To Pervert & Stultify

Did the capitalist running dogs really knee science fiction in the groin?

I’m sure you’re all grown weary of the cry that it’s all been done before so I won’t be surprised if none of you care to read past this sentence. I am, as you no doubt feared, going to assure you all that everything you dread encountering online; spam, trolls, scams, flame-wars have all been a blight on humanity long before there was an Internet for it to fester on. Heck, way back in the early 80s I even received a badly photocopied example of the Nigerian fraud letter in the post. Yes, it’s true, there was indeed a time when scam artists had to pay for a stamp in order to lure you with their too good to be true promises.

Which brings me to the topic du jour, the practise of denouncing science fiction. It seems to me that denouncing science fiction has been something of a popular blood sport in recent years. Not just the usual catalogue of disdain from outsiders declaiming that science fiction brings nothing of value to literature. The adherents of li-fi have always been a bit sniffy about other categories of genre fiction, genres such as spy-fi, sigh-fi, and Twi-fi, but sci-fi and its supposed obsession with talking squids in space especially raises their hackles. But don’t take my word for it, go read the As Others See Us sections in Dave Langford’s newszine, Ansible, if you really want to see what such people think.

However these days even some those within the fold have been getting snarky about whole sections of science fiction which they feel aren’t up to snuff. (For the record please note I’m not going to get any more specific than that. While I’m not without opinions I think that having one more person thrashing around in the big tub of lime jello controversy shouting, “Have at thee knaves!”, is, at the very least, redundant.)

Anyway, getting back to the topic of it all having been done before, would you be surprised like to learn that once upon a time the entire field of science fiction was denounced by the Soviet Union? Puts more recent kerfuffles into perspective, doesn’t it? After all, how many genres can say they were once condemned by a superpower?

It was in Fantasy Review VII #12, a fanzine published by Walter Gillings in December 1948/January 1949, that the condensed version of an article titled The World Of Nightmare Fantasies by Victor Bolkhovitinov and Vassilij Zakhartchenko was reprinted from the Soviet literary journal, Literaturnaya Gazyeta. Literaturnaya Gazyeta was a Russian newspaper with literary roots dating back to the 19th century. However in 1947, the format of Literaturnaya Gazeta was changed from a purely literary publication into a newspaper with political and social content as well.

This explains a lot because The World Of Nightmare Fantasies is an article about ‘capitalist science fiction’ so long on assertions and so very short on reasoned argument that it’s hard to imagine any literary journal, even one published in the Soviet Union, being willing to print it. On the other hand it’s exactly the sort of article I’ve seen published time and again in one political echo chamber or another. Such articles don’t need to prove any of their points when their base purpose is to confirm pre-existing prejudices.

However to be entirely fair I do need to point out that if the prose is somewhat clumsy at times then the translating and condensing of this article by unknown hands is the most likely reason. I would also blame various incorrect story titles on the quality of the translating (though why editor Gillings didn’t see fit to correct these is beyond me). For the record The Mysterious World by Eando Binder is actually Mystery World, The Secret of Mr. Wiesel by Eric Frank Russell story was actually Mr. Wisel’s Secret (later changed to Mr. Wisel for the short story collection, Dark Tides), and The Incredible Pebbles by Robert Moore Williams is actually The Incredible Slingshot Bombs. There’s also a story mentioned that’s not attributed to any author and neither I nor the incredibly knowledgeable Denny Lien have been able to divine who wrote The Lights of Mars since we can’t find any stories with this title predating the Soviet article. I can only assume that this has been mistranslated and thus who the author was is lost to the sands of time.

On the other hand I don’t think we can blame the excessive amount of invective on the anonymous translator(s). While I would assume that sentences such as, ‘The authors of these ‘scientific-fantastic’ works do everything to pervert and stultify their readers.’ read better in the original Russian version I doubt the level of hyperbole was any less absurd.

Then there is tin-ear use of language but here I don’t know who to blame. Part of me is certainly in love with the idea of a heavily bemedalled political commissar handing messrs Bolkhovitinov and Zakhartchenk a list of words and demanding that they use all of them when referring to the authors they would be criticising. However in the spirit of impartiality I have to accept that it’s entirely possible the anonymous translator(s) are to blame for some or all of the less than smooth word choices such as ‘miasma’, ‘hooligan’, ‘stultify’, and ‘ignoramuses’.

One last point, editor Gillings points out in a footnote that though this article was written in 1948 the stories discussed all date from some time previous to that. This made me wonder where the magazines had come from as I would assume wartime issues would be the least likely to make it to the Soviet Union given there was a war right in the way. My initial thought was that the authors of The World Of Nightmare Fantasies had based their research on magazines that had been taken to Europe by the US military during WWII and which had then somehow filtered through to the Soviet Union. However that only works for those named works which appeared in Astounding. Stories mentioned which were published by Amazing and Thrilling Wonder date from long before US troops set foot in Europe. For the record here’s a quick list of the named stories with their publishing origins. As you can see it also suggests Bolkhovitinov and Zakhartchenk were working from a rather small sample:

The Crystal Invaders – 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mystery World – 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mr. Wisel’s Secret – 1942 Amazing
The Incredible Slingshot Bombs – 1942 Amazing
Adam Link Saves the World – 1942 Amazing

Though Dreamers Die – 1944 Astounding
Renaissance – 1944 Astounding
Lilies of Life – 1945 Astounding
Destiny Times Three – 1945 Astounding

I’ve reproduced the entire condensed version of The World Of Nightmare Fantasies here so you might enjoy the authors attempt to crush various butterflies of fiction with their rhetorical sledgehammer.

