Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996


Notes and Correspondence

The Meaning of "Moxon's Master." Ambrose Bierce's 1909 tale of a murderous chess-playing automaton, "Moxon's Master," launched a fascinating debate in Extrapolation and SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES a few years ago. Everett Bleiler and Franz Rottensteiner proposed divergent interpretations of the story, based on speculations as to the characters' sexual orientations. Since they could not agree on a unique explanation for the strange occurrences related in "Moxon's Master," the debate did not come to a satisfactory conclusion. I would like to add to this debate, by proposing a solution based on the genre conventions of the automaton story.*[See my thesis, Automates américains : histoire du récit d'automate dans la littérature américaine du XIXe siècle, Université du Québec à Montréal, 1996. The page-references for the story are to "Moxon's Master," The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Ernest Jerome Hopkins (Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1984), 89-97.]

 However, before I begin my demonstration, reminders of the story's cardinal events and of Bleiler's and Rottensteiner's main points are in order.

Moxon has been discussing philosophy in his sitting room with the narrator. Moxon is convinced that machines can be said to think, but the narrator obstinately refuses to embrace his conclusions. In the course of their discussion, a loud noise is heard from Moxon's adjoining workshop. Moxon disappears into this closed room, and the narrator hears scuffling noises. Moxon returns to the sitting room bearing some scratches on his left cheek. He takes up the conversation where he left off, but refuses to answer the narrator's queries about the contents of his workshop. The narrator in fact believes the scratches can be attributed to the ire of a woman, as he sarcastically genders the "machine" Moxon pretends to keep in his laboratory (93). The young man then leaves Moxon's home in a rage. He wanders the streets, haunted by Moxon's formula, "Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm" (93). Convinced of Moxon's doctrine by force of repetition, he returns towards the scientist's home. The workshop's lighted window shines like a beacon in the sleeping city. The front door, as well as the workshop's entrance, have strangely been left unlocked. Nobody but Moxon and a hired blacksmith named Haley had ever been in the workshop. As he enters the mysterious chamber, the narrator sees Moxon facing a turbaned automaton at chess. Moxon checks the automaton, who seems enraged at the scientist's move. The machines rises from its seat, knocking down the candle lighting the room. An instant later, a flash of unspecified origin reveals the automaton strangling Moxon. The narrator falls unconscious, and wakes up three days later in a hospital. Moxon's blacksmith, Haley, is watching over him. He tells the narrator that lightning struck Moxon's house and that the burnt remains of the scientist have just been put to earth.

Everett Bleiler's essay, (Extrapolation 26:181-89, Fall 1985), purported to expose the hidden meaning of Bierce's story. He argues that Moxon hides his girlfriend in his laboratory, and that the story relates a crime of passion. He believes the automaton to be a sham, as its Turkish appearance would suggest, since it refers to Poe's debunking of "Maelzel's Chess-Player" in 1836. He thinks this woman hides in the automaton and kills Moxon in a fit of rage, quite possibly sparked by an intense jealousy, as she could perceive the young man as some kind of rival. To illustrate his point, Bleiler uses the narrator's allusion to Moxon's scars as nail-scratches (52). He stresses the fact that the narrator suspects the presence of a woman in the workshop when he mentions sarcastically that Moxon should have his machine wear gloves (53). Bleiler believes that this is a subtle reference to the day's manuals of savoir-vivre, which urged women to keep their gloves on in the presence of strangers. This imperative, of course, would have been ignored by lovers. Moreover, Bleiler interprets Moxon's reference to a "machine [left] in action with nothing to act upon" (53) as a reference to interrupted sexual intercourse. Although alcohol is never mentioned in the story, Bleiler believes that the narrator, when he returns to Moxon's home, is still intoxicated from drinks shared with Moxon earlier, and that he perceives the workshop's events in a drunken haze. Bleiler finally explains Haley's presence in the hospital as an attempt on the part of the blacksmith to ascertain the accidental or criminal nature of the fire that destroyed his employer's house.

