Science Fiction Studies

#35 = Volume 12, Part 1 = March 1985


  • H. Bruce Franklin. Mark Twain and Science Fiction (David Ketterer, ed. The Science Fiction of Mark Twain)
  • David Ketterer. The Belated Discovery of Canadian Science Fiction (and Fantasy) (John Bell & Lesley Choyce, eds. Visions from the Edge: An Anthology of Atlantic Canadian Science Fiction end Fantasy; John Robert Colombo, ed. Friendly Aliens: Thirteen Stories of tbe Fantastic Set in Canada by Foreign Authors; -----. Years of Light: A Celebration of Leslie A. Croutch)



H. Bruce Franklin

Mark Twain and Science Fiction

David Ketterer, ed. The Science Fiction of Mark Twain. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1984. xxxiii + 385pp. $27.50.

This volume can be instructively compared with such ostensibly similar collections as Harold Beaver's The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Dale L. Walker's Curious Fragments: Jack London's Tales of Fantasy Fiction, and Richard Gid Powers' The Science Fiction of Jack London. Whereas those anthologies provide overwhelming evidence that Poe and London were true craftsmen and workaday practitioners of SF, The Science Fiction of Mark Twain makes us wonder how an author who produced one of the greatest masterpieces of SF and who almost obsessively labored on other major SF projects could end up being such a problematic figure in the history of the genre.

Ketterer's editorial apparatus supplies precise information about the composition and publication history of the works, as well as helpful but unobtrusive annotation. What we need here, however, is far more guidance than we get, either from the Introduction or the notes, in comprehending the historical and philosophical contexts of Twain's SF, so that we can understand both its astonishing achievements and its lamentable failures.

Mark Twain experimented in almost every mode of l9th-century SF. We can find specimens of them all in Ketterer's volume: marvelous inventions ("From the 'London Times' of 1904" and "Sold to Satan"); space travel ("Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven"); time travel (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court); travel in other dimensions ("The Great Dark" and "3,000 Years among the Microbes"); utopian speculation ("The Curious Republic of Gondour"); dystopian future ("The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire"); the alien visitor ("Sold to Satan"); psychic phenomena ("Mental Telegraphy" and "Mental Telegraphy Again"); alternate history ("The Secret History of Eddypus" and A Connecticut Yankee).

Yet by any even halfheartedly rigorous definition, very few of these works are truly SF. Although "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" involves travel through astronomical distances to arrive at a "heaven" in which earthlings are vastly outnumbered by deceased beings from other worlds, the tale is obviously fantasy in form and intent. The two "Mental Telegraphy" pieces are not fiction at all but essays seeking to convince us of the actuality of certain psi phenomena. As in the various "Mysterious Stranger" documents (none of which, unfortunately, is included in this volume), the fascinating SF speculations within "Sold to Satan" do not transmute the form of the somewhat conventional fantasy in which they are presented. "The Great Dark," like the related pieces collected with it in John Tuckey's Which Was the Dream? and Other Symbolic Wrintigs of the Later Years, dramatizes dream as reality, reality as dream, so that the narrative is controlled not by some extrapolation from science but by "the Superintendent of Dreams."

By no means do I wish to belittle the stature of Mark Twain as a major figure in the history of SF. Indeed, it seems to me that Ketterer if anything is too defensive and timid in presenting his subject. Part of his problem here may lie in the simple fact that Twain's importance in SF comes almost entirely from a single work, a work that towers as perhaps the greatest achievement of l9th-century American SF: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Ketterer, who has elsewhere written extensively and incisively on A Connecticut Yankee, here merely provides some rather discursive comments while excerpting about 20 pages of the novel.

