Torque Control

Uyghur Folklore

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Uyghur Folklore & Legend, compiled by Abela Publishing, 2009. 
The Effendi and the Pregnant Pot, Uyghur Folktales from China, translated by Primerose Gigliesi and Robert C. Friend, New World Press, 1982. 

These books both contain collections of Uyghur folktales. Both have their limitations but it is very difficult to find translations of any speculative fiction from the Uyghur community in China. Some basic information about Uyghur history can be found in a few references in The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, 2015). These outline Uyghur origins in Central Asia, their role during the Mongol Empire and their current position in Xinjiang province, but that is all. I know very little about the culture of the Uyghurs, so I hoped to learn something about them from these books.

A young man will only go near his bride in the dark and leaves the house before she can see him by daylight. But this is not the story of Cupid and Psyche and the resolution owes more to the man’s cleverness than an ordeal undergone by the woman. 

A sheep and her lamb travel from a valley in Tibet to a high plateau for the summer grass. On the way, they meet a wolf, who wants to eat them both. The sheep persuades him to wait until they are on their way back down, when they will be much fatter. They return according to their promise but trick the wolf, with the help of a hare, who pretends to be on a mission from the Emperor of China to collect wolfskins.

These examples indicate the range of stories in the 2009 collection and their similarity to folktales from other cultures across the world. There are fifty-eight entries, although some are variants of the same basic tale. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, in that no information is provided about folk customs or legends in the sense of tales about specific places or figures from history. The names of storytellers are given and dates, ranging from the 1870s to the 1920s, so presumably these were oral tales, written down by folktale collectors during that period. However, we are given no information about who the collectors were, the circumstances of collecting or the basis of selection of these particular tales. No editor or translator is identified. The similarities between these tales and those from elsewhere may result from universal human responses, the influence of the collectors or from long-standing historical connections among the people who told the tales. No introduction could have disentangled those strands completely but background information could have helped the reader understand the context and the kind of community to which the stories belong. 

The stories do read as versions authentically collected from oral sources, rather than polished up for literary purposes. This can be seen from the gaps and flaws in some of them. In the first, a fox brings grass for a lamb to eat and is betrayed by a wolf, on whom she takes revenge. It looks as though the fox has taken over the role which ought to belong to a sheep, at least in the opening action. Some of the references are difficult to understand, without further information, especially the figure of the ‘pyhrqan,’ who appears in several tales. This is translated in a footnote as ‘monk’ but the stories suggest a being with supernatural powers. 

The narratives have the terse, direct strength of oral tales. The descriptions of settings are minimal but the background of sheep pastures and mountains evoke a landscape of open spaces and long journeys. A hare plays the trickster in several of the animal fables, reflecting the role of the hare as a significant mythological figure in many cultures, as discussed in Marianne Taylor’s The Way of the Hare (Bloomsbury, 2017). Other stories, set in villages or towns, provide glimpses of the daily life of ordinary people and their concerns, about family relationships, making a living and oppression by the powerful. They are set in what might be described as a timeless past, with a social and religious framework that appears to draw on more than one tradition.

Oppression of the workers by the powerful is the theme of the stories in the 1982 collection, which all feature Nasreddin, the Effendi of the title. As the translators explain in their introduction, he is a legendary figure widely known in traditions from Turkey, North Africa and Asia. They say that stories about him have spread from the Uyghur community to become popular throughout China. They are not themselves folklore collectors, so their versions of the tales are not directly taken from Uyghur oral tradition. Their translation is made from Chinese and was published in Beijing.

Visit to a Prison

One day the padishah took the effendi with him on a visit to the prison. “What crime did you commit?” the padishah asked the prisoners. 

“None!” yelled the men in unison. 

The padisha began questioning each by turn and, it seemed, there was only one guilty person among them.

“Protector of the Universe,” the effendi said to the padisha, “please order this man kicked out of here at once! How could he have gotten himself into this place? It is inadmissible that there are people like him in your prison!” 

