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.