Posts Tagged ‘Speculative Fiction’

I received a comment on the blog this morning from the SYLE Press, announcing their eBook release of John Christopher’s obscure novel, 1960’s The White Voyage, latest in their collection of vintage re-releases by this well-regarded-in-his-time sci-fi writer.

Christopher’s publishing era was the 1950s-60s-70s, and his work is absolutely typical of its time, but he displays an interesting line in dystopian conjecture which makes his work worth dipping into, if only to see how well matched our present world is to his imagined future.

Though The White Voyage is not one of John Christopher’s most well-known works – this claim must go to his young adult Tripods sequence, as well as his chilling and violent The Death of Grass – it’s an interesting example of this writer’s line of speculative fiction, and it’s free today and tomorrow on Kindle, for those so equipped.

Here’s the link:
http://johnchristopher.org/the-white-voyage-2/

white voyage john christopher syle press

Some years ago I wrote the following post on another of John Christopher’s adult-oriented novels, 1962’s The Long Winter, and I’m reposting this today for those interested in this somewhat gloomy genre.

*****

the long winter john christopherThe Long Winter by John Christopher (pseudonym of Samuel Youd) ~ 1962. Alternate British Title: The World in Winter. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Hardcover. First American edition. Library of Congress #: 62-12411. 253 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. This fifty-year-old post-apocalyptic novel was much more gripping than I had expected; the premise of a new ice age is chillingly depicted (pun intended). I thought this one was right up there with John Wyndham’s similarly themed works. I started it last night as a casual bedtime dip-into-and-check-it-out read, and I was quickly hooked and soldiered on until well after midnight to finish it, to my slightly groggy detriment today.

Good period piece and a fine example of the vintage speculative fiction genre, though with the expected true-to-the era misogynist attitudes and opinions. This would make an excellent film, in the right hands.

*****

Andrew Leedon rubbed his hands against the antique Victorian muff-heater Madeleine had given him. She had found it in an antique shop and presented it to him on his birthday, along with a supply of the small charcoal by which it was fueled. But even charcoal had become impossible to obtain, and its brief usefulness, after so many years, was almost at an end. He blew through the small holes on the side and watched the red glow brighten. A chair scraped and he turned his attention back to his fellow readers. He felt pity for them, but it was mixed with envy. The future was a current which soon, very soon now, must drag them down into the maelstrom; for the moment they bobbed like corks in this eddying backwater, but the deep tug of the undersurge was there and none would escape it. Yet they were indifferent. The red-eyed, gray-haired man across the aisle with his pile of volumes on King Arthur – he had always been there, in the same place, with the same books. When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library of for themselves. It was that he envied.

The main lights were off, conserving electricity. There were only the small reading lights, and, high up, the grayness that filtered in from outside. He thought of Africa; of sunshine, long beaches by a blue ocean, the green of trees and grass …

In the middle of the 20th Century a worldwide environmental catastrophe is occurring: the sun’s radiation is decreasing, and a new ice age is looming in the temperate zones. British television producer Andrew Leedon, happily married with a lovely wife and two young sons, catches a glimmer of the story as it first starts to break, but he, along with everyone else, pays little attention. Even if the predictions are correct, what would a degree or two difference in temperature really mean? Surely nothing to worry about; winters in England might even be more traditionally enjoyable again; skating on the Thames would make a pleasant Christmas diversion…

As the true impact of the swift and ever more severe solar cooling begins to be felt, Andrew’s marriage echoes the collapse of his planet’s future. His wife confesses that she has been continuously unfaithful since the first days of their marriage and is now leaving him for his good friend David Cartwell; as a consolation prize Andrew is thrown together with David’s discarded wife, the gentle Madeleine.

Those fortunate enough to have been able to plan ahead and liquidate their assets are moving towards the equatorial regions; Andrew’s now-estranged wife and sons leave for Nigeria without his initial knowledge. Stubbornly refusing to flee in his turn, Andrew is finally convinced to leave by Madeleine, and with David’s assistance the two obtain seats on one of the last air flights out of England. David himself remains behind, counting on his high position in the government to enable his escape if and when it becomes necessary. But for now he intends to stay and see England through this crisis to the best of his considerable ability.