The translators claim explicitly that the Nasreddin stories can help to create a new, socialist culture, because they highlight the abuses of rulers, together with the humour and wisdom of the poor. The sixty-five brief stories in their collection reflect these ideas accordingly. Like those in the 2009 collection, they are set in a timeless past but with a social structure more specifically focused on Moslem traditions. In most, the effendi gets the better of an important official, who attempts to insult or bully him. In one typical example, the padishah (the ruler) blames Nasreddin, who has accurately predicted the death of his prime minister. He threatens Nasreddin with death, unless he can say how long the padishah himself will live. The reply is that the padishah will live two days longer than Nasreddin, who is released as a result.

These stories are more polished than those in the 2009 collection and put more emphasis on urban life, although sheep and wolves do appear in several tales. They reflect one strand of the wider tradition about Nasreddin. However, he is a more complex figure than is expressed here, someone who can be stupid as well as clever and whose exploits are not always directed against the ruling classes. (His relationship to the traditional figure of the fool or jester is outlined in Enid Welsford’s The Fool, a social and literary history [Faber & Faber, 1935]). By reducing his ambiguity, this book flattens his character and reduces the implications of the stories to a single, basic message, although that is expressed with humour. 

Taken together, these two collections give an impression of one historical aspect of Uyghur culture, as it shares folk traditions from elsewhere. Both are readable and lively but tell us very little about that community today.

Sandra Unerman is studying for an MA in Folklore at the University of Hertfordshire. Her article about folklore and fiction appeared recently in Focus and she writes for the BSFA Review and the BFS Journal. She is the author of two fantasy novels, Spellhaven and ghosts and exiles, and is a member of london clockhouse writers. 

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Q: Spot the year of first publication (+ or – 20 years):

“Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”

A: It comes from an essay, ‘Darwin Among the Machines’, published in the June 1863 issue of a New Zealand magazine called The Press. Ascribed to ‘Cellarius’ but actually written by Samuel (Erewhon) Butler. Change ‘mechanical’ to ‘electronic’ and ‘machines’ to ‘computers’ and only the slightly archaic style would give the game away. Mike Ashley’s Introduction – nay, scholarly monograph – is full of half-forgotten facts like that. I enjoyed it even more than some of the stories, which were a tad over-familiar to an old-timer like me: ‘The Machine Stops’ (Forster); ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (Asimov); ‘Two-Handed Engine’ (Moore & Kuttner). Still good stuff, though.

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (British Library Science Fiction Classics) by [Mike Ashley]

The earliest anthology I know of SF stories about artificial intelligence in general as opposed to humanoid robots in particular is Science Fiction Thinking Machines (1954), edited by Groff Conklin. None of those stories appear in Ashley’s book, which makes it an interesting thematic companion piece.

Ashley takes a more chronological approach than Conklin, with Adeline Knapp’s ‘The Discontented Machine’ (1894) – about a machine that calls its own wildcat strike – being the earliest (and also one of the best). Along the way, we are treated to such reclaimed treasures as ‘Automata’ (S. Fowler Wright: 1929) and ‘Rex’ (Harl Vincent: 1934). J. J. Connington’s ‘Danger in the Dark Cave’ (1938) fuses Golden Age detective fiction with what would now be called AI: “My view is that once you give an organism – be it machine or anything else – the power of appreciating stimuli and coping with them, you produce something akin to intelligent life.” With the instinct of self-preservation, and the means to fight back. ‘Efficiency’ (Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H. Davis: 1917) is a quirky little one-act play.

For what it’s worth, my favourite selection is ‘But Who Can Replace a Man’ (1958), by the late and always to be lamented Brian W. Aldiss. I’ll leave you to decide where ‘menace’ comes into it. The most recent – comparatively speaking – story, Arthur C. Clarke’s fiendish ‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ (1964), was read and well-remembered by the young Tim (www) Berners-Lee. But the most precociously prophetic story is ‘A Logic Named Joe’ (1946) which deals with ‘logics’ (i.e. personal computers) and something called the ‘tank’ (i.e. the Internet). If you’ll pardon the slightly archaic style:

“Does it occur to you, fella, that the tank has been doin’ all the computin’ for every business office for years? It’s been handlin’ the distribution of ninety-four per cent of all telecast programs, has given out all information on weather, plane schedules; special sales, employment opportunities and news; has handled all person-to-person contacts over wires and recorded every business conversation and agreement – Listen, fella! Logics changed civilization. Logics are civilization! If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run! I’m getting hysterical myself and that’s why I’m talkin’ like this! [SEXISM ALERT.] If my wife finds out my paycheck is thirty credits a week more than I told her and starts hunting for that redhead – “

