Archives for category: Ultrafiction — F & SF
Drunkard’s Walk (1960), by Frederik Pohl.

Spoilers & speculation:

A mathematics teacher keeps trying to kill himself in this somewhat satirical novel set in 2166 A.D. Why? The big reveal comes in the final chapters, where we learn that telepathic immortals are behind his suicides, because he and his kind are too close to them genetically. They fear competition. Being found out. So fearful are they that they unleash a worldwide plague to kill off much of humanity.

October 1969 edition, p. 138.

So I wonder: when our civilization develops truly successful life-extension methods, the political ramifications will necessarily become enormous. To fend off demographics-based chaos, the new immortals will seek to severely cut down the size of the global population, probably with a series of plagues . . . and rigged inoculations.

How will we know when the big advances in longevity research had’ve been achieved? When we witness a series of designer diseases with designer drugs developed in tandem.

Has the crucial advance in longevity research been achieved? Yes: it has already happened. SARS-CoV-2.

The novel lacks something, though it is very well-written, the first half reading more like a satire of academic life than an sf novel. But one reads science fiction at least partially to make one think. A thumb’s up.


While Eye in the Sky is often hailed as Philip K. Dick’s first successful original novel to be published in his lifetime, I find it a bit clunky, a little rough around the edges — a contrivance.

I’m reading, again — after four decades! — his The Man Who Japed, written the same year, 1955. And this is much better constructed, not “clunky” at all. It is an original work, from the title to the imagined future to the plot to the characterizations. Arguably this is his first real success among those published during his waking, breathing life.

I’ve hedged here, twice mentioning the books of Dick’s published while he was alive — and for good reason: early on, he was trying to succeed as a non-genre novelist, but his “realistic fiction” was completely orthogonal to the warp and woof of the age, and all of his “mainstream” novels were rejected until he proved himself a success in science fiction. And then the only one of these early works to be published before he died, Confessions of a Crap Artist, saw print in 1975. I read it in the mid-80s and disliked it, but another of these early novels, Puttering About in a Small Land, came out a few years after his death, and I read it and thought it first-rate at the time. Alas, I now have no memory of it.

The Man Who Japed was one of the very first of PKD’s novels I read, soon after Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and The Man in the High Castle (1962). I knew nothing about it going in; I just liked the title.

In his first two decades of writing, Dick wrote to keep the wolf from the door. He took amphetamines to enable him to achieve a 60-pages-per-day output. As a consequence, his writing is very uneven, prose and character and plotting. The Man Who Japed stands out among those early works, and shows a writer finding his way.

Here are two early passages. The first helps explain the title, the second builds the social world a century hence, a world Dick explicitly drew to dissuade critics and fans and enemies from thinking he was a leftist — for he based the “highly moral” future America on the totalitarian social controls of pre-Cultural Revolutionary Red China.

Dick was an instinctive individualist. His political thought was thoroughly anti-totalitarian, as can be seen over and over again in his best work, not least being the great paranoiac novel Radio Free Albemuth (1976; 1985). In The Man Who Japed, a contractor-propagandist beheads and defaces the statue of the fascist leader of the future, and does not know why — for he suffers from a kind of amnesia. A blockage of memory. His discovery of his own motive is the reader’s discovery of a key to liberation: mocking the trite and destructive memes of oppression.


I don’t think John Carter is a bad movie. Some people do. Aspects of it are ingenious — its adaptation from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original seems quite clever to me. Even the frame story was brilliantly handled, and that almost never happens.

But the movie was perhaps too long.

Now, the original novel was . . . a bit of a mess. Not dramatically written. Filled with invention, it nevertheless somehow sags. Worse than the movie, in my opinion. I read it not too long ago, and gave it high marks at the time, but the unevenness of the novel lingers in memory more strongly than its high points.

Anyway, I hear it’s the tenth anniversary of the John Carter box-office flop. So we get the memorials, such as an interesting one in The Wrap, and an enthusiastic discussion on Gizmodo of the never-made sequel.

Of the original Burroughsiana, the best I’ve read are the Pellucidar novels. I just read At the Earth’s Core a few days ago, and am re-reading Pellucidar, the second in the series, right now (I first read it when I was about 13, I think): solid adventures that would be much easier to adapt for the film.

The interesting thing about reading Burroughs as a very old adult is that these are boys’ adventures, filled with aggression, fights, escape, slavery, escape, wandering, discovery, conflict, escape, etc etc. And I am not a boy. Still, the action keeps one going — that and the invention. I am more interested in the invention. The characterization is rudimentary.

The best thing about them is the thing most people regard as the worst thing: a strange hint of racism. Though Burroughs was a white supremacist — this is clearest in the Tarzan books — he gave other races their due. I mean, the ones he created, like the Tharks. The ruling race in At the Earth’s Core, though, are mini-pterodactyl-like creatures, the Mahars. They are genuinely creepy: a race consisting entirely of telepathic females who have engineered a breeding program to exclude males. This is a first-rate science-fictional concept, and our hero’s grisly dealings with this race makes the first book in the Pellucidar series interesting.