Bleiler's reasoning provoked Franz Rottensteiner to answer him in SFS #44 (15:107-12, March 1988). According to him, Haley, not a hypothetical female lover, is the true criminal. He is the one who hides inside the automaton. Rottensteiner explains the crime by seeing Moxon as a homosexual, whose attempts to seduce the young narrator have led Haley, in love with his master, to murderous extremes. A latent homosexual desire drives the narrator back towards Moxon's house, and he becomes the involuntary witness to Haley's vengeance. Haley's culpability explains his presence in the hospital. He is both murderer and incendiary, and wants to ascertain what the young man knows.

Bleiler answered Rottensteiner's critique in SFS #46 (15:386-88, Nov 1988), maintaining that Haley's presence in the hospital was more believable if he sought to cover a third party, namely, Moxon's mysterious girlfriend. However, he does not suggest, as would have seemed logical, that this woman could have been Haley's lover. Rottensteiner concluded the debate in the same issue (15:388-90) by stating that the case would forever remain open, since the fire destroyed all material proofs of the crime.

I accept, like Bleiler and Rottensteiner, the fact that the automaton is a false automaton. I also agree with Rottensteiner that Haley hides in the machine, but I believe that we are not witness, at the story's conclusion, to a true crime, but rather to a feigned one. Finally, I believe that the fire is accidental and was caused by a bolt of lightning simultaneously striking down Moxon and his house.

The opening line immediately exposes the story's core. We are introduced in medias res to the conversation: "Are you serious?—do you really believe that a machine thinks?" The rest of the story will only serve to demonstrate the narrator's statement that Moxon takes increasingly more time to answer trivial questions: "I had been observing in him a growing habit of delay in answering even the most trivial of commonplace questions" (89). We could in fact affirm that Moxon has developed this habit to a level approaching madness, as the events of the story seem to be nothing more than an elaborate staging meant to win the narrator to Moxon's point of view on the intelligence of machines. Moxon's scheme, however, will backfire when retribution comes down from the sky to strike him dead.

Let us begin by examining Moxon's convictions. He is a believer in panpsychism, whose adherents recognize intelligence as the governing principle of the universe, expressed in all matter. He compares the tropism of plants, the growth of crystals, the flight patterns of birds, and the geometry of snowflakes to human organization (90-91). According to Moxon, machines are just as intelligent as the rest of creation. In his discussion with the narrator, he had quoted a typical definition of machines in order to show that it could just as well be applied to men (89). He had also quoted Herbert Spencer's definition of life to show that it fits machines as well as men, and that machines are therefore alive (92). The formula that haunts the narrator, "Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm" (93), acts as an algorithm in the narrator's mind, and constitues an important gambit in Moxon's rhetorical battle against the narrator. The formula shows that the narrator, although a human being, can be brought, as Moxon maintains, to act as if he were a machine. Is it not under the sway of its unceasing repetitions that the narrator returns toward Moxon's home, verifying by his very acts the truth of Moxon's doctrine?

It is not by chance that the light of the workshop shines forth in the sleeping city, or that the doors of this mysterious workshop have so conspicuously been left open. Indubitably, Moxon was awaiting the young man's return. These details are but further elements of Moxon's program. In the workshop, it is not only the automaton, with its echoes of Maelzel's fraud, that appears factitious, but also the chess match opposing Moxon and the automaton. Moxon does not seem concentrated, and the automaton answers by gestures of an absurd theatrality (95). It should also be noted that the narrator insists that he knows nothing about chess, and we can suppose that this fact was known to Moxon, who seems to have frequently entertained him. The theatrical murder of the creator by his creature has the characteristics of the worst expressionistic plays and the fall of the candle is timed too well to be purely random. Could it not be that Moxon, with the help of his assistant Haley hidden in the automaton, has staged this little drama that shows better than any argumentation how machines resemble humans and partake of their worst characteristics? The narrator's intuition was right when he thought that "all this talk about the consciousness and intelligence of machines [was] merely a prelude to eventual exhibition of this device—only a trick to intensify the effect of its mechanical action upon me in my ignorance of its secret" (95).