But it is A Connecticut Yankee, with its astonishing interplay of alternate histories, that poses issues we only now, almost a century later, dimly understand and find ourselves forced to confront. And the novel dramatizes these issues within the philosophic contradictions raised by travel into past time, in ways not to be seen again in SF for about half a century. These contradictions themselves become the form of such questions as: Can an industrial revolution, unsupported by cultural revolution and political revolution, achieve the democracy postulated by capitalism? Can periods of historical time accurately be labeled by the governing technology (stone age, iron age, machine age, etc.)? Is the inventor of new technology, who may seem to be a lone genius dropped into an alien time, actually just the embodiment of the technological leading edge of his epoch? Does any contact between industrialized nations and preindustrial societies inevitably produce the imperialism characteristic of Twain's world, even when it has a face as innocent as that of the Connecticut Yankee? These questions themselves are facets of a crystal whose dazzling dialectic--of determinism and voluntarism, materialism and idealism, empiricism and solipsism--pulses with the contradictory forces of American industrial capitalism, mixed with Twain's responses of fascination and revulsion.

Indeed, it is Twain's long love-hate relationship with industrial capitalism that generates the dialectic of this novel. While Twain himself was falling victim to the l9th-century industrialist capitalist myth of the lone genius inventor (in his devastating dream of fabulous wealth flowing from Paige's automatic typesetter), he was able to show where the cult of this archetype could lead, including his astonishing prevision of 20th-century warfare.

But the rest of Twain's SF--that is, essentially the materials gathered together in this volume--while often electrifying in its brilliance and thrilling in its promise, contains no comparable achievement. Manuscripts such as "The Great Dark" are potential masterpieces, but they are unfinished in every sense. Some of the works are so ill-conceived that even their finest insights are twisted. For example, the very conception of "The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire" lies in the colossal blunder of attributing the dystopian future to Mary Baker Eddy. Twain's heavy-handed attack on the anti-historical, anti-scientific, anti-materialist extremism of Christian Science itself suffers from its own confusion about the actual forces threatening some of the worst nightmares of the 20th century and the far future. To feel the poignancy of the failure here, and to understand what is missing, we have only to compare it to A Connecticut Yankee. And what Twain sought was possible. Just six years after Twain apparently abandoned this manuscript, Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908) accurately identifies the true 20th-century nemesis of human progress and thus succeeds in projecting a nightmarish dystopian future with terrifying similarity to actual history, and even deftly weaves in one of the most potentially incisive themes of Twain's work, the future's confusion about our own epoch.

Unhappily, each of the major projects included here, however impressive its potential and accomplishments, must be considered a failure. More successful, and more readable, are some of the less ambitious efforts, where Twain seems more firmly in control of his material and his writing.

"From the 'London Times' of 1904" (1898) subtly dramatizes the destructive potential of two crucial myths of 19th-century American industrial capitalism and the forces spawning these myths. (Both of these myths are central to one of the main cultural forms shaping the context of Twain's SF, the S-F dime novel.) Twain's cultural matrix (which generates our cultural matrix) presented technological advance as the creation of lone inventive geniuses, and human progress as teleologically linked to technological advance. In Twain's story, the lone inventive genius creates a gadget that somehow allows us to see, six years into the future, four years into the 20th century, and in both hemispheres, the triumph of imperialism and the emergence of what we would now call fascism--on a technologically advanced Earth.

One of the most intriguing of the short pieces is "Sold to Satan," written in 1904, which foreshadows the late 20th century's confrontation with its ultimate choices about how to use the material forces placed in our hands by our own science. Satan, whose body of radium is cloaked in a protective skin of polonium (both elements just recently discovered by the Curies) discusses using nuclear power to provide all the energy of the world in the 20th century, but also warns that "If I should strip off my skin the world would vanish away in a flash of flame and smoke." The capitalist narrator responds to this quintessential choice by seeking to transform Satan's body of radium and skin of polonium into commodities for sale by his private corporation.

It is perhaps no coincidence that close to the center of these pieces, as in A Connecticut Yankee, loom the industrial capitalism and imperialism of Twain's America. One cannot comprehend the achievements and failures of Mark Twain's SF without seeing it within his historical context, which forms part of our own.

David Ketterer

The Belated Discovery of Canadian Science Fiction (and Fantasy)

John Bell & Lesley Choyce, eds. Visions from the Edge: An Anthology of Atlantic Canadian Science Fiction end Fantasy. Porters Lake, NS: Pottersfield Press, 1981. 215pp. $7.95.

John Robert Colombo, ed. Friendly Aliens: Thirteen Stories of tbe Fantastic Set in Canada by Foreign Authors Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1981. 181pp. $8.95.

