Sunday, March 5, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 4

Title: "The Tilting Island"
Author: Thomas J. Vivian and  Grena J. Bennett
Published in: Everybody's Magazine September 1909

Category: Catastrophes

Summary: A reporter and a professor traverse Manhattan during the island's destruction by a massive earthquake event.

Unlikely coincidence: A Geology professor who has made a fifteen-year study of Manhattan and the fault lines under it being on a streetcar at the scene of the first fissure.

Protagonists: "[A] stout, Teutonic gentleman - Heinrich Herman" and "Jimmie Dalton, Harlem Departments man for the Chronicle". Presumably both white male.

Casual racism?: Ethnic stereotypes abound; Irish cops speak with a thick brogue; a crowd is described as "A great Hun, charging... Russian and Pole and Italian tumbled after". Nothing pernicious, but a bit insensitive to modern ears. Oddly, though the story begins in Harlem, no black characters make appearance.

The Science: The 125th Street Fault, a real geological feature of Manhattan Island, which is thought to have been responsible for several small earthquakes in the recorded history of New York. The specific result of a major shift in the fault line described in the story - the tilting of the entire island into the sea - is highly speculative.

Reader's notes: This story provides the most compelling picture of humanity in the book so far;  even the minor characters seem to have sort of inner life or backstory. The protagonists make a nice odd-couple/buddy team, and although they take no direct action to affect the course of the catastrophe, they do have a strong connection to the eventual outcome and experience significant agency in their travel down the island from Harlem to Union Square.

In that aspect, the story is somewhat structurally similar to The Thames Valley Catastrophe, but unlike my experience reading that story, I was quite familiar with the geography and could easily make sense of the journey. Although the author made no admonition to do so, I once again made a map if the characters' route through the fires and chaos of tilting Manhattan:

The place names have changed just a bit, but the path was easy to plot; the characters take some detours at West 57th Street that I did not record, partly for ease and partly because the authors were a bit unclear or erroneous in that section. It was fun to move through The City again.

Grade: A-. With a little more personal conflict, this would make a nice TV movie.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 3

Title: "A Corner in Lightning"
Author: George Griffith
Published in: Pearson's Magazine March 1898

Category: Catastrophes

Summary: To get even richer, a wealthy businessman implements a scheme to control all electricity on Earth, with disastrous consequences.

Protagonist: White male, about thirty, who is "one of the richest men in London", with a wife and child.

The Science: Electric fluid, a real idea, now discounted. Early researchers into electricity (such as Benjamin Franklin) posited the existence of this substance, which made possible all discernible electrical phenomena, both natural and artificial. Like aether and phlogiston, it doesn't really exist; in the story, it does.

Reader's notes: The casual capitalism that drives the story forward is telling: the scientist who verifies the theory abrogates any ethical responsibility for his participation and even the protagonist's wife thinks that the idea is 'wicked". (All she does is threaten to move to Australia for the duration of the experiment, but only makes it to Nice.) None of this sow the project down in the slightest. The story lacks strong conflict; as the ill-considered industrial adventurism interferes not only with telegraph and power transmission, but also with the weather and human health, the circumstances just happen to people, with no opportunity for response or action. While it is an interesting exercise in the origination of disaster, it lacks the interpersonal dynamics that give the disaster epics their life.

Grade: C. There is a Dramatic Irony in the comeuppance.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 2

Title: "The Doom of London"
Author: Robert Barr
Published in: The Idler November 1892

Category: Catastrophes

Summary: A London office worker struggles to survive a lethal fog with the aid of an American inventor's new device.

Protagonist: White male "confidential clerk to the house of Fulton, Brixton, & Co".

The Science: Killer fog, a real thing. One killed 4,000 Londoners in 1952. Liquid oxygen breathing apparatus, another real thing. Current models for people with respiratory problems last on the order of 10 hours; the one in the story works even better.

Reader's notes: Not a very good story. Once again written from the perspective of the protagonist's old age as he recalls the even of many years before,  but there's no sense of engagement or investments. The eight-page story has seven section headings and much of it reads like a textbook rather than a narrative, especially but not exclusively when providing the scientific exposition. The protagonist succeeds more because of luck than wit or will.