But it’s all extravagant fiction – right, fella? It couldn’t possibly become cold fact tomorrow! Excuse me, fella. My logic is calling me…

(c) Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

From the archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema

By Colin Odell and Mitch le Blanc

First published in Vector 210 (in 2000)

Hong Kong is the third largest producer of films in the world after Bollywood and Hollywood, but most people think that its films are concerned only with kung fu. This could not be further from the truth, in fact it offers an enormous diversity of product and includes a large number of fantasy and horror films amongst its many genres. The perception of the output as ‘just’ martial arts presumably comes from the Seventies kung fu marketing boom and the fact that video availability in this country has yet to break away from this traditionally high-selling genre. To the uninitiated the world of Hong Kong cinema can appear bizarre, confusing and strewn with pitfalls. There is the frenetic pace of action, occasionally impenetrable plots, obscure humour and a completely different language (often with cheesy dubbing or minuscule subbing) to contend with. So why bother? The answer is simple. Entertainment. Hong Kong films have a kinetic energy that renders the rest of the world geriatric by comparison. The relentless action, comedy, pathos and range of ideas, and the fact that you never know how the story is going to end, leaves the viewer gasping for breath. Hollywood have latched on to this and in recent years have tried to imitate the Hong Kong formula with limited success. Many HK directors now work in the USA – The Matrix (1999) was choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, and the pace of the action is derived completely from HK cinema. Hollywood has also begun to approach the task of duplicating several Hong Kong genres; the Heroic Bloodshed genre (guns, cops, gangsters, slo-mo shooting and heavy casualties) has translated reasonably, but lost the emotional depth and characterisation of its Eastern counterpart. Its main innovator John Woo, who directed the sci-fi bloodshed film Face/Off (1998), is now exerting his vision on the Hollywood system with considerable success. The Swordplay genre has fared less well as the efforts generally seem lacklustre, although The Mask of Zorro (1998) was well executed and similarly owes as much to Hong Kong as Errol Flynn. In return Hong Kong has no scruples about raiding film ideas from anywhere – it just does it faster and, normally, better.

Because the market for Hong Kong films is confined predominantly to Asia, its genres are tailored to that market. As a result, there are few pure science fiction films made in Hong Kong and they tend to aim for either the international market (Black Mask, 1997), for the Japanese market (City Hunter, 1993; Wicked City, 1992) or just turn out to be financially unsuccessful (The Heroic Trio, 1993). Generally science fiction elements occur as a peripheral to the main plot or are used as a McGuffin. Far more common is the fantasy film, of which there is an abundance of superior examples. For example: Name three decent Hollywood fantasy films made in the last decade. Okay, name one decent Hollywood fantasy film made in the last decade. Movies such as Moon Warriors (1992), Blade of Fury (1993) and Burning Paradise (1994) are so far in advance of any Hollywood fantasy film as to render English-speaking fare futile. Conan The Barbarian (1982) and Willow (1988) don’t come close and it is only really the Ray Harryhausen films that stand up to scrutiny. There are also abundant numbers of ghost stories and vampire films, which are completely different to their Western counterparts and all the more exciting and stimulating for it. It is impossible to cover all the films served up by HK, so here are a few pointers to hopefully whet your appetite for further Far Eastern dishes.

Continue reading “From the archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema”

The Evolution of Nüwa: A Brief “Herstory” of Chinese SF

By Regina Kanyu Wang. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

If you listen to a lecture on Chinese science fiction (SF), or check a list of representative authors of Chinese SF, eight or nine times out of ten, you will hear the names of male authors first. There is Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, Han Song and He Xi, the “Four Heavenly Kings.” Or Chen Qiufan, Baoshu, Zhang Ran and Feidao, the leading post-80s writers. If the list goes on, you may finally hear of Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, Zhao Haihong and Ling Chen, the female authors who are equally extraordinary but less mentioned. During a panel at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in 2017, the moderator Xia Jia, who is also a prominent scholar, gave a short introduction to Chinese SF. For the first time in such major occasions, she decided to present the female writers before the male ones. Her efforts emphasized that Chinese female SF writers are not inferior to their male counterparts, and questioned the routine of male writers always being the first and the dominant.