-----. Years of Light: A Celebration of Leslie A. Croutch. Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1982. 193pp. $9.95.

Back in December 1942, the Canadian pulp magazine Uncanny Tales (one of three such which for a very short period printed original material) published an article by Donald A. Wollheim entitled "Whither Canadian Fantasy" (John Robert Colombo reprints it at the end of Friendly Aliens [pp. 175-79]). The subject matter is there, Wollheim claims, but, like the untapped Canadian North itself, it has yet to be exploited. In the same year Wollheim published two related pieces (both reprinted in Colombo's Years of Light, pp. 141-44) in a Canadian fanzine entitled Light produced by a Parry Sound, Ontario resident named Leslie A. Croutch. "Why Not a French Fantasy Magazine" (Light 117; June 1942) led to the follow-up article "Don't Do Nothing!" (Light 125, Christmas Number 1942). In both these instances Wollheim is attempting to encourage a specifically Quebecois form of SF and fantasy.

The promise that Wollheim foresaw is still largely unfulfilled. But in the wake of Colombo's Other Canadas (1979), the first (albeit at least 20 years late) anthology of Canadian fantastic literature, there are scattered indications that the beast is stirring (also, I would like to think, as a result of some of my own work). Thus the lackluster stories of nine Toronto-area writers appear in New Bodies: A Collection of Science Fiction (1981), edited by Lorne Gould; and Press Porcépic is currently soliciting manuscripts for a 1985 anthology of Canadian SF to be edited by Judith Merrill. But just as Frankenstein's monster is, to some degree, indistinguishable from Frankenstein himself, so much of this stirring currently emanates from Colombo himself.

A welcome exception is Bell and Choyce's Visions from the Edge: An Anthology of Atlantic Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, not to be confused with the earlier Australian confection, The View from the Edge: A Workshop of Science Fiction Stories (Nostrilia Press, 1977), edited by George Turner. The 20 works collected (and unattractively set with small margins and close type in spite of the publication "assistance of the Nova Scotia Department of Culture, Recreation and Fitness"), include one complete novella and an extract from James DeMille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder; and chronologically presented, they range from 1885 until 1980. Altogether, they nicely complement the historical presentation in Colombo's Other Canadas (which includes a different extract from the DeMille novel).

In the Introduction, Bell and Choyce (I assume they are the joint authors although this is not indicated on the contents page or elsewhere) make the point that H. Bruce Franklin once made about major American authors: "virtually every major Canadian mainstream writer has written at least some science fiction and fantasy" (p. 6). But this material was not ghettoized as, from the 1920s onwards, it was in the US pulp magazines--"we will find more Canadian science fiction and fantasy in Maclean's than our three short-lived genre pulps --Uncanny Tales (1940-43), Eerie Tales (1941 [one July issue]) and Brief Fantastic Adventures (1950's)"; and for that reason, it has escaped attention. Omitted from the list of original-story pulp magazines here is Les adventures futuristes, of which, according to Years of Light, ten issues appeared between March 1949 and September 1949, and wrongly included is Brief Fantastic Tales which, again according to Years of Light (p. 137), did not print original stories but, along with 18 other Canadian pulp magazines, simply reprinted American and British material. This kind of carelessness unfortunately characterizes each of the three volumes under review and in each typos abound. Thus we find Colombo quoting Bell (for he assumes that Bell is the sole author of the Introduction) out of context (while correcting his grammar and omitting an italicization) and totally perverting the meaning of the statement that I have just quoted above. But I will (for the most part anyway) resist drawing further attention to such bollixes and concentrate instead on the services that Bell, Choyce, and Colombo have rendered.