The meaning of the noises heard in the workshop when the narrator was waiting for Moxon is thus revealed. They were in facts the sounds of Haley's protest against his master's little games of deception. The blacksmith foretold and feared the tragical turn of events. When lightning strikes the house at the end of the story, revealing in a sudden illumination the couple of practical jokers in their mock struggle, Haley rushes out of the automaton to save their unwilling victim from the flame and Moxon dies either from the thunderbolt or the results of the fire that follows. This clarifies Haley's reference to "what was left of him" (57). I believe this scenario explains unambiguously Haley's presence in the hospital and his haggard look.

The thunderbolt that destroys Moxon's workshop is as swift and terrible as the javelin of an avenging God. It is the symbol of Moxon's defeat, and of his folly in pretending that creation was nothing but an enormous machine. Moxon thought he could control its mechanism, but an accident destroys his preordained scheme. Maybe God wanted to convince the scientist's innocent victim that nature was more powerful than Moxon's rhetoric, and that man continued, notwithstanding the progress of scientific knowledge, to be more that a simple automaton. The automaton's destruction and the scientist's death carried a moral decree, and resolved the dilemma raised by the question of the intelligence of machines: if machines were intelligent, then the soul, and therefore God, did not exist. Like many of his predecessors in the genre of the automaton story, Bierce argued against the Machine in favor of God and Man. Daniel Canty, Université du Québec à Montréal.

 

On Freedman on Umland. In his recent letter to SFS, Carl Freedman accuses Sam Umland of "intellectual obtuseness" in his criticism of Freedman's use of Lacanian psychology as a prop of the sociological thesis in his essay "Towards a Theory of Paranoia: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick." Unfortunately, this claim is itself obtuse.

Freedman's inserts psychological language ("paranoia") into the context of his original essay: "This apparent displacement, I suggest, is not necessarily a vulgar psychologistic reduction...." Why such a show of concern that his idea might be taken as vulgarly reductive if it's obviously false that "theories of the formation of human subjects are irrelevant to the study of the human societies in which human subjects are formed"?

The answer is that it's not obviously false. Emile Durkheim, for one, argued that there cannot even be an autonomous discipline of sociology if its laws and principles are reducible to those of psychology, and while the irreducibility of the former subject to the latter doesn't necessarily imply the latter's irrelevance to the former, it by no means rules it out.

In fact the problem of interdisciplinary reduction is a much deeper and more contentious one than Professor Freedman imagines. The hierarchical nature of human knowledge virtually rules out the possibility of such reductions, in the practical if not the theoretical sense. Here's what one Nobel laureate, Philip Anderson, has to say about it: "At each stage, entirely new laws, concepts and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry" (Science, 8/4/72). Nor, presumably, is sociology applied psychology. Another laureate, Herbert Simon, explains why this should be the case. Pointing out that different kinds of hierarchic systems possess properties that aren't dependent on their specific content, he argues that in such systems

Subparts belonging to different parts only interact in an aggregative fashion—the detail of their interaction can be ignored.... The fact that many complex systems have a nearly decomposable, hierarchic structure is a major facilitating factor enabling us to understand, describe and even "see" such systems and their parts. Or perhaps the proposition should be put the other way round. If there are important systems in the world that are complex without being hierarchies, they may to a considerable extent escape our observation and understanding. Analysis of their behavior would involve such detailed knowledge and calculation of the interactions of their elementary parts that it would be beyond our capacities of memory or computation. (The Sciences of the Artificial)

