Sunday, January 23, 2011

Science Fiction & Fantasy Month - Finale

That's "Finale", not "Finally".

Speaking of Jules Verne . . .

The Hunt For The Meteor

Apparently known originally as The Chase of the Golden Meteor, this is not one of Verne's more well known stories. And I must say, I can understand why.

Possibly this is not entirely Verne's fault - according to Wikipedia, the version I read is a 'condensed' version, and the most egregiously awful part of the book (what kind of name for anyone, much less a French mad scientist, is "Zephyrin Xirdal", anyway?) seems to have been an invention of his son Michel Verne, who edited Meteor extensively after Jules Verne's death.

Still, even the best authors don't write a huge hit every time, and with this story there's not a lot to work from. It's basically about two rival astronomers, who simultaneously discover a new meteor. Their rivalry, always prickly, becomes much more serious when the meteor is discovered to be made of gold (!), and downright hostile when the aforementioned Zephyrin Xirdal invents a device that can reach into space and disturb the meteor's orbit . . .

While the slightly off-putting switch in focus from the astronomers to Xirdal can be blamed on the younger Verne's meddling, that's not the only odd thing about the book. There's also the opening and closing, which involves the marriage of a young adventurer couple (and yes, they get married in both the opening and the close of the story). Their presence seems completely superfluous - besides the fact that they randomly chose the feuding astronomers' town to get married in, they are completely separate from the rest of the story and could just as easily have been left out. Well, almost - they do show up at the meteor's landing site, and even almost interact with the main cast for a line or two, but I still don't understand their purpose in the narrative. Perhaps if Verne had lived to finish the novel they would have been better integrated.

But even that wouldn't have saved the book from feeling overly satiric and preachy. Now, it's not that I can't handle satire in my speculative fiction - I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchet's Discworld books, after all - but here, it just seemed forced. Maybe it's due to the novel's unfinished status, maybe Verne just wasn't a good satirist, I'm not sure.

I suppose perhaps the main thing to be learned from this book is that not every author's works-in-progress should be published posthumously. They can't all be Tolkien, after all.

The House of Many Worlds

My apologies to everyone who was really excited about seeing I, Robot in this space, but I found something even more interesting to read, at least to my mind.

The House of Many Worlds and its sequel, The Three Faces of Time, were written in the 1950s by Sam Merwin, Jr. They are, broadly speaking, alternate-history novels of the "Multiversal" variety. In The House of Many Worlds, the viewpoint character, poet journalist Elspeth Marriner, along with her fellow journalist Mack Fraser, are recruited by a mysterious Frenchman into a nameless organization that has the capacity to travel between parallel universes. They use this capability mostly for observation, although they also arrange for mutually beneficial technology transfers between different worlds. It is for one of the latter sorts of missions that our two heroes are recruited, visiting "Columbia" - a United States more autocratic than ours currently undergoing a new revolution - and arranging for them to learn internal combustion and shielding for their disintegration-beam weapons (this was the 50s, remember) from another US that's almost, but not quite, our own, in exchange for some space-flight tech.

The second book introduces the idea that various galactic processes may advance or delay a given Earth's historical starting point, thus allowing Elspeth and Mack to help defend a world in it's First Century A.D*. from one far in the future that is running low on resources. There was one part of this I would have done differently - despite that Earth's history apparently starting later, the Mt. Vesuvius eruption still takes place on schedule (and is in fact part of the climax). Wouldn't it be interesting, though, if history was the same as it really was - except that it started at a different time? Imagine if Vesuvius had gone off, say, in the middle of World War II, or if Mt. St. Helens had erupted in 1880 instead of 1980?

Nevertheless, although written more than half a century ago, this is still a pretty unique idea. I am aware of a few other takes on the subject, but Merwin's two books are among the earliest, and overall quite well done, too.

There's one other thing about these stories that deserves mention, and that's the treatment of race. In the first book, our heroine develops an attraction to the Columbian Field Marshall (which is to say, the Columbian Army's chief of staff) John Henry, an enormously important figure - who happens to be black. In a remarkably progressive scene for the fifties, another character cautions Elspeth - not because she was any problems with an inter-racial romance, but because "there are a number of worlds were color doesn't matter, but this is not one of them." A particularly refreshing attitude, especially in a genre that is often accused of racial insensitivity.

* A few variations are mentioned between the world of "Antique" and our historical First Century, most notably that contact and trade with ancient China is slightly greater. Of course, contact between Rome and China has since been discovered to be greater than previously thought . . .