Of the 20 authors represented in Visions from the Edge ("length and stylistic considerations obliged us to exclude a number of excellent [but stylistically inept?] stories"), only nine were actually born in Canada and "made their careers here" (p. 9). The remainder consist of Atlantic Canadians who lived abroad or foreign-born writers who lived, or live, in Atlantic Canada. In between an introductory fantasy piece by Archibald MacMechan and a concluding fantasy piece by William Kotzwinkle, there are 12 very uneven works (by Simon Newcomb [the mathematician and astronomer mentioned in Wells's The Time Machine], H. Percy Blanchard, Francis Flagg, Laurence Manning, Douglas Angus, Hugh MacLennan, Elizabeth Mann Borgese, Andrew Wetmore, H.R. Percy, Jean Marie Chard, Spider Robinson, and Harold Walters) and one extract (by DeMille) that count as SF. A story by T.H. Raddall, "The Amulet," is on the SF/fantasy borderline. The best of these stories are Newcomb's "The End of the World" (which epitomizes the catastrophe theme so popular in this collection and provides a likely inspiration ["The size of our luminary was multiplied so many times that it was an hour after the lower edge touched the horizon before the upper edge had set": p. 41] for Rand Gaynor's arresting cover illustration); Flagg's "The Dancer in the Crystal"; Manning's Stapledonian "The Living Galaxy"; Angus's "About Time to Go South" (how do you get your teeth fixed after an atomic war?); Wetmore's "Owe, Canada"; and Percy's "Letter from America" (an alternate-history story about life for the English in a North America which has been won by the French).

The novella, After the Cataclysm; a Romance of the Age to Come (1909) by H. Percy Blanchard, a Nova Scotia lawyer, while written in a long-winded and florid style and lacking dramatic action, is of some interest. Its narrator "dies" during a fire in Rochester, New York in l90l but is revived in the utopian world of 1934. This Joachite utopia (it came about in accordance with God's will) followed on the cataclysm brought about by a brush with a meteor. The narrative, as Bell and Choyce point out in their introductory note (each selection is preceded by a similarly useful introduction), includes "a number of interesting and accurate political and scientific forecasts" (p. 45). All but the last two chapters (which were added in 1908) were apparently written in 1900. The way in which the 1900 portion of the tale ends (with echoes of the opening situations suggests that Blanchard was set to reveal that everything has been a dream. But the 1908 chapters leave the narrator in the 1934 utopia feeling lonesome: "I am like a wandering star away from its natural orbit" (p. 102). In other words--and it now seems appropriate that we do not know the narrator's name--he is like the meteor. We have been told "that some new crisis is near at hand" (p. 101). Will he be its instrument?

The subtitle of Friendly Aliens, Thirteen Stories of the Fantastic Set in Canada by Foreign Authors, explains Colombo's rather slender premise. As in the horror film The Fly (1958)  --which is set in Quebec (a fact, oddly enough, that Colombo does not mention in his Preface) and wherein a fly and a man exchange heads and bodies--the conjunction seems forced and unnatural, aside from putting Canada in the fly's role. Six of the selections are horror fantasies. One of them, August Derleth's "The Thing that Walked on the Wind," is about something akin to the archetypal Canadian monster, the Wendigo, described by Algernon Blackwood in a story of that name which Colombo does not include, doubtless because it is reprinted in Other Canadas. (The Blackwood story that is included in Friendly Aliens is entitled "A Haunted Island." For a full list see Colombo's Blackwood's Books: A Bibliography Devoted to Algernon Blackwood [1981].) Since Brian Aldiss has identified SF generally with Frankenstein's monster, it seems appropriate to identify what I have described as the stirring beast of Canadian fantastic literature with this Wendigo. Any connection with the stirrer may be hinted at by the fact that the name "Colombo" contains the same number of syllables and the same final vowel as the name "Wendigo"! Only three of the stories that Colombo has collected count as SF: the rather good "revolution" by Edmund Hamilton, the rather bad "Arctic God" by John Russell Fearn, and the teasing time-loop story, "Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket," by James Tiptree, Jr. The remaining stories by Jack London, Robert W. Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro are more or less straight fantasies, while the horror fantasies are those by Blackwood, A. Merritt, George Allan England, M.P. Shiel, Derleth, and Vincent Starrett. Like Bell and Choyce, Colombo provides useful introductory notes for each of his selections, although he omits to point out that the issue of Amazing Stories in which England's "The Thing from Outside" was reprinted was the now famous first issue.