In this formulation Simon makes the common-sense assumption that individual persons are the subparts of sociological entities such as social classes or organizations. The inner structures of these components, he further claims, not only can be but must be ignored if we're to obtain any coherent knowledge of the larger entities. It's just here that Professor Freedman's argument really begins, since both French structuralism and Marxism (as in Lukacs' mythology of the class subject) simply obliterate functional differences between persons, thereby facilitating in their adherents the delusion that social causes explain psychopathology, or, alternatively, that psychological theories can be scaled up to explain social causation. Both ideas do massive violence to the complexity of the real, which explains why neither has ever explained anything. Marxism and structuralism are both clear examples of degenerating research programs, as Imre Lakatos once characterized them: Every failed prediction—and there have been nothing but failed predictions, where there have been any at all—is answered by an ad hoc accretion to the original theory in an endless, futile job of backing-and-filling. Thus the long list of "correctives" in the Western Marxist tradition: Lukacs, Gramsci, Adorno, Goldman, Sartre, Althusser, Jameson, one useless epicycle after another.

In his original review of Umland's book of essays on Philip K. Dick (which included both mine and Freedman's), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. took Gregg Rickman to task for his reduction of the artist's art to his psychiatric problems, in the process citing an earlier criticism of Rickman by Carl Freedman. I think this criticism unwarranted. The irony, though, is that Freedman should be guilty of a much more severe and consequential form of reductionism than Rickman ever could have been. To use his own words, even Jacques Lacan "would not necessarily approve" of it.Karl F. Wessel.

 

Pax! This controversy, having drifted from details of literary criticism to general philosophical questions, is now closed. SFS is not the place to debate whether "Marxism and structuralism...are degenerating research programs." Our field is literary scholarship and criticism, not metaphysics, and we are not ready to cast the critics of any school into the outer darkness.RDM.

 

First Fandom. To be a regular member of First Fandom you have to have been active in fandom before 1938 as attested in such ways as publication of letters in the sf magazines, though there are also associate memberships for younger oldsters who, though not old enough to be regular members, are still old enough not to be annoyingly young. I qualify for regular membership, having had four letters-to-the-editor published over my name in the early 1930s. The first, which I did not write, was one of Hugo Gernsback's set-ups for a put-down:

SAYS AMERICAN DETECTIVES

BEHIND THE TIMES

Editorial Chief,

Scientific Detective Monthly:

What is the good of publishing a scientific detective magazine when you have to look to Europe for the material needed? The Paris Sûreté and Scotland Yard are years ahead of our police in scientific detection of crime. Until American detectives "catch up" with the times you had best postpone publishing this type of magazine.—Dale Mullen, 115 W. Fifth Street, Topeka, Kansas.

(Mr. Mullen gets his impression from the fact that newspapers and magazine writers have played up European news exclusively for the past few years. On the very day of the receipt of our correspondent's letter, our editorial deputy visited a little-known room in Police Headquarters, New York, where delicate instruments, high powered microscopes, elaborate photo micrometers and other scientific apparatus are in use everyday. We will have more to say about this in another issue. One of our objects is to dispel the clouds of popular ignorance overhanging the subject of scientific detection of crime as practiced in this country.—Editorial Chief.) (1:93, Jan 1930)

At 14 years of age I had never heard of the Sûreté, and I remember being puzzled by the word as well as by how my name had come to be signed to a letter I had not written. The other letters—Astounding, July 1931; Wonder, Nov 1932; Amazing, Dec 1932—were genuine, but modesty—or a decent respect for my intellectual reputation—forbids their reproduction here.

About 18 months earlier I had come into the science-fiction fold through the discovery that fiction could provoke thought as well as instruct and delight. I had during my six or seven years of reading been delighted by the emotional roller-coaster that typifies popular fiction, and had learned something about life and sportsmanship at Fardale and Yale from the Frank Merriwell stories; life and swordsmanship in 17th-century France from Dumas; crime and detection among the well-to-do from Mary Roberts Rinehart; life, swordsmanship, undying love, self-sacrifice, and insane jealousy from Edgar Rice Burroughs, but nothing I had read had ever made me think until an overhwelming desire to know the fate of Dejah Thoris led me in a roundabout way to science fiction.

