Friday, September 14, 2012

Fantasy Of The Future

This illustration is the work of Virgil Finlay from Famous Fantastic Mysteries, August 1950; all rights to the holder.

Here’s a fun game. Let’s take a literary theme – fantasy fiction set in the far future – and follow a line of association and influence that has lasted more than a hundred years. While this is intended to give some of my friends who write inside genre fiction some avenues of exploration, if you get the feeling I’ve got a bug up my ass about the relationship between genre fiction and the larger culture, well. You can’t talk about anything without letting your perspective show. And don't ignore the links -- the earlier works are available for free on-line, so you can give them a taste if you're curious.

And rather than repeatedly qualifying statements of opinion, I state up-front that when I make judgments on the quality or nature of a work? Those would be opinions. And they would be based on my most recent reading of the work in question, and my positions on literature shift rapidly in response to my own writing, and I might actually have different feelings about everything by the time you’re reading this.


This branch of fantasy is distinguished by a sense of strangeness beyond that of fantasy based on folklore or its corporate derivatives – in some ways the imaginative effort required overlaps with that of science fiction. No wonder, considering how it started out.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells was first published in 1895. While Wells wrote the first works that have the shape and flavor of modern science fiction, they were written and published in a time when genre as we know it did not exist. The groundwork had been laid primarily by Edgar Allen Poe (I am so tempted to include The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in this list – it isn’t set in the future, but it shares much of the spirit of the works I discuss) and other newspaper writers, but Wells was a gifted, mature novelist with serious literary concerns.

This is the most readable book on this list, and in many ways the freshest and most modern. It was written for a general audience rather than people specifically seeking out fantasy. And the others affect an air of antiquity, deliberately and to pleasing effect, but requiring more specific tastes.

The pattern in most of Wells’ science fiction is to take one fantasy element – the ‘gimme’ – and then extrapolate logically and convincingly from there. In this case, an unnamed Traveller builds a machine that allows him to travel through time. (Glad to have nailed that down for you. The uncertainty you’ve suffered all these years must have been crippling.) He lands in a future where mankind has speciated in a fashion informed by Dickens’ social consciousness applied to Darwin’s principals of natural selection.

Semi-Spoiler Alert: So when the Traveler gets it on with Weena, is it bestiality or child abuse? I agree with the Morlock who said, “It’s in extremely poor taste to fuck them.”

Semi-Semi-Spoiler Alert: More puerile sniggers ahead, unfortunately.

While Wells was scientifically literate and employed his knowledge of evolution, geology, and astrology to The Time Machine, His brand of science fiction resides comfortably in the realm of fantasy. He used scientific thought and speculative games to give a modern gloss to the old form of the parable. His straightforward, purposeful storytelling is still lively, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

Illustration by Jason Van Hollander. All Rights to Holder.

At the end of The Time Machine, there are a series of tableaux showing the decay and end of life on Earth. There is a cold, distant, overwhelming pessimism to these scenes that left me shaken as a child. These scenes influenced William Hope Hodgson, first in the final sections of The House on the Borderland, and then the long novel The Night Land.

The Night Land is brutal, romantic, bleak, and above all visionary. And in many ways it’s the first modern fantasy novel. It shows the remnants of mankind dwindling in the night that follows the sun’s death. Monstrosity itself has fixed its eye on the survivors. Here and in the fiction of Algernon Blackwood lie the real roots of the Cthulhu mythos. If you crave visions of beings and places you have never seen before, you must read this book.

But it isn’t easy. It’s written in an affected archaic style that, like its framing sequence, seemed to influence the much-better-written The Worm Ouroboros. And it’s mainly focused on one of the most hilariously cringe-inducing romances in the history of literature.

The basic elements of the Harlequin/Boone & MIlls-style romance evolved fairly early in the primordial soup, and they are all on display here. While the reticence of the author and its times draw a discreet veil, it is pretty obvious that as the two lead characters make their way across the chill landscape, crossing from one volcanic pit to another, that they are obsessed with one another. This allows the reader the fun of figuring out where they are in their physical relationship at any given point in the story – “She’s giving him the tongue. She has to be giving him the tongue.”

The thing is, is that they have the kind of relationship that makes heterosexual monogamy seem like the kinkiest fucking thing in the universe. Her little shoes and his great manly chest and there’s even a part where he hits her because she places his needs ahead of hers. It did not say that when he hits her it feels like a kiss, but this is strongly implied.


So I can cringe and giggle through the boring romance crap, but you’ll have to find your own way of filling the gaps between Humped Men and giant slugs and that horrible Face.

