All Tomorrows: “Fear is the mind-killer”

After a brief hiatus, David Forbes’ All Tomorrows column, your informal classroom on the glories of sci-fi’s Deviant Age, returns to Coilhouse. Welcome back, David!

Paul took a deep breath to still his trembling. “If I call out there’ll be servants on you in seconds and you’ll die.”

“Servants will not pass your mother who stands guard outside that door. Depend on it. Your mother survived this test. Now it’s your turn. Be honored. We seldom administer this to men-children.”

Curiosity reduced Paul’s fear to a manageable level. He heard truth in the old woman’s voice, no denying it. If his mother stood guard outside… if this were truly a test… And whatever it was, he knew himself caught in it, trapped by that hand at his neck: the gom jabbar. He recalled the response from the Litany against Fear as his mother had taught him out of the Bene Gesserit rite.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Chilton published car manuals. So it must have come as some surprise, 45 years ago, when, out of nowhere, they released a lengthy, phenomenally strange science fiction novel by a nearly unknown journalist. The man’s agent wasn’t even enthusiastic about the manuscript and it had seen rejection from every reputable sci-fi publishing house before squeaking into the pages of Analog.

Dune, read the imposing cover, with its evocatively psychedelic sand swirls and tiny white figures straining against an implied storm. The John Schoenherr art revealed little about the plot or themes inside, other than to convey a sense of struggle and desolation in an otherworldly place.

Opening it up, the reader was plunged into a story of universe-shaking drugs, dynastic backstabbing and heterodox mysticism sprinkled with a tumble of words (Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach, Sardaukargom jabbar) so strange as to constitute a second language. Whatever the sci-fi readers of the day might have expected, this was doubtlessly not it. By all rights, this unexpected book should have sunk beneath the proverbial sands, awaiting rediscovery in a friendlier artistic age.

Instead, after a somewhat tepid start, it proved a runaway best-seller, sweeping every award sci-fi had to offer. Dune would go on to define the rest of Herbert’s life and ripple into the surrounding culture with an impact that no one, including its author, could have foreseen.

In many ways Dune was the epic Omega to the Alpha of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; released about a decade before. It was sci-fi’s answer to fantasy’s magnum opus, and its only book that can rival Tolkien’s in terms of cultural influence. Herbert’s masterpiece proved tenaciously infectious, its tendrils stretching into all sorts of unexpected corners of the culture, with even its mantras showing up as warning or inspiration.

What is it about this ornate myth that keeps fascinating new generations, why has Dune outlasted its era with such influence?

BTC (Part Deux for David): Hey There, Fancy Pants

With apologies to any odontophobes reading, looks like you guys are getting two alveolarly stimulating BTCs in one day.

Our longtime friend and contributor David Forbes, who likes Ween, once said, “I’ve always found this song simultaneously cheerful, absurd and ominous. Perfect, in other words.” Yep. Very true, and very David. Hey there, fancy pants, happy birthday to you! Hope it’s faboo.

All Tomorrows: Sovereign Bleak

I always thought danger along the frontier was something that was a lot of fun; an exciting adventure, like in the three-D shows.” A wan smile touched her face for a moment. “Only it’s not, is it? It’s not the same at all, because when it’s real you can’t go home after the show is over.”

“No,” he said. “No, you can’t.”

Story goes like this: there’s an emergency ship en route to a plague-ridden planet, carrying essential medicine. The pilot finds a stowaway; a young girl, Marilyn, who just wants to see her brother.

The pilot now has a problem: he has enough fuel to get himself to the planet, but no one else. Interstellar law is clear: all stowaways are jettisoned immediately.

But space captains are heroic sorts. Whatever harsh decisions the author puts in their background to prove their grit, this is still a story. This time will be different. Marilyn is the perfect, plucky sidekick-in-training; surely the pilot can figure out some way to save both her and the planet’s populace.

No. There is no solution. She says her goodbyes and is ejected, with “a slight waver to the ship as the air gushed from the lock, a vibration to the wall as though something had bumped the outer door in passing, then there was nothing and the ship was dropping true and steady again.”

The above is from Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. When it came out in Astonishing Science Fiction in August, 1954, it shocked the hell out of the magazine’s readership, used to the last-minute triumph of human ingenuity.

Godwin’s classic was only the beginning. The ensuing decades would see American sci-fi delve into realms unthinkable to its forebears. Desperate to shake off the genre “urinal,” as Kurt Vonnegut so succinctly termed it, writers first ditched one of the key assumptions: that the hero will always save the day. Maturity, in this view, meant uncomfortable truths. Often, it meant unhappy endings, not just for the protagonists, but frequently the entire world.

This is a scattershot story of how the bleak tomorrow came to reign, and how it changed our visions of the future.

All Tomorrows: The Demolished Man

Coilhäusers, I’ll be in D.C. much of this week and will hopefully have a little free time. I’d love to meet some of you dear readers in person. Contact me at ampersandpilcrow [at] hotmail [dot] com.