Out walking one day in late 1927, I paused at a display window to look at the magazines that filled it and was entranced by the cover reproduced above left, for I had read The Gods of Mars a year or so earlier and nothing had ever troubled my 12-year old heart—nothing I had read, no movie I had seen—as much as its ending, in which the door of a diabolical prison—a door that will not open again until a long Barsoomian year has passed—is slowly but inexorably closing, while John Carter stands helpless by, on the incomparable Dejah Thoris, the ever faithful Thuvia, and the insanely jealous Phaidor. It is Phaidor who speaks the last word in that heart-wrenching scene:

"Think not, John Carter, that you may so lightly cast aside the love of Phaidor, daughter of Matai Shang. Nor ever hope to hold thy Dejah Thoris in thy arms again. ..."

And as she finished speaking I saw her raise a dagger on high, and then I saw another figure. It was Thuvia's. As the dagger fell toward the unprotected breast of my love, Thuvia was almost between them. A blinding gust of smoke blotted out the tragedy within that fearsome cell—a shriek rang out, a single shriek, as the dagger fell.

The smoke cleared away, but we stood gazing upon a blank wall....

Ah! If I could but know one thing, what a burden of suspense would be lifted from my shoulders! But whether the assassin's dagger reached one fair bosom or another, only time will divulge.

I did not know that several sequels had already been published; I knew only that if I could read that magazine I might learn what the fate of Dejah Thoris had been.

At that time the only money I ever had was a dime or quarter that my father gave me for some specific purpose, like going to a movie. I could not imagine that he would give me the huge sum of 50 cents to buy a magazine and so went dejected on my way. But some months later he put me to work after school and on Saturdays in his shop and paid me $1.50 a week. With my first wages I dashed to a newstand to look for Amazing Stories Annual.

It was not there; it was to be another year or so before I discovered the Martian novels in book form and so learned what had happened next. What was there on that memorable day (the first or second Saturday in April 1928) was the May Amazing Stories and the Winter Amazing Stories Quarterly, with content I was to find even more fascinating than The Gods of Mars.

In addition to a full-page illustration for each of the stories, the May issue contained a drawing of "a four-dimensional cube or tesseract" alongside "a three-dimensional glass cube as seen from above"; a photograph of an octopus with the caption "The eight ('octo' meaning eight in Latin and Greek) tentacles give it its name. 'Pus' is taken from the Greek for 'foot.'"; and a map of "Mars and its canals in Mercater's projection" with an explanation of how a telescope inverts the image. I had not thought of The Gods of Mars as scientific or as anything other than just a story. But here, it seemed, was real science: the fourth dimension, monsters actually existing, and Mars as described by an astronomer. Nor was that all: there was also a disturbing story about what a villainous physician might do and three visions of the future: one placid, one horrifying, and one distressing in its depiction of social relations. There was food for thought here such as I had not known fiction could provide. Reading of the plight of the workers in "A Story of the Days to Come" in the May issue and When the Sleeper Wakes in the quarterly made me a Wellsian socialist then and there.

A letter in that May issue speaks of forming a science club (3:180-81), but no one I knew had any interest in science or science fiction. A fan club may have been organized in Topeka before my family moved away in 1933, but if so I heard nothing of it. All I could do as a fan was to write letters to the editor.

Last April I had been thinking for some time that if I was ever to join First Fandom I should do so before the first fans were all gone. So when I received a letter from Sam Moscowitz (or SaM, as he is dubbed in fan circles) saying that there would be a meeting of First Fandom in July in conjunction with the Indianapolis Inconjunction and that he would be there, I sent my application to the organization's secretary (Mark Schulzinger, 4 Nevada Circle, Gallup, NM 87301), received my badge (reproduced above), and attended the meeting. As it turned out, SaM and I were the only regular members there, but meeting SaM in person after some 25 years during which we had occasionally exchanged published barbs, was in itself a great experience. As he wrote me in a recent letter, it was "a pleasure to be able to speak to someone who has been in science fiction long enough that one does not have to append oral footnotes to make his conversation comprehensible."RDM

 