Grade: D+. The plus comes from a passing evocation of Cratchit or Bartleby in the office scenes that was diverting in its juxtaposition.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 1

Title: "The Thames Valley Catastrophe"
Author: Grant Allen
Published in: The Strand Magazine December1897

Category: Catastrophes (duh)

Summary: A Londoner on a cycling vacation races home to secure the safety of his family as a huge basalt lava flow from a "fissure-eruption" fills the Thames River Valley, devastating villages and threatening the British capital.

Protagonist: White male "Government servant of the second grade" with a wife and two children.

The Science: Fissure eruptions, a real thing that occurs in Iceland and Hawaii. This one is much larger than those in human memory, though not as large as some speculated (in the story) to have occurred in America. (Because everything is big in America.)

Unlikely Coincidence: The protagonist (and the reader) learning about fissure eruptions from a chance meeting with a vacationing geologist the night before one occurs.

Nice touch: The story's conceit is that it is a personal eyewitness narrative appended to the official "Blue Book" report on the catastrophe some years after it happened.

Reader's notes: Most of the story comprises an extended chase scene through the English countryside, hero versus lava, and in order to make sense of it and understand the urgency, the reader really needs to be familiar with the place names and the geography. In fact, the narrator at one point advises parenthetically to "follow my route on a good map of the period". So I did.

The blue line from Cookham to Hampstead via Stoke Poges, Uxbridge, and Harrow shows the route the hero cycles; these villages are in the hills that form the northern lip of the Thames Valley.  The lava follows the floor of the river valley itself, from Cookham to Maidenhead, Slough, and beyond, roughly along the same route of the M4 highway. It is by keeping to the hills that the hero survives to write his addendum, while the people in the valley villages perish. What gives the story an especial chill is that the disaster is not discernible from the hills and the protagonist cannot dissuade people from heading into the valley and placing themselves in harm's way. Spooky stuff -- if you have the geography in your head.

The protagonist covers the 30 odd miles in 90 minutes - not a bad rate for hilly terrain!

Grade: a solid B

Monday, February 20, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Preview Episode

So, in a recent post on Epicurus in Exile, I mentioned rediscovering the book Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines, 1891-1911, edited and with an Introduction by Sam Moskowitz. It is my intention to not only re-read the book, hoping to recapture at least some of the excitement of my youth, but to share a quick "book report" on each of its 26 marvelous tales with you.

First, some background, not on my relationship to the book (which can be found in the cited post) but on the book itself and the editor.

Sam Moskowitz was a member of the ur-fandom of science fiction, serving in 1939 as the first chairman of what has since become Worldcon, home of the Hugo awards. Over the years, he became a professional and edited dozens of  SF anthologies - many of which I am sure I read as a youth - and even penned a few short stories himself. He was a noted (and relentless) chronicler and historian of science fiction, with several books on the subject to his credit, and was respected for factual accuracy and completeness if not always for nuance and judgment. Lord knows what Moskowitz would have done if he had lived in the age of the Internet.

His introduction supports the common response to Moskowitz's historiography: it comprises 35 pages of excruciating details of the business history, publishing dates, editorial staff, featured writers, and significant publication of those periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic that attempted at the turn of the last century to carve out a niche between the "better" magazines (at 25 cents per) and the penny dreadfuls (which were actually usually a nickel).

It was fascinating to learn that there were magazines like The Strand that sought to serve a slightly better-educated middle class reader, and that in addition to providing a home for the likes of Sherlock Holmes, these magazines also midwifed the science fiction genre. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, and Conan Doyle himself were among the throngs of writers presenting stories of invention and speculation in these periodicals, and the burgeoning of the field is perhaps as exciting to learn about as it must have been to witness. Of course, Moskowitz's completist nature also requires us to learn that when the March 1899 issue of The Strand was published in the U.S., a six-page non-fiction piece on the British Parliament was replaced by a short naval story called "The Loading of the Convoy",  and that The Idler printed its text in a single column that ran across the whole page. Sometimes his reporting of history is little bit too detailed, and reading it can feel like trying to find the wheat among bushels of chaff.

Moskowitz's editing is a bit more deft than his history. The stories are dividing into categories such as Medical Miracles, Marvelous Inventions, Future War - even Man-Eating Plants gets its own section, as it was a pretty darn popular sub-genre back in the day.