In Africa, Andrew and Madeleine find themselves immersed in a society very different from that which they know. White-skinned Europeans and Britons are the new working class; their currency is worthless, their academic and professional qualifications ignored. Serving the ruling class Nigerians in the former British colony, the whites scrub toilets and wait tables and prostitute themselves to pick up enough money to eke out a precarious existence. Andrew and Madeleine settle into one of the worst of the slums, until a chance encounter with an African student whom Andrew had patronizingly but kindly treated to a dinner at his club back in the old days in London elevates him socially and professionally by making him a personal assistant.

This turn-about relationship leads to a morally challenging situation, when Andrew is asked to join a Nigerian military expedition force planned to explore England by Hovercraft, to assess the possibility of re-colonizing that now nearly abandoned territory under an African flag.

The first part of this post-apocalyptic tale is, in my opinion, the best-written, where Andrew struggles with the ethics and morality of his own behaviour in this unprecedented crisis, and keenly observes the reactions of those around him. As the novel progresses, and as the conditions in the frozen lands worsen, to martial law, brutal violence by the few elites with guns against the many without, and survival of the fittest by any means, including cannibalism, the story becomes much more intellectually shallow and far distant from the complex inner musings of the earlier days. To be fair, this might echo the increasing callousness of the strong as they jettison their finer feelings to ensure their own continued survival; ethics are a luxury no one can afford to indulge in any more.

The racial situation of blacks versus whites and their role reversals is cleverly presented; the tone remains “white” racially superior though, as the Africans ultimately are undone by their own “inborn” weaknesses, at least in the eyes of the staunchly patriotic Britons defending their frozen homeland.

This is indeed a very British book; the author assumes a strong familiarity with English landmarks and history, and knowledge of London neighbourhoods and architectural and physical features. The narration itself is very stiff-upper-lip, in the best stereotypical tradition.

I thought that Andrew lost some of his credibility as a character towards the latter part of the book; his continual fixation on his personal life while the world itself is crashing down around him strikes what seems to me an off-key note.

Or does it? How would you react? Would you focus ever more inward, or would you harden your soul to pursue sheer survival over sentiment?

The ending of this epic is left open and vaguely optimistic, but though we may speculate on Andrew’s future, we are not at all assured that he will even survive, let alone thrive, in the changed world he is struggling to adapt to.

*****

John Christopher was the pseudonym of the late (1922-2012) prolific sci fi and speculative fiction writer Samuel Youd. His best-known works are perhaps the teen/young adult “Tripod Trilogy” concerning an alien invasion of Earth: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968), and The Pool of Fire (1968). I read all three of these some years ago, and though I felt that they were often technically over-simplistic, they were emotionally gripping, thought-provoking and generally memorable.

This is an author worth investigating for the frequent excellence of his creative ideas and his sober examination of human emotional motivations, though his writing can be occasionally uneven, varying in quality even within the same book.

If you are a John Wyndham fan, you will find much to enjoy in John Christopher’s stories. In that case, recommended.

A note: The Long Winter was intended as an adult novel, even though this writer also wrote widely for teens.

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ellison wonderland signet 1974 harlan ellison 001Ellison Wonderland by Harlan Ellison ~ 1962. This edition: Signet, 1974. Paperback. 178 pages.

My rating: Collectively, I think maybe 7/10. The individual stories vary in their appeal. In general, I like the dark twisters better than the emotion-tugging ones. Perhaps I’ll stick some ratings on them below.

Tripping back in time to long ago teen reading days when I happily dabbled in science fiction, starting with Ray Bradbury’s fantastical Martian Chronicles – the entry level drug, as it were – and soon moving on to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and others of its ilk, and, finally, discovering the more than slightly twisted short stories of the ever-angry Harlan Ellison.