The Origins of Future War Fiction. I am grateful to Bruce Franklin for his kind and flattering comments on The Tale of the Next Great War; but I do wish he had told readers that the 64 on-page illustrations were presented in support of my claim that the graphic artists of the period 1871-1914 had developed a visual rhetoric of warfare. Their images usually showed "the next great war" as an affair of heroic individual actions and, by our standards, relatively brief military or naval engagements. These projected images helped to encourage the pre-1914 belief that future wars would continue to be limited in scale and short in duration. I wish, too, that the reviewer had enlarged on the criteria that decided the choice of entries. They are all short stories, because I find that between 1871—when Chesney's Battle of Dorking touched off the first major explosion of future-war fiction—and 1891, when the first book-length serial stories began to appear in the magazines, the short story was the dominant form. Further, the greater part of these stories were political in orientation. Although Chesney and others like him gave the impression that they were revealing the shape of wars-to-come, they were in fact telling their tales of consequences in order to demonstrate the case for a change in political alignment, or for military conscription, or for a greater navy. Straight technological anticipations, like those in Arnold-Forster's In a Conning Tower, were far less numerous.

I suspect, however, that reviewer and compiler are separated by more than a great ocean. When I read that my selection is "Eurocentric," I have to answer "Guilty as charged," and I enter the plea of historical necessity. The facts tell me that between 1871 and 1914 international relations provided most of the material for most of these stories. Their starting point was the possibility of a war, however remote, between one or other grouping of that time: Great Britain and France, or Germany and France, or Russia against Germany or Great Britain. These great powers dominated the world in those days, as the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 made very evident; and British, French, and German propagandists deluged the world with their Eurocentric tales of European nations fighting out the Zukunftskrieg, La Guerre de demain, and The Next Great War.

Again, I accept the charge that my choice of tales is "profoundly Anglocentric." How could it be otherwise? Chesney's "Battle of Dorking" inaugurated the mode of the future-war story; and the first classics in the genre—The War of the Worlds, The Riddle of the Sands, When William Came, Wodehouse's The Swoop, and Charles Doughty's The Clouds—these were all from British authors. I followed where the fiction led and I found, for instance, that American short stories did not compare in number or in quality with what was appearing in Europe between 1871 and 1914. However, given the limitations of length, and in order to give the fullest idea of the political reach of future-war fiction, I chose Henry Grattan Donnelly's The Stricken Nation (1890) to show how the general connection between political intentions and fictional demonstrations worked in the United States as it did in Europe. The story never got beyond the first printing, because American readers could not believe that a British Fleet would blow New York to bits for the greater glory of the British Empire, as it used to be. The other American entry, Jack London's The Unparalleled Invasion (1910), presents one of the most extreme examples of future-war fiction: theory (Social Darwinism) is taken to a logical conclusion in the planned genocide of the Chinese people, "the sanitation of China."

Again, Bruce Franklin complains that I do "not even mention" the American Civil War; and I ask: "Why should I?" I was not writing a history of warfare; I was selecting short stories that would inter alia show how contemporary political ideas or perceived technological possibilities had helped to generate a form of fiction. I agree with Bruce Franklin that the conduct of the Civil War—rifle fire, railway transportation, entrenchments, artillery, and the failure of the shock cavalry charge—had foreshadowed what was to come. Unfortunately no one learnt from that fearful experience—certainly not the writers of future-war fiction and, more surprising, not even the military experts. As Field-Marshal Montgomery noted in his History of Warfare (440), the lessons were there, "yet the professional soldiers of Europe refused to take them seriously because they said the war was fought by amateurs! They had to learn the hard way."

The exception was John Ericcson's Monitor. That primitive ironclad so alarmed the European naval powers that they began building their own ironclad navies; and the future-war propagandists followed in the 1880s with tales like The Great Naval War of 1887, Der grosse Seekrieg im Jahre 1888, In a Conning Tower.