DemolishedManCover copy

Reich tore out of Personnel and over to Sales-city. The same unpleasant information was waiting for him. Monarch Utilities & Resources was losing the gut-fight with the D’Courtney Cartel. There was no escaping the certainty of defeat. Reich knew his back was to the wall.

He returned to his own office and paced in a fury for five minutes. “It’s no use,” he muttered. “I know I’ll have to kill him. He won’t accept merger. Why should he? He’s licked me and he knows it. I’ll have to kill him and I need help. Peeper help.

It’s a story old as a thousand distinguished corpses in a thousand drawing rooms: murder.

Alfred Bester’s futuristic murder tale The Demolished Man won the first Hugo award in 1953. At the time, that may have come as something of a surprise, seeing as the novel isn’t an operatic space epic. But then, it’s no typical whodunit, either. Bester has set his story in a World of Tomorrow (!) where rockets can get you anywhere and telepaths have so suffused society, there hasn’t been a murder in over 70 years.

That’s not going to stop Ben Reich, though. Oh, no. The business mogul happens to be a wee bit of a sociopath, to put it mildly. He’s decided his similarly insane rival must be done away with. The novel opens with Reich plotting his crime and focuses not on whodunit, but on the mind-reading investigator Lincoln Powell’s cat-and-mouse game with Reich, as well as the unraveling of more complex reasons behind the crime.

Many, many once highly-regarded tales from sci-fi’s earlier eras haven’t held up well over time. But with this book, Bester took a quantum leap ahead of his. Building from pulp foundations, he stirred in a heaping helping of noir, innovative style, vicious humor and, for kicks, topped it all off with help from the gravitational pull of Sigmund Freud’s looming, dinosauric cigar. The resulting book was written a decade before sci-fi’s Deviant Age came roaring to life, but it’s deviant in all the best ways, and has only gotten better with age.

All Tomorrows: The Birthgrave

“To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman.”

So begins Tanith Lee’s 1975 novel The Birthgrave, her first. I stumbled upon it some years ago, yellowing long out of print in a bargain bin.

I usually try to avoid revisiting authors too much on All Tomorrows, and regular readers will remember that I sang Lee’s praises for The Silver Metal Lover. But lately this column has been tracing the lesser known paths of fantasy and epic. No discussion of epic during sci-fi-fanta-whatever’s Deviant Age would be complete without delving into The Birthgrave.

It is a Sword and Sorcery epic, thunderously bloody and sensual in a way that would make Robert E. Howard pant. Yet it is also a deeper story of character and identity: a feminist work of a piece with the questions sweeping through its time.

For Lee’s (at first) nameless heroine awakes with nothing but questions, as the eruption of a volcano shakes her from a seemingly endless sleep with memories of hidden power, tragedy and a bottomless sense of guilt.

Driven to find answers, she runs into Übermensch types who try to turn her into the women featured on the covers of your average Sword and Sorcery tale— slave, figurehead goddess, concubine — clinging open-mouthed to the leg of some buffed-up conqueror.

But this is not their story: it is hers. As she survives (or buries) them all, as Lee sucks the reader into the elusive quest for power over one’s own life, she makes sure you’ll never see a dread sorceress the same way again.

All Tomorrows: The Dying Earth

A reader is not supposed to be aware that someone’s written the story. He’s supposed to be completely immersed, submerged in the environment.
-Jack Vance

In 1955, The Lord of the Rings was published, and promptly changed fantasy forever. In its juggernaut status, the particular breed of epic it spawned often pushed aside, in the popular mind, any type of fantasy that came before.

Just what was that? Its rough-hewn predecessors took the form of hybrid stories rooted in fairy-tale, lurid history and the raw juices of pulp adventure. Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery romps are a perfect example — as are H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares, for that matter. While the characters here may be connected to grand events, this was a fantasy of short stories, not novels. Instead of a painstakingly described mythos, this thrived on brain-watering mysteries and jolt endings.

Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth hit the stands in 1950. A collection of six perfect, interlaced stories set in a time when Earth’s sun is sputtering out and no line remains between sorcery and science, it didn’t exactly produce the literary paradigm shift that Tolkien did, but it has had its pull. Gene Wolfe, Tanith Lee and numerous other authors were influenced by Vance. Gary Gygax also drew heavily from it when crafting the magic of the original Dungeons and Dragons.

I’d read about it often before finally tracking down a tattered paperback copy (it seems to come in no other form). The feeling I got when I finally immersed myself in its pages was that, growing up, these were the fairy tales I’d always wanted.

All Tomorrows: The Book of the New Sun

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.
-From The Shadow of the Torturer

Severian is a hero, cast with objects of great power (including a badass sword, natch) upon a path that will take him to great heights and strange places. He may even save his world. Cue swelling music.