Rounding up potential reading for the Century of Books, I pulled this collection of early pulp shorts by Ellison from my son’s bookshelf. He (my son, not Ellison, of course) has taken over my collection of vintage sci-fi, and if I want to time travel the genre I need to make a special effort to go out to the cabin, stand on a rickety old kitchen chair and ascend to the top bunk bed (no ladder – my son and his friends being athletic and bounding types), and, kneeling gingerly amongst the flotsam and jetsam which finds its way to that mostly uninhabited space, go through the book shelves stacked high with a varied collection of  (forgive the lazy stereotype) “guy books” – loads of falling-apart World’s Best Sci-Fi collections, most of Heinlein’s output, John Steinbeck, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Nicholas Monsarrat, John le Carre, Ian Fleming, John Christopher, Bertrand R. Brinley, Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton – you get the drift.

Leafing through the dusty Harlan Ellison paperbacks, I waffled between Shatterday, Stalking the Nightmare, Gentleman Junkie, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream… and then I settled on this one, as rather less strident than some of the others. The 1974 reissue also has the bonus of introductory commentary by the author to each of the sixteen stories, always a fascinating addition to such collections, adding context to these otherwise rather innocuous “pulp mag” shorts.

When Harlan Ellison is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad… well, you know the rest of that little nursery rhyme tag. A few of these stories are highly memorable; the rest, maybe not so much. But still something of a must-read collection for the vintage speculative fiction/sci-fi buff.

  • Introduction: The Man on the Mushroom – 1974 – Ellison describes the events surrounding the first publication of this collection in 1962, and the utter financial and emotional destitution attendant upon his migration from Chicago to Hollywood, California, and the exceedingly welcome publisher’s cheque which validated his writerly ambitions.
  • Commuter’s Problem – 1957 – “Thing” was all I could call it, and it had a million tentacles. An ordinary guy living in modest suburbia is vaguely troubled by the not-quite-normal functioning (including the weird garden plant referred to in the first-sentence quote) of the household next door. And then one day the absent-minded morning commute goes on a stop too far. Much too far…  Spoiler: Earth is just a suburb. Good for a chuckle: 7/10
  • Do-It-Yourself – 1961 – Madge retina-printed her identity on the receipt, fished in her apron for a coin, and came up with a thirty-center. It’s amazing what one can purchase by mail order. Like a no-fail, do-it-yourself murder kit. Watch out, loutish husband Carl. (But maybe Carl reads the same back-of-the-magazine ads himself…) Brilliant. This sort of thing is why I keep Harlan on the shelf: 10/10
  • The Silver Corridor – 1956 – “We can’t be responsible for death or disfigurement, you know,” reminded the duelsmaster. Two opinionated academics take their elemental disagreement with each other to the next level, in a literal battle of the minds. Cleverly imagined: 10/10
  • All the Sounds of Fear – 1962 – “Give me some light!” The ultimate Method Actor goes too far. Interesting concept: 5/10
  • Gnomebody – 1956 – Did you ever feel your nose running and you wanted to wipe it, but you couldn’t? A teenage social misfit meets his magical counterpart. Nice twist at ending which I totally didn’t see coming: 7/10
  • The Sky is Burning – 1958 – They came flaming down out of a lemon sky, and the first day, ten thousand died. Intergalactic lemmings, with a bleak message for Earth. Brrr: 7/10
  • Mealtime – 1958 – While the ship Circe burned its way like some eternal Roman Candle  through the surrounding dark of forever… Homo superior? The crew of a far-roving Catalog Ship mapping the planets of unknown stars gets an unnerving comeuppance. This little story has a sting in its tail, but it felt a bit awkward in execution: 5/10
  • The Very Last Day of a Good Woman –  1958 – Finally, he knew the world was going to end. Arthur Fulbright knows the future, and doesn’t want to die a virgin. Multiple things going on here, rather darkly. Kind of icky: 5/10
  • Battlefield – 1958 – The first needle of the “day” came over Copernicus Sector at 0545…and seven seconds. Earthly conflicts are now fought out on the moon, with clinical accuracy of elimination of opponents. The combatants commute to and fro, sharing the same shuttles and getting together to socialize in their downtime, for “peace on Earth” is well-maintained. An eerie tale, all too chillingly possible, one feels: 10/10
  • Deal From the Bottom – 1960 – There was really quite a simple reason for Maxim Hirt’s presence in the death cell. A condemned man sells his soul to the devil for a reprieve. Too bad Maxim has always been a bungler… Okay, I laughed: 7/10
  • The Wind Beyond the Mountains – 1958 – Wummel saw the shining thing come down. The crew of a planetary exploration mission need to find a justification to keep their jobs from being cut. Maybe a live specimen from a strange small planet will help? This one didn’t quite get off the ground, in my opinion, though it had its moments: 4/10
  • Back to the Drawing Boards – 1958 – Perhaps it was inevitable, and perhaps it was only a natural result of the twisted eugenics that produced Leon Packett. Robotics expert Packett is screwed over by his employers. Revenge is inevitable. Beware compound interest! 7/10
  • Nothing for My Noon Meal – 1958 –  There was a patch of Fluhs growing out beyond the spikes, and I tried to cultivate them, and bring them around, but somehow they weren’t drawing enough, and they died off before they could mature. Marooned on a small, barren planet, with his wife’s body entombed in their broken spaceship, a lone man is succoured by oxygen-producing native plants. A chance at escape presents itself; can he bring himself to leave this place he once called Hell? Awkwardly poignant: 4/10
  • Hadj – 1956 – It had taken almost a year to elect Herber. The Masters of the Universe show up and order an envoy from Earth, but at the end of the long journey to the home world, a humiliating slap-down awaits. A four-page snippet of a story, saved from readerly dismissal by being wryly funny: 6/10
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away – 1956 – Sometimes I wish I were a duck, mused Hobert Krouse. Trapped in a dismal job, in a perpetually rain-drenched city, Hobert occasionally intones the childhood incantation, with generally successful results. But then one day it is “the other day”… and Hobert finds himself in a bit of a situation. We leave him surreally floating: 5/10
  • In Lonely Lands – 1958 – Pederson knew night was falling over Sytris Major; blind, still he knew that the Martian night had arrived; the harp crickets had come out. Coming to Mars to live out his few remaining years, Pederson at last finds a kindred spirit who eases his troubled soul. Flirting with the stickily sentimental here, Harlan. Not one of my favourites of this collection; too gosh-darn poignantly sweet: 4/10