It may interest, or profoundly depress, readers to know that The Tale of the Next Great War is the first in a series of anthologies. The second volume, The Great War with Germany, 1890-1914, is now in press. It will, of necessity, be totally Eurocentric, since it has to deal with the extraordinary number of future-war stories that described the coming war—Der nächste Krieg—between the United Kingdom and the German Empire. However, the last entry leads in to one of the great changes in twentieth-century political alignments. It comes by way of Epilogue from the USA—from J. Bernard Walker's America Fallen (1915). That story was modeled on Chesney's Battle of Dorking; and the extract will include the long, intensely political preface from the eminent publisher, George Haven Putnam. He hoped that the appeal of America Fallen would be "very similar to the appeal made in The Battle of Dorking."I.F. Clarke, Milton under Wychwood.

 

News from the Hellenic Science-Fiction Front. The literary group Argonauts in cooperation with the science-fiction magazine Pleimks have established the first Hellenic science-fiction award called Ikaromenippos, aspiring to stand as the Greek equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon Hugo and Nebula awards. The purpose of this award is to promote and validate the status of fantastic literature in Greece and to provide visibility to Greek authors who engage in such creative acts. The awards (for best novel, best short story, best new voice) are to be given on an annual basis. The first Ikaromenippos awards were given on May 7, 1996 at a special ceremony in Athens. The committee which selected the winning texts (published in 1995) was comprised of the following five members: Demosthenes Kourtovik (writer and critic), Christos Lazos (writer, historian, founding member of the Society for the Study of Ancient Greek Technology, and publisher of the sf fanzine Andromeda), Yiorgos Balanos (writer, researcher, tv critic), Demetres Panagiotatos (writer and director for television and cinema), and Domna Pastourmatzi (assistant professor at Aristotle University, Thessaloniki). The awards, given by majority vote, were: 1) the Golden Ikaromenippos (first prize for the best science-fiction novel) to Konstantinos Pomosios for his Messianic Empire; 2) the Silver Ikaromenippos (second prize for the best science-fiction novel) to Dionysis Kalamvrezos for his The Disease and the Flower of Lotus; 3) the new voice Ikaromenippos (a prize given to a writer for a great first novel) to Anthipi Fiamou for her fantasy novel Bright Moons on the River of Lethe; 4) the Golden Ikaromenippos (first prize for the best science-fiction short story) to Makis Panorios for his story, "Actor"; 5) the Silver Ikaromenippos (second prize for the best science-fiction short story) to Dionysis Kalamvrezos for his story "You're Watching the Program Amphitheater" and to Kyriakos Athanasiades for his story "Punishment" (two awards due to a tie in score).

Two honorary awards were also given: one to the reporter and poet Thanasis Margaris as a recognition for his efforts to popularize and promote the cause of science fiction in Greece, and one to the publisher Elias Livanis for his support and publishing of five books of science fiction in the year 1995. Domna Pastourmatzi, Aristotle University.

 

A Speculative Music 'Zine. I recently received a copy of the latest issue (1.4) of Asterism: The Review Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Space Music and want to draw your attention to this 'zine which may be the only one of its kind in existence. At present, Asterism is basically a one-man operation run by publisher/editor Jeff Berkwits out of Evanston, Illinois; it aims to "explore new sounds and new ideas in the science-fiction, fantasy and space music realm" (to quote Berkwits' brief editorial).

Berkwits has focused his attention on an area which we're all familiar with to some extent, those of us tuned in to sf, fantasy, and speculative fiction, but which probably few of us know much about in any detail, that is, the music/ soundscape which so often accompanies the films and television we watch, or which is itself produced under the influence of the speculative worlds we enjoy reading about. There's a lot of aural material out there now and so the idea of a 'zine like Asterism is not only one whose time has come, it's probably long overdue.

The issue I've seen is 16 half-size pages long and contains over 20 reviews, in addition to a feature on Joel McNeely, who replaces John Williams as the Lucas film Star Wars composer of choice. Neither this interview nor the reviews are particularly in-depth, but then this isn't an academic or scholarly project; it's a labor of love. Berkwits is obviously very knowledgeable about a wide range of speculative music and has provided a venue for interested parties to find out what's available for listening.