Colombo's Years of Light is a much more substantial contribution--in spite of the fact that it is overblown, that pages 188 and 189 are reversed, and that it is full of typos. I have resolved not to be sidetracked into enumerating such blemishes, and I will not do so; but in this case, there is a particular problem. The material that Colombo reprints from the fanzine Light also includes typos and is full of grammatical and spelling errors some of which, but not all, Colombo identifies with a "[sic]." But because he uses "sic" very erratically, when one reads "In 1958 [which should be 1938] Alfred picked up a copy of the July ASTOUNDING" (p. 123) or "I'd given my word not ot" (p. 125)--it is impossible to know whether Years of Light is simply reproducing a mistake from the original or contributing new mistakes.

Leslie A. Croutch (1915-69), from the age of 14 a lifetime resident of Parry Sound (he was born in White River and ultimately died the archetypal Canadian death "of a heart attack while shoveling snow" [p. 75]), was an overweight bachelor and a radio and television repairman who was also "Canada's premier science-fiction fan" (p. 1). He edited Canada's longest running fanzine, which from the September 1941 issue (No. 108) on, was entitled Light. All told "he published 175 issues of his want-lists, of Croutch Magazine Mart News, of Croutch News, of Electron, and of Light, covering the years from 1938 (his statement) to mid-1961 " (p. 84). He also, as Colombo tells us rather too many times (pp. 2, 72, 127), wrote almost 100 (for the most part rather inept) stories. (Researchers may consult the Croutch Collection in Toronto's Spaced-Out Library.)

The meat of the book--and the bulk of its pages--is contained in the seven Appendices, an appropriate indication of the fact that Canadian SF and fandom have been essentially an appendage of American SF and fandom. The first four appendices directly concern Croutch: "A Biography of Leslie A Croutch," "A History of Light," "Light on A.E. Van Vogt," and "The Fiction of Leslie A. Croutch." In order to convey some sense of what a fanzine looks like, the second appendix (pp. 85-104) reproduces a complete 20-page issue of Light 36 (August 1948), the issue commemorating Torcon, the Sixth World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto, the first such convention to be held outside the US. It includes a long and enthusiastic article by Croutch entitled "Torcon Memories. " There are other useful illustrations throughout the book, including a photograph of Croutch (p. 65), pages from his juvenile notebook stories (pp. 78-81), and the first page of the 1973 Torcon II Pocket Programme Book (p. 178); but no initial listing of these illustrations follows the contents page. Amongst the more significant material that appeared in Light was "A Tale of Mangledomvritch" (Light 10, November 1941) by the fan-author Ray Bradbury (a contributor of six stories to Maclean's "between 1948 and 1956" [p. 164]) reprinted from "an American fanzine [produced by Damon Knight] named Snide" (p.106), and a substantial article by Croutch on A.E. Van Vogt which appeared in Light 123 (Christmas Number, 1942) and which is reprinted in the third appendix (pp. 119-24). Not only was this the first fan article on Van Vogt; it "may well constitute the first article published anywhere in the world on this powerful and prolific science-fiction writer" (p. 116).

Croutch's other contributions often took the form of "Light Flashes," the title he used for his omnium gatherum editorial column. Under this heading, in the second of the two "main" parts of Years of Light, Colombo has culled "forty six 'gems'...from 'Light Flashes' but also from end-of column items used as fill[er] in issues of Light. Others are taken from guest columns carried by Canadian Fandom, Censored, and Macabre" (p.36). They reveal Croutch's claim, for example, to have coined the term "prozines" for "professional magazines" (p. 38); they also exhibit his sense of humor (although many of his "Daffy Definitions" are sexist by today's standards).

The fourth appendix lists (but does not number) Croutch's 98 known stories, known in some cases by title alone. Colombo reprints what are presumably the best or most interesting four of these in the first part of Years of Light. "The Immigrant," published in Light 44 (February 1950), reveals Croutch's adverse reaction to the Quebec of the Duplessis era. In the sovereign state of Quebec, an unsuccessful attempt is made to enforce "certain laws" which "declare it illegal for a Quebecker to leave the Province" (p. 7). In the "Light Flashes" column for the same issue, Croutch points out that this story "was written March 9, 1949," and wonders: "might not things be at such a pretty pass in perhaps 20 years that Quebec will consider itself an independent autonomy" (p. 51). He later (Light 48, Second Number, 1951) characterizes "Duplessisland" as "a Canadian form of dictatorship, " and registers the belief that "New Brunswick is becoming more French-Canadian than Canadian, which is insult enough without going any further" (p. 52).