Despite the growing popularity of Chinese SF both inside and outside of academia, far less attention is paid to female authors’ works compared with male authors’ works. Research on Chinese SF from a gender perspective is even more rare. This article intends to re-narrate the “herstory” of mainland Chinese SF in the larger historical background of China and hopes to invite more discussion on this topic in the future.

Continue reading “The Evolution of Nüwa: A Brief “Herstory” of Chinese SF”

Chinese SF industry

By Regina Kanyu Wang et al. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

According to Science Fiction World, the concept of “science fiction (SF) industry” was first proposed in academia in 2012, when a group of experts were brought together  by the Sichuan Province Association of Science and Technology to comb and research SF related industry, and put together the Report of Research on the Development of Chinese SF Industry. Narrowly defined, the SF industry includes SF publishing, SF films, SF series, SF games, SF education, SF merchandise, and other SF-related industries, while a broader definition also includes the supporting industries, upstream or downstream in the industry chain.

According to the 2020 Chinese Science Fiction Industry Report, the gross output of the Chinese SF industry in 2019 sums up to 65.87 billion RMB (about 7.4 billion GBP), among which games and films lead the growth, with publishing and merchandise following (check out more in Chinese here). The SF industry plays an important part in China’s cultural economic growth.

We have invited sixteen organizations, companies, and projects that play a role in China’s SF industry to introduce themselves to the English readers. You can see the diversity and vigour from the texts they provided. We’ve tried to keep editing to a minimum in order to show how they posit and define themselves in the SF industry. Here they are, ordered alphabetically.

Continue reading “Chinese SF industry”

Call for Submissions: Prediction, Innovation, & Futures

Vector and Focus invite proposals from academics of all disciplines, and from industry, policy, and practice backgrounds, on the theme of speculative fiction in relation to prediction, innovation, and futures. Please see here for the full call.

The principal output will be a special issue of Vector, guest edited by Stephen Oram, and relevant proposals will also be considered for publication in Focus (ed. Dev Agarwal), and/or for online publication. Prospective contributors are encouraged to move conversations forward; to challenge received wisdom; to historicise the use of speculative fiction within science communication, policy, foresight, innovation, education, and research contexts; and/or to reflect in detail on your own personal experiences of using speculative fiction. Contributions may take the form of:

  • articles of any length;
  • snapshots / key findings / lightning summaries of your research or activities;
  • methods and tools, and/or reports on their use;
  • interviews, roundtables;
  • other formats — be as innovative and imaginative as you like!

We especially welcome proposals from BIPOC contributors, and/or proposals which connect applied speculative fiction to themes of diversity, decoloniality, and social, environmental, and economic justice. Priority fields of interest include futures studies, innovation studies, Science and Technology Studies, applied ethics, and the history and philosophy of science. Topics might include prediction, modelling, decision analysis and decision support, hacking and makerspaces, speculative design, critical design including Critical Race Design, anthropological futures, design fiction, diegetic prototyping, strategic foresight, wargaming, anticipatory governance, predictive data analytics, algorithmic governmentality, speculative fiction as technology, speculative fiction and aspects of methodology such as reproducibility and validation, user stories as a form of speculative fiction,  science communication, protoscience, exploratory engineering, design futurescaping, experiential futures, serious gaming or participatory scenario workshopping, financial modelling and financial activism, creative disruptions, future fabbing, the use of speculative fiction to engage communities and stakeholders, the ethical obligations of the speculative fiction writer, the use of speculative fiction to facilitate interdisciplinary encounters, the use of speculative fiction to model risk and uncertainty, issues around speculative fiction and Intellectual Property, the sci-fi-industrial complex, Indigenous futurisms, energy futures, education futures, all kinds of futures, and the history and future of the future. 

Submission details

Please submit proposals by 5 September 2021 to vector.submissions@gmail.com. A proposal should typically contain:

  • a 150-500 word proposal;
  • an estimated word count; and
  • some information about you, e.g. a 50-100 word bio or a CV.

We seek contributions that are carefully grounded in research, while also being clear, engaging, and suitable for a broad audience (including non-academics). Articles will be due by 1 February 2022.