And now for the fireworks:

The World Of Nightmare Fantasies
by Victor Bolkhovitinov &
Vassilij Zakhartchenko

The American Raymond F. Jones, experienced writer of “scientific” fantasies, attempts to lift the curtain of the future for the reader. He uses all his flaming imagination in describing a machine which analyses the inclinations , talents, character and other potentialities of a new-born infant. If it finds the child normal, it returns it to the arms of the waiting mother. If it finds a future “superman,” the mother will never see him again; he will be sent to a world “parallel” to ours where he will be raised without the help of parents. But woe to the baby the machine finds defective – it will be immediately destroyed. According to the “scientific” forecast of author Jones, a network of such machines will cover the world of the future.

This tale, monstrous in its openly fascistic tendency, appears in the American magazine Astounding, under the optimistic title of Renaissance. Jones’ fascist revelations are not an isolated instance in American science fiction literature. There are numerous such examples under the brightly colourful covers which enterprising publishers throw on the market in millions of copies. From their pages glares a fearful world, apparently conceived in the sick mind of an insane, a world of nightmare fantasies. Miasma, mental decay, fear of to-day and horror of the future: all these innumerable ills of capitalism are clearly reflected.

In their science fiction delirium, the authors reveal the innermost secret of capitalism. With shameless boldness they bring to the surface what serious literature still tries to present in a veiled form. The lackey of Wall Street, in the livery of a science fiction writer, first of all carries out the main order of his bosses: to persuade the reader of the invulnerability of the capitalist system. The wolf-pack laws, the so-called American Way Of Life, are represented as inevitable for all people on Earth, now and in the future.

No matter to what planet the author carries his heroes, he describes worlds constructed according to the American system. In The Mysterious World by Eando Binder, the bandit Yorin, following the trade of his Chicago colleagues, steals an interplanetary taxi, kidnaps the scientist Tom and the beautiful Della, and takes them to an unknown planet to look for hidden pirate treasure. In a story by Eric Frank Russell, The Secret of Mr. Wiesel, there is an ecstatic description of the adventures of a spy from Mars.

The American science-fantasy, in its unbridled racial propaganda, reaches heights which might have made Goebbels envious. The author of Lilies of Life, Malcolm Jameson, tries to impress on the reader that there is inequality on Venus and that there are inferior and superior races. With the revolting cynicism of a coloniser and a slave owner, he writes: ‘The natives of Venus are lazy, vicious and shameless. The native is a born liar and thief; he shuns work, is indifferent to physical pain and completely incapable of thought.’

The dollar, the gun and the fist function equally well on the most distant planets, even those in the dust of the galaxy. Obeying the order of the Wall Street owners, the writers glorify war as the basis of life and as the natural condition of the planet. In Destiny Times Three, Fritz Leiber Jr. describes a cruel, unending war between two nations who have swallowed all the rest. They are constantly goaded on by the thought that the war must be continued or all previous sacrifices will have been in vain. In The Lights of Mars the author foresees war not only on Earth but also on Mars.

To fortify the propaganda of the imperialist war machine, the ‘science’ fantasts of America unrestrainedly threaten with the atomic bomb monster. Robert Moore Williams in The Incredible Pebbles, describes a future atom bomb factory into which, having made a mysterious leap through time, there wander a moronic little boy with a slingshot. The little boy shoots atom bombs with his slingshot like pebbles. A hooligan with an atomic slingshot – isn’t this the true symbol of modern imperialism?

To distract the mind of the reader from ‘harmful’ thoughts on the origins of social evils, American publishers release a flood of horrifying tales with ‘other side’ themes such as telepathy, reincarnation and failure of memory. The authors of these ‘scientific-fantastic’ works do everything to pervert and stultify their readers. They foretell the total destruction of matter, which is replaced by a concentration of thought-energy. Throwing in a few mathematical theories, the ignoramuses of these American magazines arrive at a belief in the existence of other worlds in the fourth dimension. Thus, in a story by John and Dorothy de Courcy, there appears an immortal corpse out of a grave! In Joseph J. Millard’s The Crystal Invaders, the protagonists are bodiless creatures of ‘concentrated pure energy’ which by feeding on the nervous energy of people arouse in them emotions of fear and hatred.

In huge quantities appears the writing of literary fiends like Richard S. Shaver, consisting of a mixture of mysticism and sadism in the fascist style. In his novels Shaver constantly avers that all the troubles on Earth are caused by an incredibly ancient and learned super-race of Lemurians who once owned the Earth but who have been driven into deep underground caves with all their machines. They operate from these caves with special rays which inspire anti-social thoughts and actions and invite man to suicidal war.