So put on your smoking jacket and get comfortable: starting with the next episode of SFG, we'll dive into the stories themselves, beginning with the Catastrophes section and a story with the rather unambiguous title The Thames Valley Catastrophe.

We'll keep the gas lamp lit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Happy crew

So, it's a little hard to be silly and trivial these days, what with impending totalitarianism and all that after the rise of Donny, but let's give it a go.

Wonder Wife and I stopped at the local Value Village last night, and as usual I checked out the bagged toys looking for D&D minis (as if I needed any more). I didn't find any, but I did find a bag that I thought would be good for a $3 diorama (remember those?) because it appeared to hold both Marvel and DC characters (and I could re-create JLAvengers or something). However, it instead contained an extensive collection of what appear to be slightly off-model DC character figures that were 2011 Mickey D happy meal prizes; some of them are pretty off-beat, as we shall see:


Nothing odd here, you'd expect to see him in any collection. This looks a lot like the Michael Keaton batsuit, so that's a little odd.


Here's another Batman in different suit, but it doesn't look like one of the specialty suits, for underwater or space or something. It just looks like the classic suit, but with mis-colored gloves, trunks, and boots. Need a little QC here, folks.


Batman needs a foe, I guess. Too bad they couldn't punch the flash out of the question-mark staff - it sort of just looks like a shovel.


This collection predates the CW show, and this is more the classic look anyway. But boy he's awfully beefy.


What kid wouldn't want to play with the embodiment of the Wrath of God?


This is kinda cool, what with his translucent legs and hair and power... blob... thingy, but it's so off-model I'm really just guessing.

Black Manta

Aquaman isn't here, but one of his arch-enemies is... with a strangely flattened head. And bendy arms?


I'm totally guessing here. But this Green Lantern villain is the only comic book character I know that could/might wear a baseball glove and a goalie's pad at the same time.

Y'know, now that I think about, these must have been issued during the run of the Batman - The Brave and The Bold cartoon on TV - that show was know for its stocky, square-jawed character designs and for its eclectic cast of guest stars drawn from all over DC comics. That makes sense.

Anyhow, that's what was in the bag, along with one other prize I might share separately. 

Just don't ask me why these guys are all posing in front of a pink castle. That's another story.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Comics Return to Maui

So, I recently learned some Hawaii factoids: there are nine comics shops on Oahu, three on the Big Island, and just one on Maui. That shop used to be Compleat Comics, which I visited in its temporary digs in 2007 shortly before it closed for good. But after almost ten years of no comic shop on the island, a new Maui institution has arisen in its place:   

Maui Comics and Collectibles fills a small storefront in the same open-air mall that the Compleat Comics stall was in; I spent some time there on the way back to the Kahalui Airport at the end of my recent trip.

The storefront is a bit unassuming  - it's difficult to see the posters and such because the windows are tinted.

(If you were to print out this panorama and wrap it into a ring, you could get a VR scene of the store: essentially one small room that effectively maximizes the display space. )

The space is very welcoming despite its size: Maui Comics is one of the most fun shops I have been in. It has a large selection of new titles and a surprisingly extensive range of back issues. My particular interest lay in the local Hawaiian comics scene - I had read some articles about good homegrown stuff coming out of the islands. I had a great conversation with the young man running the shop, who filled me in on the latest news, recommended a few titles, and commiserated with me that back issues were not available because of the short print runs. I wound up taking home issue #3 of 'Aumakua and issue #1 of Native Sons (about which more in a future post).

And this is perhaps the most appealing aspect of Maui Comics: it's clear from the staff and the time they spend with the customers, from the store itself, and from its social media presence that Maui Comics exists not just make money or even fill a niche, but to promote and foster the love of comics on the island.

The in-store materials reflect this, with a mixture of standard industry posters and pieces by and about local artists on the walls:

The store was also the impetus behind Maui's first-ever Comic Con - which I missed by about eight weeks!

All in all, I can't say enough good things about Maui Comics and Collectibles. If you make a trip to the island, be sure to include a stop here on your itinerary. It's well worth it.

Oh, and there's this: I visited Maui Comics and Collectibles two years to the day after I made my visit to see Mike Sterling at Sterling Silver Comics in California. How comic-bookally coincidental!