Links

龙马精神* Dragon Horse Vitality Spirit

* This is a common Lunar New Year greeting

Guest editorial by Yen Ooi. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Chinese science fiction’s (CSF) growth in popularity has followed the rapid development trend of China itself. In his interview with fellow writer Maggie Shen King, Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) highlights that China has over the last four decades achieved the technological and economic advancements that countries in the West achieved in the last century. The speed of modernisation and urbanisation is a remarkable thing to behold, with 100 million people lifted out of poverty just since 2013. China’s rise has been subject to international scrutiny and criticism, which is to be expected. The most unfounded of which plumbed new depths in the past year 2020 through the pandemic. While the previous president of the United States of America (among many) used the term “Chinese virus” in his description of Covid-19, East Asian diaspora communities living in Western countries experienced increased instances of racism. What is the connection?

Genres are in general difficult to define, but CSF is especially complicated. Both the terms Chinese and science fiction defy any clear definition, yet are used so commonly that every user has their own pre-assumed definition. One popular assumption in the West is that CSF should always be read in terms of political dissent or complicity with state power. As much as that might be true for some, it is an unhelpful generalisation. After all, we do not assume that British SF is only about Brexit, or American SF only about Trump. In one sense, all storytelling is inherently political, and within Anglophone SF especially, the racist and queerphobic attack on representational diversity is often disguised as a demand to “remove the politics” from our stories. However, the necessarily political nature of storytelling is complicated in the case of the Anglophone reception of CSF. The insistence of many Western readers on interpreting CSF exclusively in relation to government censorship can itself have a paradoxically censoring effect. Some CSF authors have even resisted writing stories set in China, or allowing the translation of their work into English, for fear that readers will ignore its actual aesthetic and intellectual qualities, while using it as material for simplistic speculation: Whose side are you really on? To quote Ken Liu for what is a publication on CSF without mentioning the writer who, it feels like, has single-handedly brought CSF to Anglo-American readers?  — 

Like writers everywhere, today’s Chinese writers are concerned with humanism; with globalization; with technological advancement; with development and environmental preservation; with history, rights, freedom, and justice; with family and love; with the beauty of expressing sentiment through words; with language play; with the grandeur of science; with the thrill of discovery; with the ultimate meaning of life.

Ken Liu, Invisible Planets, 2016.

Chinese means many things: culture, ethnicity, nationality, language, people, food, celebrations, traditions, dance, art, tea, etc. It is impossible to talk about all things related to CSF, but we hope that we’ve managed to introduce some key ideas and concepts in this issue, and that you’ll find areas that particularly excite you as a writer, researcher, or reader to want to learn more.

Continue reading “龙马精神* Dragon Horse Vitality Spirit”

The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger and Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson

Review by L.J. Hurst. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The British Library Classics series began with detective fiction and has extended to Science Fiction. As with the detective stories it has two strands: firstly, collections of golden age short stories (Mike Ashley edits the sf series), and secondly, re-discovered novels. The sf novel series is developing at a slower rate than its crime equivalent, this time we have two novelists and two novels from different decades.

Muriel Jaeger’s The Question Mark was published in 1926. It is the better known of these two classics, as Jaeger is discussed in depth in Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (over thirty years old but still the best reference work on this subject). Apart from the attractive cover it comes with a facsimile of the acceptance letter from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and an “Introduction” by Dr Mo Moulton, as well as Muriel Jaeger’s “Author’s Introduction”, in which she says her purpose is to “accept the Bellamy-Morris-Wells world in all essentials – with one exception; I do not and cannot accept its inhabitants”. (Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward has been in the air this year as it is discussed in Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry Of Truth, as one of the utopias to which Nineteen Eighty-Four is a response). The Question Mark is known as a precursor to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as it features an outsider discovering the flaws in a world in which there is no physical want, but in which individual psychological need cannot be satisfied, and in which some atavistic tendencies remain (murderous crimes of passion lead to the palace of euthanasia). More striking is Jaeger’s recognition of different classes based on different abilities, though instead of Huxley’s five (alpha to epsilon) she has only two, “Normals” and “Intellectuals”.