The authors of this arch-reactionary and screamingly shameless mess cannot, however, hide their fear of the future which has seized the entire capitalistic world. Capitalism, which enslaves and exploits men, would much prefer that its factories were worked by uncomplaining automatons. So, to please their bosses, the writers bring forth a whole army of robots who push live workers out of the factories. Characteristic is a story by Eando Binder, Adam Link Saves the World. Adam Link is a robot with a platinum sponge brain superior to a human’s. In a war with monsters arrived from Sirius, he leads herds of bestial and merciless people. In Lester del Rey’s Though Dreamers Die, all humans die out, while on a faraway planet the robots survive and multiply.

In the contemporary bourgeois world, the fruits of the creativeness of inventors and scientists are turned into objects for speculation and robbery or the means of slavery and exploitation. Capitalism has chained inventors to its chariot by its patent laws and forces scientists to do things against humanity. The hero of the modern science fiction story is usually not a scientist but a business man or a gangster who utilises the fruits of other people’s labours. Science, in the opinion of the American business man, is above all else a means of enrichment, crime and tyranny.

Capitalism has no future. Time is working against it. Pessimism shows through all science fiction literature., in spite of a bravado on the part of the authors. The reader is presented with scenes of a world reverting to wilderness and of the destruction of civilisation. The revelations appearing in this delerium of unbridled fantasy, poorly concealed by the label of ‘science’, vividly betray the incurable disease of the capitalistic system. The hacks supplying the fantastic drivel feel this, and try to present the doom of capitalism as that of the world. But all their endeavours are in vain, their nauseating, evil ravings cannot fool the peoples of the world who believe in progress and the bright future of humanity.

Tales Too Good To Forget #3

So how do you feel about pebbles?

Susan Wood was a Canadian literary critic, professor, author, and science fiction fan who edited The Language of the Night, a collection of Ursula Le Guin essays which discuss various aspects of fantasy and science fiction. In her fanzine, Warm Champagne, Wood wrote about a 1977 seminar she attended along with a number of other science fiction types. I think you’ll be able to guess why I’m repeating the story here:

I have been back to Berkeley, where I delivered my paper, saw Ursula Le Guin, and had dinner with her, Elizabeth Lynn and Terry Carr. Also got to see Dignified Ursula (all of us sitting cross-legged in a Thai restaurant and little giddy after a day of Academic Serconity) using the skewer from her barbecued beef to flick grains of rice at Saintly Terry Carr. (You wondered what Pros do when they aren’t signing autographs?)

The nadir of the Sercon-Academic Stuff came when an earnest Jungian critic, the young man (she said patronizingly) who organized the seminar, tried to get Ursula to pin down the Meaningful Symbolism of her work. “Trees, you use a lot of trees. They seem to represent Good.”

“Well, yes,” said Ursula with her usual tact, “I do like trees, yes.”

“And rocks now, Rocks are Bad.”

Ursula, straight-faced, “Why, no. I never met a pebble I didn’t like.”

Academic, undeterred, asked her how she celebrated the Vernal Equinox; did she strip and dance on the lawn to the fertility goddesses, or what?

Ursula, still deadpan, left a meaningful, then replied, sweetly, “That’s none of your business.”

It’s a great little anecdote but I have to admit I have a hard time believing anybody would ask a question like the one Susan Wood claimed the academic asked Ursula Le Guin in regards to the Vernal Equinox. It feels to me like her account drifted from reality to whimsy at that point. Still, I could be utterly wrong, perhaps that’s how Jungian critics think. Perhaps we should be asking the tough questions of our authors? Questions like:

Do you think rocks are Bad?

Are you ever tempted to flick rice at your editor?

Do you dance naked on the Vernal Equinox?

If you do ask please report back. I’m sure we’re all desperate to know the general attitude of science fiction and fantasy authors towards rocks.

Ambrose Bierce Buries Jules Verne

The highest powers of imagination?

I imagine most of you reading Doctor Strangemind are familiar with Ambrose Bierce. At the very least you will know he wrote An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge as that is widely regarded as one of the most famous short stories in American literature.

You are perhaps even more familiar with Bierce’s longer work, The Devil’s Dictionary. Certainly just about everybody I’ve ever counted as a friend has been a fan of this satirical lexicon. Even people who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool cynics are often familiar with at least some of The Devil’s Dictionary.

It’s even possible that you are familiar with the story of how Ambrose Bierce disappeared without trace in Mexico, having last been seen in the city of Chihuahua in January 1914. Some have said this mysterious disappearance was a fitting end to a life that was as epic as any of the great stories Bierce wrote. I on the other hand prefer to believe that Ambrose Bierce took the opportunity while in Mexico to travel through time and reinvent himself as Philip K. Dick, but that’s just me and I wouldn’t trust me if I were you.

However what you are almost certainly unaware of is that well before Bierce entered Mexico and legend he was a columnist for Cosmo. Yes, that Cosmo, the thick and glossy fashion magazine you’ve seen on newspaper stands and in doctor’s waiting rooms more times than you can count. However Cosmo, or to give it its current proper name Cosmopolitan has been around longer than I bet you were aware. The Cosmopolitan was first published in 1886, which would make it one of, if not the oldest newsstand magazines in the world.

However, you need not fear that Beirce wrote the nineteenth century equivalent of those sex and fashion exposes that Cosmopolitan has been more recently known for. When The Cosmopolitan first appeared it was intended to be a ‘family magazine’, in other words a magazine which was suppose to entertain and educate the entire family (assuming the family was sufficiently well-off to afford the ten cent cover price).