I didn’t find anything in A Princess of Mars nearly as interesting.

The problem with the title John Carter of Mars (which is what the movie was titled while in production) is that Mars movies tend to fail. It’s like a jinx: apparently the word in the title is a jinx. So Disney dropped the offending word and went with the witless title of John Carter, which gives prospective viewers no hint of the nature of the movie.

Could no one think of a better title? The movie was based on the 1912 novel, A Princess of Mars. Why not A Princess of the Red Planet? Too old-fashioned? If Mars had to be avoided at all cost, what else? A Princess of Barsoom, based on the Martians’ own name for their planet, is ridiculous, I admit. The MacGuffin of the movie adaptation, the “nine rays,” suggests a title: A Princess of the Ninth Ray, which, while not making perfect sense, is better than we have any right to expect. But, right as the princess in the movie discovers the truth about her ninth ray (skip ahead to 1:11), she also discovers the truth about the man she loves, and immediately proceeds to grant the movie the best title I can think of, from her own lips: John Carter of Earth.


Some fantasy literature near at hand, with sf at left: bedside reading.

It’s been said before: science fiction is a conjecture culture. Well, said before, if not in those precise words.

Science fiction is not science. It’s not often scientific even in spirit, for there is no experimentation, public testing, refutation, or even knowledge at the end of it! It is often little more than what cheerleaders are to sports: the rah-rah squad. But there is more to it. Science fiction writers look behind the obvious and offer up a wide series of alternative theories — conjectures — about reality, and then play with them in interesting ways (some more interesting than others), usually focusing on the human results, or on the transcendent.

As such, science fiction has what I think of as a generally salutary effect on the mind.

Except when it doesn’t, as in the case of the inspiration Paul Krugman’s took from Asimov’s Foundation series, to double down on his technocracy. That’s like taking the Bible as an excuse to kill witches or Jews.

And it shows the great danger of science fiction: scientism. That is the misuse of certain outward forms of science to replace religion and influence politics. It is often the worship of science as technique to make a better world — but actually making the world much worse.

Thankfully, this also is a central theme of science fiction: the opposition to scientism. It can be found in a wide diversity of dystopian nightmares and comedies and melodramas, the most obvious being Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and even in space opera, such as C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

So, science fiction can serve as the cure for the disease of which it is also, too often, the most obvious symptom.


Nelson Bond, a bookseller who specialized in the work of James Branch Cabell — and from whom I may have purchased a Cabell volume back in the 1980s or ’90s — was also a writer. In 2002, a few years before he died, Arkham House published a collection of his stories, The Far Side of Nowhere. I just read its first story, “Command Performance,” first published in a pulp in 1951.

It is a tale of madness and psychological treatment. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this science fiction story is that the science which provides the backbone of it is “dianetics.” Which is a technique developed by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who would build on it to make a religion, Scientology.

Dianetics is treated most matter-of-factly. There is no gosh-wow or super-science, and though the author insists that the technique is not hypnosis, it sure seems like hypnosis.

The story is no masterwork, but it has its charms. And it ends with a twist. A very pulpy, science-fiction-y twist. A twist with the word “twist” in it, for “The Twisted Ones” is a key concept.

It would make a good hour-long episode of The Twilight Zone.


I always think that life is like a fairytale. What should I do to come out from this assumption?

…as answered on Quora….

You could do worse. Fairy tales are folk horror stories so concisely told that usually their morals are fairly easy to discern. In fairy tales dangers abound. Magic is not the power of wish, but potency at great cost. Sometimes good triumphs, but only after a huge setback. Sometimes fairy stories are very sad. Even frightening.

Read the Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen, and Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian Folktales. I do not think you will come away from them with a need to purge them from your imagination, but with some wisdom you can apply their lessons to your life.

You will notice differences between them and your life. The dangers in the woods in the old European fairy tales can at best serve as metaphors for today’s dangers, and the malign and delusive magics in those stories need to be translated to somewhat more mundane if still quite potent dangers, such as fraud, ideology, and so much else of word work and imaging.

My favorite American writer is James Branch Cabell. In his The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck: A Comedy of Limitations (1915), Cabell synopsizes a sad little Hans Christian Andersen story and then tells a romance set in Virginia (or “Sil.”) in the early 20th century. There you will see a master take a fairy story and apply it to life. After reading that book, I trust you will see a way to transcend superficial “fairy tale” mentality, and grow beyond naïvety. And in “The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome” (it can be found in The Witch-Woman: A Trilogy about Her [1948] and elsewhere) you may conclude that a fairy-tale vision is in no way enviable, but also, perhaps, not evitable. The themes in fairy tales are the stuff of life.

If you “always think of life as a fairy tale,” my suggestion is: study fairy tales.

For what I think you really mean is that you tend to think of life as offering up temptations as the magic in fairy tales tempts those that encounter it. If you look at the literature of fairy tales, you will see that in story as in life the magic is not what it seems.

