Monday, March 31, 2014

Dinos, and Spacehips, and Whales, Oh My

The very first adult novel I ever read recreationally (3rd grade, I think) qualifies as science fiction: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I’d already read the Classic Comics adaptation, and wanted to tackle the original. The book, though a bit tattered, is still on my shelf. Not far behind Doyle was HG Wells, a hardcover that included the novel War of the Worlds and several short stories. That particular book escaped my possession sometime during the ensuing decades, but more than a foot of my current shelf space contains more recent printings of Wells’ works. I didn’t catch Wells’ social commentary at age 8, of course, but that provided a new level of enjoyment on later re-reads.

As an aside, film versions of Wells usually miss his points, too, though I’m not sure if the oversights are deliberate. Of all the adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau, for example, only the first (Island of Lost Souls [1932], released when Wells was still alive) clearly makes his point that people, as well as the other creatures on the island, maintain a veneer of civilization only through violence to their animal natures and the imposition of arbitrary codes of ethics. Not one of the several adaptations of The Food of the Gods hints that Wells’ sympathies were with the giants – an unsubtle metaphor regarding masses of petty little people trying to cut down those few who have outgrown them. Neither film version of The Time Machine (though I like the first one) has anything to do with social class, as does the book. Perhaps the screenwriters felt the themes to be non-cinematic.

In any event, sci-fi has been a staple of my reading material ever since I picked up Doyle so long ago. Not exclusively by any means: on my bed table at this moment is Henry Kissinger’s On China, but right next to it is The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman. In my DVD player is disc 2 of The Ray Bradbury Theater collection. In every genre, trash outweighs treasure by many tons, but the best scifi is very good literature by any measure, often tackling themes about human nature (JG Ballard comes to mind) from which mainstream authors shy. Scifi still accounts only for 6% of all fiction sold, but lately has earned more cachet thanks to the success of books (and, perhaps more importantly, movies) such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

While the classic authors of scifi (most of whom were alive and at the top of their game) were very much among the companions of my youth through their books, there was one glaring omission: Alfred Bester. Not entirely. It’s hard to avoid Bester entirely: when working for DC comics, he authored the original Green Lantern Oath. But I hadn’t read his flagship novel from 1956 The Stars My Destination until this past weekend.

It was a surprise. The novel demands to be called trippy, even though it was published a decade before that adjective was in common use. More unexpected than just the stylistic oddities, however, is the very un-1950s anti-hero Gulliver (Gully) Foyle. One can’t help wondering if Bester created Foyle as a rebellion against the restrictions he faced in comics from the relentlessly moralistic Comic Book Code of the day, which forbad portraying villains as sympathetic characters.  Not that Foyle is sympathetic. He is reprehensible: a crude violent worthless murdering rapist nobody. He is motivated solely by his instinct for self-preservation and his quest for revenge against the crew of the spaceship that deliberately failed to stop and rescue him when he was the last survivor on a ship adrift in space. Even though by extraordinary luck he lives, he can’t get past his rage at having been left to die. As utterly horrible as the man is, the sheer fanaticism of his pursuit of a common man’s vengeance in a future world dominated by a commercial aristocracy becomes somehow fascinating. Nowadays we are less surprised by center stage villains – even Disney’s new version of Sleeping Beauty is titled Maleficent after the villain – but in 1956 this was a novelty.

Bester tacitly raises the point that the upside to obsession is the meaning it provides to a life that otherwise might be devoid of one. In Moby Dick, another novel I read well before I could understand it as more than an adventure/monster story, Ahab’s quest for vengeance on the white whale, however destructive, illumines his life. Without it he would be just another forgettable captain of a whaling ship. With it, he becomes a mythic figure. Khan, on the other hand, would have been better off forgetting it.

Trailer for The Lost World (1925)


  1. You make a good point about Wells and the movie adaptations of "The Time Machine". I was surprised when I finally got around to reading the novel (a few years ago) how much social commentary there was in it. I really enjoyed it, and I need to pick up more of his work. "Dr. Moreau" sounds like a good one.

    I've never ready Doyle's "Lost World" before, but my wife got me into his Holmes stories, which are a lot of fun. He really pulls you into the stories, and Holmes himself is an interesting character.

    I've been enjoying some pulpy Robert E. Howard stories lately. First time I've read his stories about the puritan adventurer, Solomon Kane. He's like a prototype for Batman, but with muskets and a rapier. His journeys to darkest Africa are a mix of high adventure and bold racism. But hell I read Lovecraft all the time, so I'm used to that. But at least Howard has some of the African characters actually help Kane and the forces of good. Lovecraft would have them remain evil to the end. :)

    1. There is hardly a trope of SF that Wells did not have a hand in establishing: invisibility,time travel, space travel, alien invasion, parallel dimensions, atomic war (in 1913), etc. Good stuff.

      Yes, racism is a disconcerting feature of much early-20th century pulp fiction. If only Howard (and others) had asked, "What would Conan do?".