Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Little-Known “Classics” of Science Fiction

When we think of classics we think of the famous, but there is in any era a huge body of stories and novels which had their day and are now remembered by few. Some, perhaps most, have something to recommend them, and it can be an interesting experience to look back with modern eyes on the storytelling of previous generations.

This should be a “Recently Read” feature, but the antiquity of the material deserves special consideration.

Back in “the day” Ace had a marvellous format for mass produced SF, their ”doubles” series. They published, in a variety of formats, 261 volumes between 1952 and 1973, the device for 221 of them being that the novels had a separate cover back and front and the text read from the outside to the middle for each, the books being opposite ways up. We have just eight volumes in our home library and I read them as a youngster, so it comes as a walk down memory lane to reread one. I can’t remember what prompted me to pull a volume off the shelf but I at once found myself reading a 1964 outing for one of the talents of the era.

The late Arthur Bertram Chandler (1912-1984) was one of my favourite SF writers as a child. He was a British-Australian sea captain who wrote some forty novels and numerous short stories, and I must admit on coming to research his career, I have read only a smattering of his work, contained almost entirely in the old Ace editions. His style was a frank one, full of the daring-do of the day, men were real men, women real women and – you know the rest of the line from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. He had interesting ideas carried off with a kind of real-world appeal, which, like so many writers of half a century ago, strove to express the future through invention and technological progress rather than any evolution of the human condition. His spacemen of centuries hence read much like the rugged merchant marine officers of, well, the 1950s.

I read The Coils of Time, one of his stand-alone novels, published in the Ace M-series in 1964. A quick read, I’d guess around 40, 000 words, the sort of paperback one would pick up at the station bookshop to while away the commute morning and evening for a week, and next Monday flip the book over and read the other. It was a great idea, really, and it certainly moved a lot of novels by a lot of names which are graven in the history of SF – Murray Leinster, Leigh Bracket, Damon Knight, Jack Vance, John Brunner, Edmund Hamilton, Kenneth Bulmer, Fred Saberhagen, Samuel R Delany, and that’s just a sampling… It’s a who’s who of SF in the early Sixties, and as such the collection deserves respect.

So, from the perspective of 52 years on, how does it fare? Well, beyond a certain naivety in the telling, it fares quite well on a number of points. The novel is set on Venus, which alone should cause eyes to roll nowadays, but Chandler was clearly taking serious notice of the most up to date scientific information available as he had retired the fabulous visions of Venus as a sister world to Earth and got it right in a number of ways. He speaks of Venus being bereft of life but for viruses, the surface being dust-dry, stormy and utterly inhospitable, requiring armoured spacesuits for humans to venture outside their habitats, under a dim, yellowish overcast. With the exception of the 90-Earth atmospheres surface pressure, sulphuric acid clouds and temperature that would melt lead, he got it pretty much right. This is significant as it was four years before Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison released their famous anthology Farewell Fantastic Venus, a collection of stories and essays from 1932 onward speculating about the planet. The early view of it as hospitable had been done to death both by radio astronomy and data sent back from the Russian Venera series space probes: forever after, Venus would be as we have come to know it – a lifeless hell.

Check out the above collection here.

Chandler, however, manages to have his cake and eat it too. A time machine has been invented but instead of moving the subject forward or backward in linear time, it causes the subject to move “sideways” between parallel universes, and in that universe Venus is habitable, a traditional alien jungle filled with exotic and dangerous life, with the added benefit of being so unremittingly hot that nudity has become enshrined as customary behaviour. This was a mechanism for spicing up narratives in a still quite hidebound age, and provides for a Burroughsian bacchanale in the same narrative as machine guns and rocket ships.

Another interesting point concerns those rockets – in “our” universe rockets are long obsolete, having been replaced by a reactionless space drive, perhaps something along the line of control of gravity (though the EM drive being assessed over the last few years obviously comes to mind) while in the “other” universe rockets remain state of the art, in a very Fifties-ish way from the description.

The time machine itself is not terribly convincing, though working with gyroscopes and rotating moebius-bands evokes thoughts of the shearing EM fields postulated to pull open wormholes, and so impressively built for Carl Sagan’s Contact. Think of this one as the pocket-size version of the same idea, and in that much it has an actual grain of plausibility.

The meat of the novel is the adventure on the alternate Venus, in which our protagonist finds himself hiding out with a resistance group, hunted by a totalitarian state, desperately trying to convince others he has come from a parallel universe, and escape the fate of institutionalised torture at the hands of the interrogators. This all smacks of Nazi times even more so than the Cold War of the age, and this is fair – the war was only twenty years before and shaped the very world view of society. The hero who crosses the gulf of time and/or space to find and be reunited with a lost love is an established trope providing a motive for stepping into the machine, but the sexism of the age flows freely off the page to our 21st century sensibilities and one is conscious of compensating, translating situations into modern-speak, as it were.

Some other fantastical Venus-related stuff...

Chandler’s writing style is competent, but he employs the now-forbidden passive voice at times, while at others is repetitive in search of literary impact. Let’s say there is nothing challenging about it, and the narrative style would be very much what the commuter would seek for a half-hour’s distraction.

Pulpy? Yes, certainly – but it’s not necessarily a derogatary term. Honest storytelling? For sure. There were some great stories told in their day and many pleasurable hours of reading from the pulps, and I would place Chandler’s work in this vicinity, while acknowledging I have probably not read his best stuff yet. It’s exciting to think, over thirty years after he left us, I have his most important titles yet to sample.

Cheers, Mike Adamson

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