It’s important to remember that for a long time, this was the first and only work of its kind. Back in the old days – which extended to my adulthood – there weren’t many real fantasy novels, and if you had a taste for this stuff, you read pretty much all of it. So while The Night Land seems eccentric and obscure now, any fantasy writer working before around 1960 at least tried reading the son of a bitch, and it influenced most of them to some degree. You can’t read the thing and not have your imaginary landscape enlarged…

Illustration by Jason Van Hollander. All Rights to Holder.

Zothique is a super-continent formed in the far future when all the continents have collided into a single landmass. Clarke Asthon Smith’s stories aren’t so much stories as prose poems, sensory impressions laden with just enough narrative to string them together like beads on a necklace. Rather than write series based on characters, he would write multiple stories in a setting such as Zothique, linked more by mood than by geographical details or shared characters.

And the mood of Zothique is decadent. It's worth hunting down the unexpurgated versions of these stories -- like asafetida, a touch of filth can be a fine seasoning.

Smith was originally known as a poet, and was celebrated in literary circles in the early part of the century. However, during the depression his parents fell ill and he turned to fiction to support them.

The first Zothique story, Empire of the Necromancers appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1932. It is interesting to reflect that the author in this essay with the clearest links to high literature would also be the first published in a genre market.

But despite Smith’s popularity – he was one of the four most popular writers ever appearing in Weird Tales, along with Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and “Number one in the day, where is he now?” Seabury Quinn – he had difficulty getting a lot of his work published. His prose style is not so much purple as ultraviolet, he had a strong erotic component to his work, and as I said, he was not a big fan of narrative.

The stories of Zothique have the distinct hashish-and-absinthe flavor of a French decadent – Rimbaud LINK, Baudalaire – after a heavy dose of Burton’s Arabian Nights. They glisten, they gleam and in their hearts they are as delectably rotten as Stilton.

Painting by Brom for the Science Fiction Book Club edition of The Complete Dying Earth. All Rights to Holder.

Which is the opposite tone from that of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. While set under a dying red sun, these stories mingle their decadence with an oddly light, floral effect. While there is much slyness and cruelty, there are hints of innocence and romance here that are dear and sweet. These are fairy tales, complete in themselves. Beautifully written, like most Vance, these works represent escapism at its best.

The second Dying Earth series features the character Cugel the Clever in two books, The Eyes of the Overworld, and Cugel’s Saga, have an entirely different tone. Cugel is a dirty man in a dirty world, and fuck you all if you don’t like it. It is also some of the best humor in fantasy. If you ever thought Wodehouse might be improved by less morals and more monsters, then step aboard.

The tone of the Rhialto the Marvelous stories, with which Vance finished his tour of the Dying Earth, lies somewhere between. The exchanges of alliance and hostilities between a group of eccentric and semi-inept magicians, it is fluff. But it is delectable fluff.
Let me be honest. Collectively, these are among my favorite stories, period. I've been periodically re-reading them since early childhood, with growing pleasure. So there's that.

Painting by Don Maitz; All rights to holder.

In Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, there is a scene mentioning The Book of Gold, which lies on a library shelf. And if a child picks it up, they usually put it down. But if a child becomes ensnared by The Book of Gold, it falls into a state of servitude to the contents of the book that is both delightful and unnerving.

Wolfe has stated that The Book of Gold is actually Vance's The Dying Earth.

Now here’s something that I find fascinating. While Wolfe is the author in this list who is the most thoroughly ‘of’ genre – his works have been almost entirely published as genre material, he has studied with and taught genre writers, etc, etc – of the authors I discuss here, his work has the most in common with the current literary mainstream.

Wolfe first appeared in association with science fiction’s New Wave of the late sixties and early seventies. The New Wave brought the techniques of the modernists of the thirties and forties and applied them to genre-influenced material and themes, while also maintaining a strong connection to pop culture, especially music and the psychedelic influence. That said, Wolfe gives the impression of being anything but a hippy. Rather, he is a serious literary artist attempting to come to terms with the mixed influences of high and popular culture.

The Book of the New Sun, composed of The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and Citadel of the Autarch, has a reflective, introspective quality, along with a genuine interest in character and mature, graceful prose. Rather than trying to amp up the excitement in the pulp style, this presents its events as regular old events in people’s lives. It also has the speculative thought games that are the real delight of science fiction. In these qualities, it was a conscious model for my own novel. On the other hand, despite being the story of an orphan boy who becomes king, the overall effect is a tad flat in the modernist manner. You nod your head – ‘yeah, life’s like that’ – but you don’t feel as if you actually got anywhere. But who cares when the trip is so nice?

And there we go. If there's any interest in more of this kind of thing, let me know -- I've got loads of this stored in my backbrain.