Hans Christian Andersen

The kick-ass female action “hero” was a novelty with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But after the millionth iteration, it is wearing thin, to say the least.

To say the most? It is a form of misogyny.

How so? It imputes to women the natural and traditional propensities and roles that men admire in men and aspire towards — and that women have desired in men and want men to be. So women are now routinely being judged by a standard that was naturally-cum-fancifully apt almost only for men. This functions as a performative repudiation of femininity, and a triumph of masculinity. It is a strange twist on “trans.” And for men to admire women chiefly for filling masculine roles strikes me as preciously close to the liking of women for being like men.

So, what men and women who assert the value of “female action heroes” (NOT heroines) are really doing is saying “no one really likes women”; that the feminine is disgusting or pitiable and that women, to be admired, should “be more like men” or, better yet, aspire to be “better than men” as understood by unrealistic standards once held by men for themselves.

Like so much of modern politics, and of course feminism, this strikes me as creepily misogynistic.

I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the citizenry is “decanted” not begotten naturally, and where “fatherhood” is a joke and “motherhood” a gross indecency. To the extent that the female superhero theme is not pornography (and that is the source of some of the attraction: watching lithe bodies contorting onscreen for our delectation) it’s a repudiation of the feminine telos.

Which strikes me as misogynistic.

Not hatefully misogynistic. It may not be borne of hate. It is borne of discomfort. Queasiness. Distaste. Discomfort with the natural, the animal reality of our species and our very mammalian success. Our civilization is imagining a new non-animalistic conception of life. It used to be the gods, now it is stefnal superheroes and the looming, all-too-real specter of cyborgian AI.

Decadence, for the most part. But hey: maybe the future is less Brave New World and more Day Million.* But I doubt it.

Of course, we have a choice of dystopias.

* “Day Million” is a terrific short story by Frederik Pohl, as well as a name of a short story collection.

J. Sheridan le Fanu’s short story “Dickon the Devil,” which can be found in the third volume of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2010), is a typical spook story of its period, the second half of the 19th century. It has scant drama, and is not dramatically told. The idea, I guess, was realism of presentation, to set the stage for the eldritch element — the indirect method.

The story first saw print in 1872. I cannot say I think much of this one, but
I will try others. Maybe I will even give the humungous novel included in the volume mentioned above, The House by the Churchyard, a go.

Reading Descent of Man (1979; 1987)

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s short stories, from the few I have read so far, are

  1. very good;
  2. often darkly comic; and
  3. close, perhaps kissing cousins, of genre science fiction.

My favorite of his, so far, is “Back in the Eocene,” a story about a father who tries to back up his son’s public school ‘education” about how bad “drugs” are, despite the fact that, “back in the Eocene,” that same father had taken and much enjoyed — and apparently not been harmed by — those now-demonized drugs.

That perspective, of times long gone still casting a shadow on the present, is effectively and humorously communicated by reference to the distant geologic past.

I read that story years ago. Tonight I read “Quetzálcoatl Lite” and “De Rerum Natura,” both to be found in his early collection, now seemingly Pleistocene past (if not Eocene), Descent of Man. The first is a sly tale of the collecting mania, in which a man vies with another, older collector, to find a rare beer can in the jungles of Central America. The second is a stranger tale of a genius inventor, one of whose inventions is a cat that lacks excretory functions. The title references Titus Lucretius Carus’s classic Epicurean poem (see George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets).

That second story could have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. While not standard genre fiction, F&SF regularly publishes material in the same vein.

I consider authors like Boyle and, say, Will Self, to be ultra-fiction writers, engaged in a literary emprise that exists alongside popular traditions of fantasy and science fiction. Both are quite good, no doubt. But I do not consider them light years beyond many who inhabit the genre industry.

It is only by convention and bigotry that they exist in literary worlds utterly apart.


N.B. “Back in the Eocene” and “De Rerum Natura” can be found in T.C. Boyle’s 1998 mega-collection, Stories.

I picked up a paperback in town yesterday, Weird Tales #3, edited by Lin Carter. As is my habit, when obtaining a new anthology, I immediately try one story. This time it’s the title story by Robert E. Howard & Gerald W. Page. Howard is known for his Conan tales, primarily, and this is not one of them. The narrator explains up front what is going on:

The conceit of a first-person account of a buried-in-deep-antiquity tale established, the story proceeds. It is simply and effectively written. And it goes on to advance a familiar idea, of a race of giants — ferocious quasi-human demigods or some such:

The extent to which this is familiar to today’s readers not through Sword & Sorcery fantasy tales, but from the speculations of “alternative archaeology,” is . . . interesting.

We are not far from Burroughsian territory, I guess, in terms of premise and conceit, but the prose is much more elegantly rugged and effectively paced.

As I have confessed before, this is a genre I have not read much. This is indeed my first reading of a Howard story. And, because the writing credit is shared with another, one could argue I still cannot mark the kill on my readerly coup stick.

I will give Howard another chance.

By Gorm.