"Playmate" (Imagination: Stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy, November 1951) was twice reprinted, making it Croutch's most successful story. It is a corny piece about a child with an alien friend who learns there are other aliens around and finally becomes one of them. "The Day the Bomb Fell" (Amazing Stories, June 1948) is about a time when, thanks to the use of atomic bombs, monkeys and other animals have superseded homo sapiens. Human beings are considered dangerous and kept in cages. The story concerns itself particularly with what happens when one escapes. It should be noted that these last three titles are all maturation stories. This is a theme which applies to both Croutch and Canada. Both, in the late '40s and in the early '50s, could be described as being in a state of arrested adolescence (although Croutch does refer, in his February 1950 piece on Quebec mentioned above, to Canada as "rapidly growing into responsibly [sic] adulthood" [p. 51]).

The last three apppendices focus on the Canadian scene: "The Fantastic Pulp Magazines Published in Canada," "The Fanzines that Appeared in Canada in 1981-82, " and "Panorama of Fandom in Canada. " To some degree Croutch has been used as an excuse for this wider context. There is much useful data here about the 22 Canadian pulp magazines that "appeared between 1940 and 1949," with the promise of "A detailed discussion of their contribution to... Canadiana and to the world of pulp literature" at "a later date" (p. 164); about the Fantasy Classification System (1952), "the first theoretical work in the field of fantastic literature written by a Canadian" (p. 170), by Alastair (not "Alistair") Cameron, then a student at the University of Saskatoon, now Professor of Astronomy at Harvard; about the "ill-fated Laser Books series" (p. 179); about the Spaced Out Library; about the 1971 Secondary Universe IV Conference in Toronto; about the pro fan Susan Wood; and about the current fanzine scene. Amidst the typos, Years of Light contains a fund of out-of-the-way information.

To this store I can add a few details. There are several references to Nils H. Frome, "a fictionist and very able artist" (p. 30) according to Croutch, "a pioneer fan in Canada" (pp. 71,154) according to Harry J. Warner, and the publisher of "the premier Canadian fan magazine...Supramundane Stories" (p.154) according to Colombo. Frome seems to have dropped off the face of the Earth. Colombo writes, "The last reference to him in fan literature seems to be the letter he wrote to the editor of Canadian Fandom, published in September 1947. It was sent from Camp 5, Bloedel, B.C." (p. 155). In "A Science fiction Coming of Age," which will appear in a forthcoming collection of James Blish essays entitled The Tale That Wags the God (Advent, 1985?) and edited by Cy Chauvin, Blish mentions that in the 1930s, "Through my published letters, I had gotten into correspondence with another youngster named Nils Frome, of Frazer's Mills, Ontario, who did very skillful fine-line drawings with the back of an ordinary fountain pen, and who also wrote gloomily Lovecraftian stories with the front side of the pen. " Blish completed one of Frome's many incomplete stories, but "the story didn't sell." Another of Blish's collaborations with Frome that Blish had submitted to Astounding met the same fate. "To the best of my knowledge, Nils Frome never did break into print." "Our correspondence dwindled and died. I wonder what happened to him; out of my absolute ignorance of the graphic arts. I still have the feeling that he drew very well, gluey though his prose undeniably was, but as far as the record shows, he never sold a drawing either." But Blish never forgot the hapless "dud" Frome. My researches into the Blish Papers in the New Bodleian Library reveal that in at least one instance, a potentially embarrassing questionnaire that Blish filled out towards the end of his life, he used "Nilsson Frome" as a pseudonym. Frome, then, became for Blish a shield against recognition, a guarantee of nonentityship. The ploy has ultimately failed. Gradually, Frome is emerging from obscurity, and so is Canadian SF and fantasy.

[A response by Sam Moskowitz appears in SFS 36 (July 1985).]

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