Myself, I found too many of the items reviewed here described as "ethereal," and I have visions of endless replays of Enya-music or Brian Eno-esque ambient sound (I admit I'm probably being unfair here). I'd like to hear what Laurie Anderson is doing these days, or whether or not Tod Machover has written anymore techno-operas based on Philip K. Dick's novels, or if Philip Glass plans a follow-up to his kidnapped-by-aliens performance piece, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. On the other hand, Asterism reviews a tribute compilation to Tangerine Dream, there's at least one mention of Kraftwerk, and at least two of Gary Numan. So perhaps more science-fictional (and less transcendental) material will be introduced in future issues.

Meanwhile I certainly recommend Asterism to you as a 'zine plugged into the sound environment growing out of speculative fiction, film, and television, and, indeed, feeding back into it. Check it out by contacting Jeff Berkwits at P.O. Box 6210, Evanston IL 60204, 847/568-3957, "jberkwit@nslsilus.org". —VH.

 

Science-Fiction Vision as an Historical Mode. I want to call attention to Jack Dann's The Memory Cathedral because this novel has reconfirmed my sense that the past is as foreign a fictional country as the future. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that all the scholarship devoted to uncovering the past only affirms how estranged it is. Although not a prolific author, Jack Dann has written some extraordinary sf. In The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo da Vinci (Bantam Books, 1995), he turns the creative imagination that invented alien future cultures to the recreation of an alien culture of the past: the world, and especially the city of Florence, of that 15th century genius.

The Memory Cathedral's major formal trope, that of the memory cathedral itself, is a metaphor of the novel itself: a visualized mnemonic, a huge imagined space in which to store all memories, and through which one might walk to relive them (I was reminded of Brian Aldiss's "An Appearance of Life," with its "galactic museum" that also acted as such a trope for the act of story-telling which contained it). But there is more that reveals the sf imagination at work in this novel. A fascinating Afterword informs us that in Leonardo's drawings the most terrible weapons appear in a kind of Platonic purity; what the novel does is put that apolitical "scientific innocence" to the test by letting Leonardo see his weapons work. In the carnage that results, Leonardo loses whatever innocence he had, and it is the story of how that happens that provides this novel with its tragic moral vision.

The great accomplishment of The Memory Cathedral is its ability to catch the reader up not just in the drama of the lives of Leonardo and his friends and enemies but in the grandiose and terrible world in which they lived. Florence exists in all its glory and degradation. I have seldom read a book in which the sense of smell plays such a powerful role. Dann renders the contradictory odors of streets, cathedrals, homes, with hallucinatory richness. Putrefaction and perfume commingle; rotting meat and delicate bodily parts exist side by side in some young gentleman's quarters when a party is in progress; even in a church, the eastern odors of incense mingle with the stench of new-spilled blood. But smell is not the only sense brought to heightened life in these pages: there are a continuing cacophany of sounds, an explosion of brilliant colors, all transformed by Leonardo's own sensitive and alert sensorium, in which sex and death forever conjoin. Many sf writers seeking ways to make their imagined worlds come alive could do worse than consider this novel.

I believe that SFS readers in general, and Dann aficionados in particular, will find The Memory Cathedral a wonderful if dark fantasia on history as we think we know it. It is a sharply defined vision of a truly Other time and place, yet one that touches us for all its strange differences from our own; and isn't such ontological vision one of the defining aspects of the best sf?— Douglas Barbour, University of Alberta.

An Avram Davidson Bibliography. Perhaps best remembered for the title story of the collection Or All Our Seas with Oysters, Avram Davidson (1923-1993), published several sf novels and numerous sf stories, as well as novels and magazine stories in other genres. He was the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction 1962-1964. "A Preliminary Annotated Checklist of the Writings of Avram Davidson" by Henry Wessels appears in two parts in the Bulletin of Bibliography 54:23-37, 139-51, March and June, 1996.


moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home