 

 

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the long winter john christopherThe Long Winter by John Christopher (pseudonym of Samuel Youd) ~ 1962. Alternate British Title: The World in Winter. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Hardcover. First American edition. Library of Congress #: 62-12411. 253 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. This fifty-year-old post-apocalyptic novel was much more gripping than I had expected; the premise of a new ice age is chillingly depicted (pun intended). I thought this one was right up there with John Wyndham’s similarly themed works. I started it last night as a casual bedtime dip-into-and-check-it-out read, and I was quickly hooked and soldiered on until well after midnight to finish it, to my slightly groggy detriment today.

Good period piece and a fine example of the vintage speculative fiction genre, though with the expected true-to-the era misogynist attitudes and opinions. This would make an excellent film, in the right hands.

*****

Andrew Leedon rubbed his hands against the antique Victorian muff-heater Madeleine had given him. She had found it in an antique shop and presented it to him on his birthday, along with a supply of the small charcoal by which it was fueled. But even charcoal had become impossible to obtain, and its brief usefulness, after so many years, was almost at an end. He blew through the small holes on the side and watched the red glow brighten. A chair scraped and he turned his attention back to his fellow readers. He felt pity for them, but it was mixed with envy. The future was a current which soon, very soon now, must drag them down into the maelstrom; for the moment they bobbed like corks in this eddying backwater, but the deep tug of the undersurge was there and none would escape it. Yet they were indifferent. The red-eyed, gray-haired man across the aisle with his pile of volumes on King Arthur – he had always been there, in the same place, with the same books. When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library of for themselves. It was that he envied.