The Question Mark Paperback British Library Science Fiction

The story is simple: Guy Martin, a bank clerk from the early twentieth century awakens to discover that he is in the future, fortunately in the house of a great scientist (one of the Intellectuals) which is shared by members of his extended family. Class is not inherited in this world and neither is intellectual ability. Guy is taken out by some of the normal members of the family to explore the new world, where nearly everyone has a power-box which can heat their home or drive their aerocycle. Guy, whose poverty in his old life made relations with women difficult, should be happy that one of his guides is Ena, who likes him tremendously. There is, though, unlike Brave New World, little sexual activity and it becomes clear that Ena is unhappy because there is too much love making and not enough of being “pals” (slang like this is important to the normals). As Guy has difficulty adjusting to his revival, he keeps his distance and Ena thinks this is him being a pal, though not as much of one as she would wish. Brave New World takes this to a tragic end, but The Question Mark ends with a realistic review of Guy’s old life. Who knows what he could make of the new?

Wild Harbour is a very different work: a tale of a future war and a survivor’s narrative. It is also a detailed account of how to hunt, butcher and hang wild deer. Published in 1936, it is written as a broken diary of the months between May and October 1944, as a couple living in the Highlands, who refuse to be part of an unidentified war that has broken out unexpectedly, take to a cave in the Grampians. 

Wild Harbour British Library Paperback Science Fiction

Wild Harbour comes with even more editorial apparatus than The Question Mark including an “Introduction” by Timothy C Baker, original frontispiece, a large map of the area, and finally a magazine article from September 1940 by Macpherson on how he was running his farm after a year of real war (he makes no mention of his novel). The map is useful in following the activities of the couple, along with the railway line running north to south carrying increasing amounts of traffic to who-knows-where. Hugh and his wife Terry stay within a very small area – its smallness indicated by labels on the map such as “berries” and “Hugh stole turnips”. Contrarily, there are other labels, “battle fought here” and “men fought here”, which reveal that within mere months civilisation has broken down so much that small groups are hunting and killing rivals, with never an appearance of a foreign army let alone aircraft.

Given the limited dramatis personae of Wild Harbour, though, there is another reading possible, and that is satire on ‘crisis scuttlers’ (George Orwell’s phrase). The couple’s cave is unready, their tinned and dried foods run out quickly, and generally their new life is nasty and brutish. Macpherson died in 1944 and this is often described as his last novel, but he was not always dour and downbeat, for example co-writing Letters from a Highland Township in 1939 with his wife Elizabeth, a comedy about local government set in the same area as Wild Harbour

There is more to The Question Mark, too. Mo Moulton’s introduction looks forward from Jaeger and Huxley to Margaret Atwood, picking up Jaeger’s own references to utopias. Guy Martin cannot time travel back to 1926, however, because of the understated but explicit Frankenstein means of his arrival. What if he is only the first?

Copyright Ian MacPherson. All rights reserved.

The End of the World and Other Catastrophes, edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Donald A. Wollheim once edited an Ace Books anthology entitled The End of the World, in 1955. But he stuck close to genre home with such then modern-day stories as ‘Rescue Party’ (Clarke: 1946), The Year of the Jackpot’ (Heinlein: 1952), and ‘Impostor’ (Dick: 1953). But Mike Ashley has taken a much more wide-ranging and historical approach to the subject here. In his Introduction, he quotes these opening lines from ‘Darkness’, an apocalyptic poem by Lord Byron (first published in 1816): 

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.”

First up is ‘The End of the World’ (1930), by Helen Sutherland, which “gets us off to a rousing start by covering just about every catastrophe that can afflict mankind in a little over fifteen hundred words.” Ashley speculates that it might have been written by Helen Christian Sutherland (1881-1965), a patron of the arts who has been credited with discovering Pieter Cornelis Mondrian. Another story entitled ‘The End of the World’ (1903), by the astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), is an anticipation of When Worlds Collide

The End of the World and Other Catastrophes Paperback British Library Science Fiction

After that comes a sort-of-trilogy headed THREE DOOMS OF LONDON. ‘London’s Danger’ (1896), by C. J. Cutliffe Hyne, is an early climate-change story. ‘The Freezing of London’ (1908), by Herbert C. Ridout, is – well – self-explanatory. The same thing goes for ‘Days of Darkness’ (1927), by Owen Oliver (i.e. Sir Joshua Albert Flynn). Robert Barr’s ‘Within an Ace of the End of the World’ (1900) is another trenchant climate-change story. What happens when agricultural over-production threatens to strip the world’s atmosphere of nitrogen?