The Cosmopolitan
                                                                Cosmopolitan Magazine, Vol. XL No. 2, December 1905

From what I’ve read of Beirce’s column, The Passing Show, I can’t help but feel he was hired to keep the curmudgeonly old man demographic happy. This isn’t a bad thing mind you, it’s rather entertaining to read his grumbling about trends and the swatting of malefactors with his cane of good practise. This became doubly entertaining for me when I discovered him straying into one of my favourite genres of fiction.

In Cosmopolitan Magazine, Vol. XL No. 2, December 1905 he reacted to what he considered to be a hagiographic response to the death of Jules Verne:

The death of Jules Verne several months ago is a continuing affliction, a sharper one than the illiterate can know, for they are spared many a fatiguing appreciation of his talent, suggested by the sad event. With few exceptions, these “appreciations,” as it is now the fashion of anthropolaters to call their devotional work, are devoid of knowledge, moderation and discrimination. They are all alike, too, in ascribing to their subject the highest powers of imagination and the profoundest scientific attainments. In respect of both these matters he was singularly deficient, but had in a notable degree that which enables one to make the most of such gifts and acquirements as one happens to have: a patient, painstaking diligence—what a man of genius has contemptuously, and not altogether fairly, called “mean industry.” Such as it was, Verne’s imagination obeyed him very well, performing the tasks set for it and never getting ahead of him—apres vous, monsieur. A most polite and considerate imagination, We are told with considerable iteration about his power of prophecy: in the “Nautilus,” for example, he foreshadows submarine navigation. Submarine navigation had for ages been a dream of inventors and writers; I dare say the Egyptians were familiar with it before they

“heard Cambyses sass
The tomb of Ozymandias.”

As well say that in “Rasselas” Doctor Johnson prophesied the modern flying machine, although one could remember Daedalus and Icarus if one would try. When Verne took his readers to the moon, he might have shown them, carved in the bark of a lunar sycamore, the name of Lucian, with the date—for Lucian was a cautious man–”Circa A.D.CLXXXVII.” Jules Verne was a lovable character and a good writer. The world, if no wiser, is better for his having lived and written; but to compare him with so tremendous a fellow as Mr. H. G. Wells is to stray into the beaten path of literary criticism and incur the plaudits of the respectable.

For the record I will note that Mr H.G. Wells was a regular contributor to The Cosmopolitan (and was indeed present in this very issue) so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Ambrose Bierce was was slightly biased towards somebody who was a valuable asset to his employer. I prefer to think however that Bierce was sufficiently independent in his attitudes that he wouldn’t write the above just to please an editor or the owner.

Besides which I have to agree with him in regards to Verne. I’ve only read a couple of books by Jules Verne but what I have read (Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) isn’t what I would call ambitious. To me neither of them were novels so much as catalogues of wonders with a little plot to hold these viewings together. Jules Verne is certainly interesting from a historical perspective but that doesn’t make his fiction especially memorable.

A harsh assessment of Verne perhaps but as Bierce’s words above demonstrate, there is no romance or glory in criticism, not if you want to be honest.

Brian Aldiss & the Worst Story Ever!!!

WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!

It is my impression that Brian Wilson Aldiss was generally considered to be a stern but fair elder statesman until he passed away in 2017. I, on the other hand, considered him to be far more curmudgeonly than that (he would never have a passable member of the Beach Boys for example). It also my opinion that Brian Aldiss adopted his curmudgeonly persona relatively early in his career. Oh, but Doctor Strangemind I hear you all cry, Brian Aldiss was never a curmudgeon, at least not until he was old enough to carry the title with a suitable level of gravitas! Ah ha, my poor innocent audience! You have fallen into my cunningly constructed audience trap and now while you lay squirming in the metaphorical mud at the bottom of the pit of unwarranted assumption I’ll just sit here on the lip above and tell you all about how in Australian Science Fiction Review #15 (published by John Bangsund in April 1968) that young curmudgeon, Brian Aldiss, did go so far as to accuse two fellow British authors of writing as he put it the, ‘WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!’ To quote from Aldiss himself:

There was one story in particular in Authentic which, ever since I read it on its first appearance in 1954, had impressed me as reaching a really impressive level of badness. To my great delight, I found on reading it again that it has grown even worse over the intervening fourteen years. I therefore would like to nominate as the worst sf story ever published:

The Lava Seas Tunnel, by F.G. Rayer and E.R. James, (Authentic SF, edited by H.J. Campbell, Vol.1, no.43, March 1954.)

Authentic SF V1 No.43 March 1954

Now before I unleash the savage beast that was Brian Wilson Aldiss I think it only fair I let F.G. Rayer and E.R. James put forward their side of the story. For the record, according to material published in Space Diversions, the fanzine of the Liverpool Science Fiction Society, F.G. Rayer and E.R. James were in fact cousins. Francis George Rayer and Ernest Rayer James, to give them their full names, had quite a few stories published in various British science fiction magazines during the fifties. My impression is that their work was used as filler material, inserted into gaps by editors such as Herbert J. Campbell (Authentic Science Fiction Monthly) and John Carnell (New Worlds Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, & Science Fiction Adventures) when nothing more impressive was to hand.