The main lights were off, conserving electricity. There were only the small reading lights, and, high up, the grayness that filtered in from outside. He thought of Africa; of sunshine, long beaches by a blue ocean, the green of trees and grass …

In the middle of the 20th Century a worldwide environmental catastrophe is occurring: the sun’s radiation is decreasing, and a new ice age is looming in the temperate zones. British television producer Andrew Leedon, happily married with a lovely wife and two young sons, catches a glimmer of the story as it first starts to break, but he, along with everyone else, pays little attention. Even if the predictions are correct, what would a degree or two difference in temperature really mean? Surely nothing to worry about; winters in England might even be more traditionally enjoyable again; skating on the Thames would make a pleasant Christmas diversion…

As the true impact of the swift and ever more severe solar cooling begins to be felt, Andrew’s marriage echoes the collapse of his planet’s future. His wife confesses that she has been continuously unfaithful since the first days of their marriage and is now leaving him for his good friend David Cartwell; as a consolation prize Andrew is thrown together with David’s discarded wife, the gentle Madeleine.

Those fortunate enough to have been able to plan ahead and liquidate their assets are moving towards the equatorial regions; Andrew’s now-estranged wife and sons leave for Nigeria without his initial knowledge. Stubbornly refusing to flee in his turn, Andrew is finally convinced to leave by Madeleine, and with David’s assistance the two obtain seats on one of the last air flights out of England. David himself remains behind, counting on his high position in the government to enable his escape if and when it becomes necessary. But for now he intends to stay and see England through this crisis to the best of his considerable ability.

In Africa, Andrew and Madeleine find themselves immersed in a society very different from that which they know. White-skinned Europeans and Britons are the new working class; their currency is worthless, their academic and professional qualifications ignored. Serving the ruling class Nigerians in the former British colony, the whites scrub toilets and wait tables and prostitute themselves to pick up enough money to eke out a precarious existence. Andrew and Madeleine settle into one of the worst of the slums, until a chance encounter with an African student whom Andrew had patronizingly but kindly treated to a dinner at his club back in the old days in London elevates him socially and professionally by making him a personal assistant.

This turn-about relationship leads to a morally challenging situation, when Andrew is asked to join a Nigerian military expedition force planned to explore England by Hovercraft, to assess the possibility of re-colonizing that now nearly abandoned territory under an African flag.

The first part of this post-apocalyptic tale is, in my opinion, the best-written, where Andrew struggles with the ethics and morality of his own behaviour in this unprecedented crisis, and keenly observes the reactions of those around him. As the novel progresses, and as the conditions in the frozen lands worsen, to martial law, brutal violence by the few elites with guns against the many without, and survival of the fittest by any means, including cannibalism, the story becomes much more intellectually shallow and far distant from the complex inner musings of the earlier days. To be fair, this might echo the increasing callousness of the strong as they jettison their finer feelings to ensure their own continued survival; ethics are a luxury no one can afford to indulge in any more.

The racial situation of blacks versus whites and their role reversals is cleverly presented; the tone remains “white” racially superior though, as the Africans ultimately are undone by their own “inborn” weaknesses, at least in the eyes of the staunchly patriotic Britons defending their frozen homeland.

This is indeed a very British book; the author assumes a strong familiarity with English landmarks and history, and knowledge of London neighbourhoods and architectural and physical features. The narration itself is very stiff-upper-lip, in the best stereotypical tradition.

I thought that Andrew lost some of his credibility as a character towards the latter part of the book; his continual fixation on his personal life while the world itself is crashing down around him strikes a false note.

Or does it? How would you react? Would you focus ever more inward, or would you harden your soul to pursue sheer survival over sentiment?

The ending of this epic is left open and vaguely optimistic, but though we may speculate on Andrew’s future, we are not at all assured that he will even survive, let alone thrive, in the changed world he is struggling to adapt to.

*****

John Christopher was the pseudonym of the late (1922-2012) prolific sci fi and speculative fiction writer Samuel Youd. His best-known works are perhaps the teen/young adult “Tripod Trilogy” concerning an alien invasion of Earth: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968), and The Pool of Fire (1968). I read all three of these some years ago, and though I felt that they were often technically over-simplistic, they were emotionally gripping, thought-provoking and generally memorable.

This is an author worth investigating for the frequent excellence of his creative ideas and his sober examination of human emotional motivations, though his writing can be occasionally uneven, varying in quality even within the same book.

If you are a John Wyndham fan, you will find much to enjoy in John Christopher’s stories. In that case, recommended.

A note: The Long Winter was intended as an adult novel, even though this writer also wrote widely for teens.

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