‘The Last American’, by John Ames Mitchell, provides some welcome light relief, using “humour and parody to satirize the American way of life through the viewpoint of a Persian expedition discovering a ruined and desolate United States years after its collapse. The first edition [1889] included many illustrations by the author [several included here].”

As Ashley explains, George Griffiths (1857-1906) was the most prolific and bestselling writer of ‘scientific romances’ in Britain until H. G. Wells came along to steal his literary thunder. He had gained wide popularity with The Angel of the Revolution (1893), in which a new form of flying machine enabled anarchists to take over the United Kingdom, thus pre-empting H. G. Wells himself: When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and The War in the Air (1908). ‘The Great Grenelin Comet’ (1897) shows how the people of Terra – perhaps the first use of that word in science fiction to mean the Earth – deal with the onset of a destructive comet.

Other ‘vintage’ stories are ‘Finis’ (1906), by Frank Lillie Pollock, and ‘The Madness of Professor Pye’ (1934), by Warwick Deeping. Ashley also includes three comparatively recent stories: ‘Two by Two’ (1956: retitled ‘The Windows of Heaven’ in 1965), by John Brunner; ‘Created He Them’ (1955), by Alice Eleanor Jones; ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ (1950), by Ray Bradbury (which became part of The Martian Chronicles/The Silver Locusts).

For me, it seems appropriate to round off this review with the final lines from Byron’s ‘Darkness’:

“The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expired before;

The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them – She was the Universe.”

(The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I wonder . . .)

N.B. Companion volumes from the British Library Science Fiction Classics program, so far: Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures (2018); Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet (2018); Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (2019). I wish even more power to your editorial elbow, Mr. Ashley. 

Copyright Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

‘Lies to children’: From folk to formal science in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

By Mikaela Springsteen

Paul Kidby, ‘The Faculty’ / Joseph Wright, ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’


Terry Pratchett is known for the incredible intertextuality of his work, especially in his famous Discworld series. He borrows—or steals, as all the best artists do—from the greats of the cultural canon. In fact it is the stories—the literature, fantasy, folk stories, and histories—of our world, of the so-called ‘Round World,’ which quite literally power the Disc. Pratchett’s use, deconstruction, and reconstruction of these stories have all been the topic of study before, but one discourse which Pratchett drew on quite a bit has been somewhat absent from Pratchett Studies thus far: science.

Early in his career Pratchett was a press officer for a nuclear power station; his interest in and fondness for new forms of technology has been well documented; he collaborated with the scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart on four ‘Science of Discworld’ books; and, although he is perhaps best known for the broadly ‘fantasy’ series of the Discworld, Pratchett was also an accomplished science fiction author (The Dark Side of the Sun, Strata, the Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter)—a genre which has both incorporated and inspired scientific advancements. His life-long interest in science is reflected in his fantasy works as well. In the case of the Discworld series, much can be said about the Discworld as creation myth:

Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld.  A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Wyrd Sisters
The Great A'Tuin, the world turtle. There are two theories which purport to explain the behavior of the Great A'Tuin: Steady Gait and Big Bang. Inspired by the scientific concepts of astronomy, cosmology, zoology, the steady state model, Big Bang theory

To use a popular fan formulation: from a ‘Doylist’ (or out-of-universe) perspective the Discworld clearly draws on the mytheme of the world turtle. But from a ‘Watsonian’ (or in-universe) perspective, this cosmology is explored and understood scientifically (as in The Color of Magic). Other seemingly far-fetched phenomena on the Disc are similarly explained in a rather rational, even techno-scientific tone, and the series is scattered with references to collective intelligence, time dilation, and the theorized eleven dimensions of the multiverse.

This article explores how Pratchett leads us to think about the practice and culture of science. It begins by taking a look at what science looks like in the context of the Disc, then exploring the two primary groups of Discworld scientists, and finally finishing up with a look at why the use of science in a nominally fantasy world might be worthwhile to explore.

Continue reading “‘Lies to children’: From folk to formal science in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld”