knowledge.

But more than that, I’m becoming truly fascinated by the next logical step, which might best be described as the Westworld option.  Just consider it – Mitteleuropaworld – where guests, dressed to the nines in their cocktail dresses and tuxedos, go to dine and stroll with androids, amidst glittering chandeliers, mirrored halls, fountains, lawns and pyramids of manicured box.  I might have to write something. 😀

Like Cardboard Scarecrows on the See-saw

The idea for this short memoir comes while I’m nursing a pint in Dublin’s DC Music Club last night, waiting for Dr. Strangely Strange to take the stage.  Save for a few people whom I’d likely tag as offspring of the band, I’m practically the youngest person in the room – a plum-coloured, basement timewarp of faded flock wallpaper and fringed curtains – not a thing that happens to me very often, any more.

As far as rock music goes, the psychedelia from a few years either side of 1970, in all its infinite variety, is most definitely my thing; everything from The Zombies & Arthur Brown, to H.P. Lovecraft & Amon Düül II.  So I’d for a long time been vaguely aware that Dr. Strangely Strange existed, without, save for one track on an Island Records compilation album, ever having got around to dipping my toes into their oeuvre.  I certainly don’t think I’d ever appreciated that they were an Irish band.  If I had one single example of Irish psychedelia in my consciousness, it would have been Andwella’s towering ‘World’s End Part I’.

But as a wise man once said “Strangers have met on longer trains before”.  Eighteen months or so ago, I began sketching out my plan for world domination via my debut short story collection, Irish Tales (which is out on September 28th this year).  The first task I decided to address, was commissioning an illustrator and, seeing as I was just starting out on the writing side, I thought it would be fitting to give a newbie a break on the art side.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to go about finding an artist – I used Google image search a lot, and contacted the ones whose work gelled with me.

Without exception, every budding artist I got in touch with was way too overloaded with work to take a commission from me.  This repeated over and over until the search for an illustrator was threatening to become a nightmare.  Whatever happened to toiling unrecognised in garrets?  In desperation, I broadened my criteria and quickly found Kerry-based Tim Booth.  Tim is many things, but a newbie is not one of them: from his profile it seemed he was a long-time graphic designer and fine artist who latterly had moved into comics and found success drawing the latest reincarnation of Dan Dare.

Tim was available, and I signed him up.  Working entirely through email we hit it off well over the ether: he had a good appreciation of what I was looking for and I, in turn found it easy to give him direction when it was needed.  The fruitfulness of the relationship is no better encapsulated than in the detailed and exacting brief I provided for the artwork for the book’s cover, which almost incredibly (to me) he absolutely nailed first go.  I was delighted.

But over time, I gradually copped on to something else entirely: that Tim was one of the principals of Dr. Strangely Strange.  As the clouds parted, I began to realise that the band had been active for longer and had more output than I had previously imagined. For the first time, I gave them a good listen, and of course wished then that I had first done so a long time ago. I marvelled over their unique sound, exemplified by Ivan Pawle’s ethereal voice, complex vocal harmonies, the agile imagery of their lyrics (Like Cardboard Scarecrows on the See-saw – priceless!), and the magus’ arsenal of eclectic instruments they deployed.  Science-fiction aficionados should check out the fabulous ‘Mirror Mirror’, a bonus track from the reissue of their first album; Kip of the Serenes: it’s quickly become my favourite Strangelies track of all.

Which kind of brings me full circle back to the gig last night, which was taking place on foot of the launch of a book about the band, going on as I write. It was, first and foremost, lovely for me to finally meet Tim in person, and thank him for his work.  I hope we’ll be working together again shortly.  It was naturally great to hear the band live and to report, considering that it’s fifty years since Kip and that they don’t perform regularly, how good the gig was.  Of course the sound of a voice like Pawle’s is something that necessarily changes with age, but he has kept his distinctive phrasing, so it was recognisably him.

And I heard some great songs for the first time, particularly a couple penned by Tim Goulding; one about Kerry herring fishermen and another a setting of some Gerard Manley Hopkins: I must track down the albums containing them.  I think the gig last night will have well and truly blown the cobwebs away – the one tonight, after the launch, should be pretty special.

When Chickens Come Home to Roost

I’ve never liked eBooks. I own maybe sixty or seventy; a couple of must-have titles that I couldn’t acquire any other way (the new translation of Pierre Benoit’s The Gobi Desert and Premee Mohamed’s The Apple-tree Throne, since you ask), a review copy of something I requested and then didn’t review (I am so embarrassed), and the rest – Humble Bundle deals that were simply too good to pass over.

Of course I can see the enormous attraction of being able to carry squillions of titles around on an eReader that weighs just a few hundred grammes – indeed I could see myself doing exactly that, in extremis; it’s just the principle of them that pisses me off.  To me, for something to be called a book, it has to have certain properties.  It has to be something that once paid for, is owned; something that can be freely lent out to friends and either sold or acquired second hand.  eBooks tend to fall down on one or more of these criteria.  In my view, it’s an insult to call them books; they’re something else – don’t ask me what.

As someone in the process of publishing my first book (Irish Tales will be out on the 28th September this year), the question of eBooks of course came up.  I’m having one created as part of that process, but it won’t be for sale on-line.  what I’m probably going to do is sell it as a physical item, on a USB stick, packaged with some freebies (maybe postcards of some of the illustrations) in a collectible case.

In the meantime, I scratch my head at some of the debates currently winging their way around social media.  Writers are wailing wholesale about the growing incidence of eBook piracy and the consequent damage to their bottom line.  Now I absolutely condemn piracy, but c’mon.  Firstly, we’re floundering up to our necks in the dog-eat-dog Information Age, at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-first Century.  Secondly, you’ve consented to having your precious work converted to data and made available for download from umpteen outlets.  Look at the music business; look at the software business – what did you goddam expect?  Did you have your head in the sand, check your brain into the local pawn shop, or were you simply beguiled by the notion of a fat revenue stream cascading your way, unimpeded, on foot of the sale of a few ones and zeroes?

In truth, though, I do have some sympathy.  Digital Rights Management (DRM) safeguards exist, and are generally tied to particular eBook formats/vendor platforms.  DRM can limit piracy.  But DRM is also the monster that emasculates the eBook, making it a spent husk of the real thing.  Every true book lover should hate DRM, but every one of them who is also a writer has a dilemma, and a choice to make.  And it will be the truest book lovers, who insist on their works being offered DRM free, whom piracy will hit the hardest.

On the subject of DRM, I was highly amused by the story that broke recently, that Microsoft is to close down it’s DRM-locked bookstore on July 1st, digitally confiscating all the purchases made by customers and paying them refunds.  If ever one needed proof that an eBook is not a book, then this is it.  Just imagine all the days of personal time wasted, if someone, having invested heavily in creating their own digital library, now has to go do it all again from scratch.  eBooks?  I don’t like ’em at all.

 

Tolkien & Me

The spark for this short memoir comes from the recent speculation that Amazon’s new Tolkien-based show will be set during the Second Age of Middle Earth; a sort of “Young Sauron” if commentators who know far more than me are to be believed.  The speculation seems based on the inclusion of certain locations on the teaser map that Amazon has released; places that were gone by the time of the Third Age (in which The Lord of the Rings was set).  I find this announcement both exciting (who wouldn’t) and scary (as I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do).

I’ve managed to get through life up until now, knowing virtually nothing of the vast history and mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien created for Middle Earth over the course of his career.  I read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve years old, in the summer holiday between primary and secondary school.  It took me a month, reading for many hours each day.  I enjoyed it hugely – certainly it made a lasting impression on me and helped shape the person I am today.  But I never developed the urge to get into Tolkien any deeper.  I never even read The Hobbit – having come to Rings first, I filched enough of the backstory from there, for me not to want to.

There are two reasons that the rest of Tolkien passed me by – the first is that almost none of the Middle Earth background was available at the time (and my budget copy of LotR came without all-but-one of the appendices that had seen print).  The Silmarillion, the first post-Tolkien standalone door wedge, didn’t come out until four years later.

The second, and probably more compelling reason is that a bare six months after reading LotR, come that Xmas, I’d started playing Dungeons & Dragons, when one of my school friends obtained, hot off the presses, the Original D&D rule books from the US (indeed it’s only recently that the penny has dropped that I was without doubt, one of the very first D&D players in Europe).  As an adolescent, what attraction is there reading the dry history of balrogs, when you can fight your own?!  And for many years after, balrog was slang for ‘toilet paper’ in the circles I moved in, the word being almost but not quite ‘bog roll’ Spoonerised.  Adolescent indeed.

So for me Tolkien has stayed largely at arm’s length.  Shortly after LoTR, I did read some of his smaller pieces; Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of HamTree and Leaf, et al.  The very attraction of these was that they were more Langland than Lothlórien.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the Bored of the Rings parody (the tolls payable at the ford and the hairy-toe-besotted elf maiden still make me chuckle today), been impressed by the Ralph Bakshi animated movie of the first half of the story and loved Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the whole.  Almost mirroring my choice of decades earlier, I steered well clear of Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy that followed it.

Relatively recently, I have become somewhat more familiar with other aspects of Tolkien’s life and works.  When I was researching for my biographical sketch of Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes, for example, I delved into the world of the Inklings, and from there received my first, gobsmacking revelation of Middle Earth’s initial raison d’être, as a kind of vast philological laboratory.

As an aside at this point, I might add that like most critical thinking fantasy aficionados, I dismiss as ludicrous the oft-quoted assertion that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien.  I don’t care how much time Martin has spent on world building (and less than we think is the probable answer, given how much the Westeros fan base seems to have to keep him on track) it can surely be only a drop in the ocean, in terms of both scale and intellectual rigour, as compared with what Tolkien engineered for Middle Earth.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a huge fan of Martin’s series, I just think this particular comparison is unjustified.  As I’ve written elsewhere before, if the Seven Kingdoms has an antecedent, it rather inhabits the low magic, high political intrigue world of E.R. Eddison’s Three Kingdoms, the setting for his Zimiamvian trilogy.

Tolkien’s Weltanschauung was profoundly shaped by two world wars and he was a vocal opponent of Nazism.  So it makes me sad, these days, when the authoritarian bigots who increasingly plague our hobby, seek to denounce Tolkien as fascist or racist: presenting his great tale as an alliance of northern white Aryans, doing battle with all of the peoples of colour, united under Sauron.  And don’t get me started on what some assert the appearance of the eye of Sauron says about Tolkien’s attitude to women.

Ten of the Best. #5: A Cave Full of Blind, Trigger-happy Pirates.

Beatrice Grimshaw (born 1871, Co. Antrim – died 1953, New South Wales, Australia) had one of the most extraordinary lives of any Irish writer of speculative fiction.  On reaching the age of twenty-one, she ran away from home to the South Seas, supporting herself through travel journalism and fiction writing.

Consider these snippets from an  autobiographical sketch that she wrote:-

  • I had so many adventures that they cease to seem adventures. In the New Hebrides, I was caught in a forest fire, and barely escaped into a valley where bones of a recent cannibal feast lay blackening in the smoke;
  • On the Sepik, I had my narrowest escape when a body of headhunters urged me to come and see their village, all by myself, because their women wanted to look at me. It came rather closer than was pleasant to my seeing nothing any more; because the headhunters, when they had brought out two or three old and terrified women as a bait, began to bar me into the house… …I got away by backing down the track and making signals to invisible (and non-existent) friends. Headhunters are nervy folk, jumpy and undecided until the moment when they strike. Before they had made up their minds, I was round the corner; going slowly, afterwards I ran; 
  • I had a house built on three huge war-canoes, moored in the sea; I loved that house until it became a meeting-ground for crocodiles who lived in the surrounding shallows and bellowed like bulls at night.

Most of her fiction falls into the adventure genre.  Two novels cross the boundary into the realm of the fantastical – The Sorcerer’s Stone (1914) and The Terrible Island (1919).  The latter is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I love its sense of place: where else can one read contemporary accounts of the expat life in New Guinea, a hundred years ago?

Secondly, I love the set up, with probably the most useless MacGuffin in all fiction – a horde of supposed treasure that is effectively worthless (on account of the tiny geographical area and the very limited market in which it might be spent), located on ‘Ku-Ku’s Island,’ somewhere out beyond the Lusancays, and guarded by ‘pigeon devils’ that will blind any intruder. [Spoilers Ahead!]  In Scooby-Doo-like fashion, the supernatural element turns out to be grounded in reality, the blindness being caused not by infernal birds, but through consumption of the tasty looking fruits of the finger cherry (Rhodomyrtus sp.) that grow all over the island.

But best of all is the terrifying set piece that Grimshaw is able to establish, on foot of this scenario.  Shortly after her protagonists first set foot on the island, they blunder into a cave full of blinded and very jumpy pirates, who are also looking for the treasure and who are armed to the teeth with guns 😀  Satisfying chaos ensues.

Ten of the Best. #4: Pointillist School vs Police School

When Charles L. Harness burst onto the SF scene in 1953 with his novel Flight Into Yesterday (aka The Paradox Men), it was arguably the only thing that could stand comparison with Alfred Bester’s masterpiece of the same year, the winner of the first ever Hugo award – The Demolished Man.  Yet Harness stuck to the day job as a patent lawyer and did not deliver another novel until The Ring of Ritornel (1969), which together with Firebird (1981) comprised his three great odes to galactic cycles, underpinned by the theories contained in historian and philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee’s twelve volume A Study of History (1934-61).

Any number of Harness’s conceits could make it into my top ten.  I almost went for the forensic spider in Ritornel, that when fed the poison, constructs a web of its chemical structure. But topping that even, is the iconic scene in Harness’s novella The Rose (1966), in which the enigmatic artist Ruy Jacques helps fugitive psychiatrist Anna van Tuyl evade the authorities in the Park of the White Roses.

The impending crisis:

Out in the Via an ominous silence seemed to be gathering.  The Security men were probably roping off the area, certain of their quarry.

The set up:

He began to untie the bundled purple dress… …He tossed the gaudy garment at Anna, who accepted it in rebellious wonder.

The proposition:

The pointillists knew how to stimulate white with alternating dots of primary colours… …[They] could even make white from just two colours: a primary and its complementary colour.  Your green dress is our primary; Violet’s purple dress is our complementary… …daub them on the canvas side by side, stand back the right distance and they blend into white.  All you have to do is hold Vi’s dress at arm’s length… 

Ah yes but…

She demurred: ‘But the angle of visual interruption won’t be small enough to blend the colours into white, even if the police don’t come any nearer than the archway.  The eye sees two objects as one only when the visual angle between the two is less than sixty seconds of arc.’

Fortunately the artist relies more on the suggestibility of the mind than the mechanics of the retina, so that’s all right then.

…if our lean-jawed friends stared in your direction… …they’d see you as a woman in green holding out a mass of something purple.  But… …I’m going to stand over there, and the instant someone sticks his head through the archway I’m going to start walking… …normal people in western cultures absorb pictures left to right.  So our agent’s first glance will be towards you and then… …[He’ll] be distracted by the fountain in the centre. And before he can get back to you, I’ll start walking, and his eyes will have to come onto me...

Ruy heads off while Anna at first watches, then closes her eyes…

He was past the fountain… …Now he must stop…only he didn’t.  His steps actually hastened.  That meant…

I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat as I write this.  What pure, priceless SF gold.

 

 

 

 

Ten of the Best. #3: Hunting Squamp

If I re-read The Fourteenth Voyage today, I’m invariably humming along to Planet Claire by The B-52’s as I go: it seems a carbon copy of Enteropia, the planet upon which Ijon Tichy goes for a vacation after getting his rocket repaired, a third of the way through Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries.

Planet Claire has pink air
All the trees are red
No one ever dies there
No one has a head

Sing The B-52’s in my head.

ENTEROPIA, 6th planet of a double (red and blue) star in the Calf constellation.

Reads Tichy from the Hitchhiker’s Guide-like Cosmic Encyclopaedia he has borrowed from his old mucker, Prof. Tarantoga.

8 continents, 2 oceans, 167 active volcanoes, 1 torg (see TORG).  A 20-hr. day, warm climate, conditions for life favourable except during the whackers (see WHACKER).

Having arrived, Tichy decides to go hunting for squamp, one of the local big game, for which he is kitted out with relish seasoned with pepper and chives, a time bomb and a plentiful supply of laxative.  The idea is to coat oneself in the first, lurk in a likely spot until swallowed whole by said squamp, at which point one sets the second and uses the third to escape out the back, before the second goes off.

There’s nothing terribly subtle here, of course, and there are many other more refined Lemian inventions I could have put in my list; the science of Eruntics – teaching English to bacteria, or the Matrix-like horrors of the world of Doctor Diagoras, to name but two but Tichy out squamp hunting left my seventeen-year-old self tickled pink and opened my eyes just that little bit wider as to just how far SF could go.  It was one of the many things that I thanked the man himself for, when I visited his grave in Krakow’s Salwator cemetery, back in 2010.