If I am correct then this would explain why F.G. Rayer felt that the science fiction being written in his day was not up to scratch and that much of the blame for this could be placed at the feet of editors. Consider this extract from an autobiographical article by Rayer in Space Diversions #6 (April/May 1953):

The present trend in S.F. has several admirable traits and several that are deplorable, Unfortunately a writer can do very little to influence such trends – the onus rests on editorial shoulders. If the editor does not like what the writer sends in, then he does not publish it. Accordingly the writer is usually committed to write, from time to time, stories which he deduces the editor will like. These are published. The others fill the W.P.B.

Well that’s as blunt a condemnation of the editorial fraternity as you are ever likely to encounter. A cynical person might also suspect this is an attempt by Rayer to divert potential future criticism away from what he knows to be weak stories. On the other hand he might be genuinely frustrated the refusal of Bert Campbell and John Carnell to buy what he, Rayer, considers to be his best material. Without more source material to hand it’s impossible to say one way or the other.

Okay, so what were the traits in science fiction that F.G. Rayer found so deplorable? I’m glad I asked. Again from the article in Space Diversions #6:

Deplorable traits, in my view, include:- women dragged into stories for the sake of the feminine or romantic interest; pictures of the later undressed yet unfrozen in space, etc; stories based on a series of “clever” incidents which do not really integrate.

I was disappointed when I read this as given his earlier comment I was expecting a more impressive list of complains than this. While I agree that illustrating partial nudity in space is never a good thing Rayer’s first point has to me a ‘No Girls Allowed’ vibe to it and not much else while his last is insufficiently explained for it to make much sense. On the other hand his list of positive traits paints a much clearer picture:

Admired traits are:- real originality, fully reasoned and logical development, scientific premises which will stand pondering upon, and lack of superficial emotion.

At this point in the article I began to wonder if Rayer wasn’t a scientific boy scout more in tune with the philosophy of Hugo Gernsback’s explaining science through fiction than where science fiction was actually heading at the time. A idea reinforced by the following:

These feelings, strong as they are, may have arisen from the large amount of work I do on electronic equipment; here, there is always a reason, although sometimes complex deduction is required to discover it.

That seems to sum up F.G. Rayer so what about E.R. James? Well in Space Diversions #7 (December 1953) there is an article by James called Don’t Shoot the Writer which begins thus:

He’s doing his best, and –

You’ll serve yourself and him much better if, instead of saying WHAT A ROTTEN EFFORT! you try to tell him where he has gone wrong from your point of view.

It takes a keen and knowledgeable mind to criticise constructively and with proper humility, for –

Criticism is a favourite occupation of mankind (and womankind.) But it is a two edged sword. If we say a story, a piece of music or even a meal dished up by an unfamiliar cook is no good, then we are expressing a relationship, not a truth. We are saying that we cannot digest the meal, the music or the story that has been prepared and, although it may be the author, the musician or the cook, it may also be merely a statement of our own limitations.

Eating fried snails, listening to symphony music and reading science-fiction are all acquired tastes. Even reading is not a natural ability (such as eating, seeing sleeping, etc.) For we had to learn first single letters, then words and finally abstract ideas which were behind those collections of words. So you see that reading, especially in respect to a single branch of reading, i.e. S-F., is almost – – though not quite – – as much a skill as writing the words to read.

E.R. James then spends a couple more pages expounding his ideas on what an author needs to do in order to write a good science fiction story. However I don’t think we need to go into that here and now for we have what we want. Certainly I do because to me these opening paragraphs read like an attempt by E.R. James to construct a Get Out Of Gaol Free card. You don’t like one of James’ stories, ah well reading science fiction requires special skills that perhaps you don’t have.

It’s especially telling that he starts off by assuming that the disgruntled reader will respond in a singularly inarticulate manner. It ensures your argument is easier to make if you can frame the opposing argument in as crude and clumsy terms as possible. Which is why the above extract from Don’t Shoot the Writer contains no hint that a reader might follow ‘What a rotten effort!’ with an unprompted and articulate explanation as to why they found the story rotten.

I think it’s also pretty clear that James makes rather strange use of the term ‘relationship’ because he actually means opinion but doesn’t want to come out and write that because it will likely be a red rag to a bull in regards to the audience of this article. What James is suggesting in this camouflaged manner is that any negative comment is merely an opinion and as such can be dismissed because opinions aren’t the same as facts. This is indeed true but what James is trying to hide is that a negative comment can contain both opinion and fact.

All in all F.G. Rayer and E.R. James come across to me like characters in a Simon and Garfunkel song:

We are but two sad boys,
Though our stories always sold.
We did trade our souls to editors,
The purveyors of deplorable, heed not their promises.
All lies and jests…
Still a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest.

And now at last we come to The Lava Seas Tunnel, featuring the combined writing talents of F.G. Rayer and E.R. James. So perhaps you would like to know what this story, sorry ‘WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!’ is about. So, a plot summary is clearly in order.