But wait; Severian is a torturer. His world is Urth to its inhabitants. The moon is green, the sun old and dying. There are rumors that the great citadels of his ancient city once moved between the stars. What, then, are the angels and holy relics that fill the land?

Such is the setup of Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, a genre-bending four book epic equal parts philosophical treatise, rich allegory and Romantic odyssey.

Wolfe was one of the leading lights of sci-fi’s Deviant Age; that blazing era from 1965 to 1985 when no concept seemed out of bounds. As with Tanith Lee, he did so much brilliant work throughout that time (and after) that any number would be excellent topics for their own column.

The Book of the New Sun comes at the end of that period, and in it Wolfe melds the shocking innovation of his earlier career with a deep undrerstanding the power of old tales well-told.

With multi-volume works, I usually prefer to pick out the strongest entry. Here, I’ll make an exception. The entirety of Wolfe’s opus is so damn good that I found myself unable to choose a single part. It is, like the best epics, one tale. More on the Gothic adventure to end all Gothic adventures, below.

All Tomorrows: The Changed Man

“Dread is that tension, that waiting the comes when you know there is something to fear but you have not yet identified what it is. The fear that comes when you first realize that your spouse should have been home an hour ago; when you hear a strange sound in the baby’s bedroom; when you realize that a window you are sure you closed is now open, the curtains billowing, and you’re alone in the house.”
-Orson Scott Card, from the Introduction to The Changed Man.

People change.

Once upon a time there was a talented young writer who explored death, horror and the future with uncommon vision. He had a rare talent for the fast-moving plot, the unexpected twist and the exploration of deeper philosophical themes, all in the same space.

People change, and not always for the better. In recent years, Orson Scott Card, who made his fame with brilliant works like Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, has turned his attention towards advocating for one loathsome cause after another. Dogma and fear have gotten the better of his creative talents. If you want evidence, read Empire. Hell, Warner Brothers has the rights, so it may soon be coming to a theater near you.

While Card may now deride much of the “New Morality and the Pill” era, his earlier work is very much of a piece with the glories of science fiction’s Deviant Age. In this edition of All Tomorrows, I’ll focus on The Changed Man, a slim volume released under that title in 1992 that happens to be contain the strongest single collection of Card’s early work that I’ve found (if you want the entirety of his short stories, including some other gems, get the massive Maps in a Mirror).

This column is less about the collection itself than some of the tales contained within. It’s about gems like “Eumenides in the Fourth floor lavatory,” “Fat Farm,” “Closing the Timelid” and “Prior Restraint.” Dread and the bubbling of the nasty subconscious are a theme, and these stories stand as a reminder of the writer Card was, and could have been.

All Tomorrows: Parable of the Sower

All creeds spring from catastrophe.

The late Octavia Butler, as keen an explorer of the human soul as ever trod a future-scape, understood that far better than most. In plain, well-turned prose she charted the bonds that hold (or fail to hold) us together through time, space and tragedy.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this search is her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower (also: read Kindred, trust me). The tale is framed as the journals of Lauren Olamino, a woman who might one day be revered as a prophet or messiah. For now though, she’s just a terrified teen in the middle of an apocalypse, praying for survival.

Dystopian fiction, along with its post-apocalyptic sister, is a popular genre these days, and with the fractious times we live in it’s not hard to see why. Since I’ve begun writing this column, I’ve had more than one reader comment how energizing rebelling against a dystopia would be or how freeing it would be to “see it all burn down.” The recently departed J.G. Ballard was right when he noted that “The suburbs dream of violence… they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”

In Parable Butler strips any bit of glamour away right out of the gate: dystopian times are mostly death, fear and desperation (ask anyone who’s ever lived through a warzone). But while she topples down one dream, she gives the reader a wondrous and utterly rare thing in novels of a dark tomorrow: hope.

All Tomorrows: Antibodies

Go ahead. Read it. Just don’t send me your psychiatric bills.
-from the Analog review of Antibodies

Welcome back, dear Coilhaüsers, to All Tomorrows. This time we’re going a bit outside of our usual Deviant Era range to take a deep, long (yeah, you’ll never forgive me) look at David J. Skal’s 1988 novel Antibodies. A little later than the usual works, yes, but if anything gets captures the guts of Deviant Era’s transgressive glories, it’s this pitch-black wallow on the wrong side of Transhumanism.

Skal, mostly a horror historian, wrote only a handful of science fiction novels, and this was the last. It’s not hard to see why. Antibodies is a horror tale in future clothing: a detailed examination of how nasty it gets when humans try to permanently scrap flesh for metal, and how easily believing plebs are still led to the slaughter by their puppet-masters.

I’ve recommended a lot of disturbing books in this column and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon, but I will warn you right now: Antibodies is not for everyone. It is a deeply disturbing, brutally unsparing book. The anonymous reviewer from Analog wasn’t fucking around. This is a tale with no mercy and no illusions. You’ve been warned.