The Lava Seas Tunnel opens in the cockpit of some sort of boring machine. We learn that it’s commanded by a Steve Martel who is nervous about the forthcoming operation due to a previous accident. Martel shares the cockpit with an unnamed communications officer with whom he is annoyed because the fellow arrived late. Below, in the nose of the machine is an observation officer named Hedgersley and the engine room is crewed by somebody called McGilligan. What then follows is:

They begin boring.

The machine halts due to a fault in the thermostat.

After two & a half hours work this is fixed and they begin again.

They bore for hours but then the machine breaks down again due to a blocked nozzle.

Martel and the communications officer are knocked out by the sudden stop but Martel recovers and pulls the communications officer to safety and in the process discovers it’s his son, Dave, in disguise. Martel is annoyed that Dave has snuck aboard but there is little he can do about it now.

Anyway after sixteen hours work the blocked nozzle is fixed and Martel decrees a six hour break before they begin boring again.

Martel discovers McGilligan has exited the machine and it busy digging diamonds as big as eggs out of the tunnel wall. There is a confrontation, McGilligan produces a gun and locks the rest of the crew in the store room and makes his escape with the diamonds in a life-balloon.

It’s during this confrontation and subsequent incarceration that we learn that the Earth has run short of coal and oil and needs to tap into lava deep inside the planet in order to generate power. Nice to learn at last why we’re all here.

Once the remaining crew break out of the store room they discover McGilligan has smashed the instruments in the control room. An hour is required to repair everything sufficiently to begin boring once more.

Eventually they stop for a sleep break but Martel wakes up to discover he has been tied to his chair. Hedgersley then informs him that he works for a foreign country that wants to see this project fail. Hedgersley then escapes in the second life-balloon. Martel eventually escapes from his bindings just in time to discover Dave recovering from a blow to the head. He also discovers that Hedgersley has jammed the release mechanism of the one remaining life-balloon, trapping father and son forever.

The two of then make one last attempt to break through to the sea of lava the world so desperately needs access to. And they do! Success! But oh no, the borer is slipping down towards the molten sea where neither it or the remaining crew can survive. But fear not, Dave reveals that he also noticed the jammed release mechanism and repaired it. The two men scramble into the cabin of the life-balloon and float up the tunnel as the borer falls to its doom. Presumably they reach the surface and everyone receives their just deserts. The end.

So, Brian Wilson Aldiss, what’s your initial reaction to The Lava Seas Tunnel?

Anyone who has followed the careers of these two authors as closely as I have will know how exquisitely poor they can be alone; together, they are exquisitely bankrupt.

To be honest, Brian, I think exquisitely incomprehensible would be a better description. Almost nothing described in this story makes any sort sense. Consider the following account of how the boring machine works:

Turbines whined and flames glowed redly through the observation ports of indestructible mica. Below them, the rock made molten by the huge flame projectors was being sucked away. It would be ejected upon the walls of the boring, giant sprocket holes being formed in it as it solidified, so that the machine could wind itself back up to the Earth’s surface.

Okay, so two points I’d like to query about this astonishing process. First of all how is there an open tunnel behind the borer? Surely once the rock melted by those huge flame projectors is sucked back behind the machine it would solidify into the same amount of mass as it had before being melted? Secondly, just how are those giant sprocket holes being formed, hmm? You know, coming from somebody who claimed he wanted to see ‘scientific premises which will stand pondering upon’ this gibberish is especially embarrassing to F.G. Rayer. Don’t you agree, Brian?

This total blindness to any sort of technological probability extends to the equipment of the machine itself. The escape apparatus consists of three inflatable balloons, which are suppose to drift up the tunnel the boring machine has made! The machine is not refrigerated; it has “heat-batteries” instead. Nor is it equipped with an intercom; Hedgerley’s voice comes “over the reproducer”.

Yes, Brian, those life-balloons worried me too. At first glance the balloon idea is a potentially clever low-tech solution to the problem of how crew members might return to the surface in an emergency. However, as with all the technology mentioned in this story, there is no detail explaining how it works so I’m left high and dry. Given from what little the reader is told I’m guessing that the tunnel created by the borer is relatively smooth-walled (apart from those inexplicable sprocket holes that is) so in theory a balloon might float up the shaft unimpeded like a car in an elevator. By all rights however conditions outside the borer should be extremely hot so the balloon would need to be constructed of heat resistant material and filled with incombustible gas for it to be viable and we never learn if this is so.

You’re also probably right about the borer not being refrigerated but we can’t be absolutely certain of that because while the authors make it clear that the temperature inside the machine is being regulated they are once more singularly vague about how this is achieved. For example they do mention heat-batteries but give absolutely no indication of what heat-batteries do.

What actually worried me more is the inconsistent attitude of the authors to heat in general. Look at how they have McGilligan exit the machine in order to collect diamonds. By this point the borer was deep within the Earth’s crust and surely even back in the early fifties it was clear just how hot the inside of that tunnel would be. According to a video I watched recently about the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia the temperature in that shaft reaches about 180C/356F at 12,262 metres/7.6 miles. Inside the tunnel in this story the temperature would surely be at least that high, and that’s not taking account of the heat generated by the rock melted by those flame projectors mentioned earlier. It rather makes a mockery of the idea that the molten rock would cool enough to be used as the walls of the shaft, or that anybody could exit the borer without being cooked alive. Apparently the temperatures inside the shaft were determined by the author’s convenience rather anything approaching physics.

In regards to the internal phone system, Brian, I think your complaint is nitpicking given it’s initially described as an internal phone. I’m willing to accept that the device is also known both as a phone and a reproducer and is sometimes called the latter. For what it’s worth the reproducer was one of the less confusing devices mentioned since its purpose in quite clear, unlike the heat-batteries or the radar scanner.

Okay, so on to another of Brian’s major points:

For the assumption behind the story is that things are really desperate on Earth: all supplies of coal and oil have run out, and the only thing that will power Earth’s “enormous industrial machines” is lava. The authors literally have not heard of nuclear or hydro-electric or solar power.

If I was to be more generous than Brian I would assume this story was set on an alternative Earth where the power of the atom had not been discovered. However, even if I did the authors this favour the fact remains that the story is so bereft of context that I’ve no idea if it’s suppose to be set in our future or an alternate history. The authors included no details about the world outside of the borer, we never even learn who Martel and his crew work for or how the project is being funded. All we have are three surnames; Martel, McGilligan, Hedgersley, and one first name in Dave. I dare you to pinpoint their country of origin from those scant details. Given all this I can’t do them the favour of assuming they live in a world where nuclear power hasn’t been discovered.

Besides which, even if I did give the authors the benefit of the doubt in regards to nuclear power there still remains the vexed question of hydro-electric or solar power. Indeed I would go one further than Brian and mention the absence of wind, geothermal, and tidal power generation. How can it be that none of these things rate a mention in The Lava Seas Tunnel? One sentence gentlemen, one sentence was all that was needed to explain how the various renewable sources of power combined were nowhere near enough to keep Earth’s industry functioning. Add a second sentence and tell us how much cheaper lava power would be in the long run. We might not believe it but at least it would be possible to believe the pair of you have some understanding of how power is generated.

It would also help to explain why Hedgersley’s foreign employers were so keen to sabotage the boring project. Perhaps then these unnamed foreigners could be worried that this project would allow the unnamed backers of the boring project to hold the world to ransom and become Earth’s stern and unforgiving masters. Doing that would have given the story a little of the colour it so desperately needs.

Anything else, Brian?

The authors’ reluctance to come to grips with anything that might be termed a fact means that they do not tell us at the beginning that this is a four-man boring machine. This, coupled with their haziness of characterization, causes difficulty for the reader. It seems as though the machine is swarming with crew – ratings maybe, since the only people mentioned are officers.

Well, Brian, while I didn’t find the number of crew members confusing as you apparently did I still think you hit the nail on the head with your point about the authors not wanting to come to grip with facts. If The Lava Seas Tunnel can be said to have any defining characteristic it’s an air of purposeful vagueness. No attempt is made to ensure anything in this story seems real which guarantees there is no sense of consequence. It doesn’t matter what happens to any of the characters because they aren’t people and it doesn’t matter what happens to the world because it doesn’t exist.

Was Brian Wilson Aldiss right to label this as the ‘WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!’? I can’t say because there is a lot of competition for that dubious honour. However, given the comments quoted at the beginning of this article, I would nominate F.G. Rayer and E.R. James as the most delusional science fiction authors ever.

And that’s saying something!

Jack Vance & Fawlty Towers

The road to hell is paved with good intentions lazily executed.

Fawlty Towers is possibly as close to perfect a TV sitcom as has ever been produced. Even so there are aspects of the show open to debate. For example there is the claim that Manuel, the Spanish waiter, is the most sympathetic of the regular characters. I could not disagree with this claim more. To me there is only one character truly deserving of sympathy on Fawlty Towers and that is Basil Fawlty.

To judge by various comments I’ve encountered sympathy for Manuel seems to be largely based on the idea that because he is at the bottom of the pecking order Manuel is therefore the most vulnerable character and thus most deserving of sympathy. This is very attractive logic because it requires no great mental effort to reach such a conclusion. It certainly requires a blinkered approach but this is part of the appeal, the blinkered approach ensures that the effort of a cross-examination need not be attempted. The Manuel sympathiser need never consider the ease with which hospitality staff, even those with Manuel’s grasp of English, can change jobs (and don’t try to tell me otherwise, after 16 years in hospitality I know how employable even the incompetent are), the Manuel sympathiser need never consider the fact Manuel makes no serious effort to improve and is every bit as hopeless in the last episode as in the first.

Unlike Manuel, hotel owner Basil Fawlty cannot easily escape from the web he is mired in. He cannot simply walk out without leaving behind most, if not all, of everything he has worked years to build. Even if he steeled himself to do just this I doubt his wife would let him entirely escape. Sybil Fawlty comes across to me as a character who needs somebody to bully and mistreat. Even if Basil didn’t return to the hotel I imagine she would insist on torturing him from afar because that’s just who that character is.

So Basil is stuck there, trying to do his best. I don’t claim he’s very good at it but at least he’s trying, which is more than can be said for either Sybil or Manuel, each of whom continually frustrates Basil by their unwillingness to make any real effort.

I like to think of Fawlty Towers as being a reinterpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit. In this version though the three main characters are running a hotel rather than being locked inside of a room. Also in this version the torments of hell are mostly visited upon Basil as the one trapped in the middle. On one side Sybil avoids making any real effort, choosing to nag and bully Basil instead, while on the other side Manuel uses his lack of comprehension as a shield to minimise his own workload. (The harder it is to get a member of staff working the less they will be asked to do. Amazingly on more than one occasion I’ve seen some form of this tactic; pretending incomprehension, excessive slowness, or just plain hiding, work like a charm.)

By this point I imagine you’re wondering to yourself what any of this has to do with the fantastic. Well fair enough, (though if you’re honest with yourself you’ll admit you’re fascinated by this entirely unexpected take on a classic sitcom.) The fact is the sort of scenario I’ve described in Fawlty Towers is common enough in everyday life, where even the most accomplished and highly regarded amongst us are capable of putting others into the unenviable position of Basil Fawlty.

For example in Skyhook #16, published by Redd Boggs in the winter of 1952/53, there is a letter by Jack Vance in which he responds to part of a William Atheling Jr article which appeared in the preceding issue. Unfortunately because I don’t have a copy of Skyhook #15 to hand so I can’t quote the offending comments but I assume Vance didn’t misrepresent what was written about his work since neither Atheling or Boggs remonstrated with Vance in response to the following:

‘A few remarks on Mr Atheling’s article, which was read with wry amusement: (1) Big Planet was suggested, not by Beowulf, not by the Odyssey, but by a short story by the author of Beau Geste, whose name temporarily escapes me – Percival Wren, something like that. A dozen men desert the Foreign Legion; only one survives to reach Tangier. Big Planet naturally evolved considerably from this human-depletion idea; and in its original form – 82,000 – it had an entirely different slant from the one it ended up with. Written originally two or three years ago, it is not, as Mr Atheling assumes, a sample of my latest work. In fact, many of Mr Atheling’s assumptions and inductions do not completely hit the mark. For instance: (2) A person who, reading a collection of short stories while firmly convinced he is reading a novel, cannot fail to put the book down with a trace of dissatisfaction. This is evidently what occurred when Mr Atheling read Dying Earth. I completely concur with his view that, as a novel, this collection of vaguely related short stories makes a “chaotic…shapeless” whole. I believe the notation on the cover, “A Novel by Jack Vance” misled Mr Atheling. (3) Mr Kuttner I esteem highly as a man, a gentleman, a fellow citizen of the U.S., a prolific and talented author, but I must minimise the degree to which his works have influenced my own. There have been, I must assert categorically, absolutely none.’

For the purpose of my argument the matter of what inspired the plot of Big Planet is a secondary matter though we can see that Atheling was already on shaky ground if he was attempting to second-guess an authors inspirations. Tempting as it is to make such pronouncements I suspect correctly tracing literary inspiration is about as easy as discovering the source of the Nile was for 19th century explorers.

The Dying EarthIt’s with Vance’s next point however that we encounter what surely his Basil Fawlty moment. I’m willing to bet the restrained sarcasm Vance employed in order to agree with Atheling that the short stories contained in The Dying Earth collection made for a terrible novel is as nothing to how he felt when he first read Atheling’s complaint. As somebody who has read The Dying Earth collection, albeit many years ago, the thought that anybody could miss the assorted changes in plot, location, and characters is an astounding one. As the author of these assorted stories and thus more intimately involved with then than any reader could be the Atheling complaint was surely a source of intense frustration for Jack Vance. How do you deal with being told you have failed when the basis of the claim is as demonstrably wrong as this? There are things that should not need explanation, that are a chore, an undeserved burden to set right. If it had been me in Vance’s place the sheer frustration of Atheling’s comments would have had me curling up Basil Fawlty style.

And then, not content with the above Atheling apparently then went on to rub salt in the would by claiming Vance’s style was influenced by the work of Henry Kuttner. Given Vance had for years been plagued by a persistent rumour that he was nothing but pseudonym of Kuttner I imagine any claim that Kuttner was a major influence would annoy Vance. That such a claim came from the same person who had just mistaken a collection of short stories for a novel should be grounds for unbridled fury.

Under the circumstances I think Jack Vance handled the situation with impressive restraint. I know if it had been me the temptation to unleash an Ellison-like diatribe would be hard to resist.

For the record in Skyhook #16 is another William Atheling article in which he responds to Anthony Boucher pointing out that The Dying Earth was a collection with the following:

‘Mr Boucher is right about the Vance “novel,” technically….’

There is no reaction from William Atheling in regards to Vance’s own letter but perhaps it arrive too late for Redd Boggs to make Atheling aware of its contents before Skyhook #16 was published (it should be remembered that communication was just that little bit more cumbersome back before easy access to the sort of technology we employ today). If Atheling did respond to Jack Vance’s comments it was probably in the form of a private letter.

If there is a conclusion to be had from this situation I think it’s best summed up by quoting Sergeant Phil Esterhaus from Hill Street Blues, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

P.S. It should be noted that William Atheling Jr was a pseudonym of the late James Blish. I didn’t mention this earlier because when Skyhook #16 was published this was still a well kept secret. I would also assume Blish either expunged or rewrote the Jack Vance section when preparing the Atheling material for book publication but as I don’t own either The Issue At Hand or More Issues At Hand I can’t confirm this.

P.P.S. Percival Christopher Wren was the author of Beau Geste.