Guyal of Sfere

July 27, 2011

The tale of “Guyal of Sfere” (beginning on page 89 here) is my favorite installment from Jack Vance’s original Dying Earth stories.  It’s not the most highly regarded of the stories in general, (that honor has to go to “Liane the Wayfarer”), but it has an earnestness to it that some of the other tales don’t quite manage.

The stories in the original collection gradually got longer and longer, until Guyal’s tale—the final one—had reached novella size.  The episodic adventures of Vance’s next Dying Earth protagonist, Cugel the Clever, took up two whole books; and by the time Cugel got to be even vaguely sympathetic, I’d been rooting for him to die for hundreds of pages.  Guyal, on the other hand, is a good fellow through and through.  He’s not especially a man of action, but he’s wise beyond his years.  He sees the decadence and evil of the dying planet around him, and he responds with a thirst for knowledge.  I think he’s a character that most fantasy and science fiction readers (especially young-ish ones) can readily identify with.

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The Adventurer

July 24, 2011

What could you do, if the solar system were ruled by two dynasties of murderous autocratic dictators? That is, in part, the question posed by C. M. Kornbluth’s The Adventurer.”  The answer is neither what you might expect, nor does it work out quite as planned.

This is a well written story.  My father admires Kornbluth for his humor, and the author’s writing certainly can be funny.  However, it usually tends toward a wry, ironic humor.  In “The Adventurer,” Kornbluth’s wit almost completely ceases to be humorous; the levity is replaced by dark ironies, which recur throughout the story.

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The Last Question

July 18, 2011

Many people think “The Last Question” was Isasc Asimov’s greatest short story, and I would probably agree. That is, I would agree if I thought had read enough of Asimov’s work to feel comfortable evaluating it as a whole. However, I have not actually read that much Asimov, particularly not that much of his short fiction. The reason is that a lot of what I have read seemed quite dated. There are often some really innovative ideas, but his notions about what would be possible in the far future sometimes seem hopelessly skewed.

For example, the whole of the Foundation series—amazing as some of its episodes are, even if they do involve people who regress to using coal-powered faster-than-light starships—is undone by an understanding of chaotic systems. That was not something Asimov could have known when he started writing. “The Encyclopedists” was published in 1942, while Edward Lorenz‘s meteorological work leading to the discovery of strange attractors and the “butterfly effect” wasn’t done until around 1960. (Lorenz, by the way, was one of the nicest scientists I have ever met, and always seemed interested in talking to students, even lowly undergraduates like me who were just working in the Green Building for the summer.) I remember as a kid hearing about how Asimov stayed on top of real science so well, and he incorporated it into his writing. In fact, I’m sure I saw (but did not read) some true science books he wrote for children. When I actually read more of his novels staring as a teenager, I was disappointed, however. Clearly, the man tried to get reasonable science into his fiction, and I give him credit for that; but I almost wish he hadn’t made the attempt. It’s easier for me to accept a SF premise that’s obviously fantastical that one that is put forward as if it might really reflect how the universe works.

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One night, in the smokey Zamoran city of the Maul, Conan the barbarian sneaked into the cylindrical silver Tower of the Elephant.  This was the first Conan story by Robert E. Howard that I ever read, since it comes first chronologically in the warrior’s career.  Conan himself, though he is already an experienced killer, comes across as a bit of a seventeen-year-old tyro.  And though the descriptions of his rippling barbarian muscles and swift barbarian reflexes are standard for Howard’s writing, the brash ignorance displayed by the future king of Aquilonia’s grows much less significant in the author’s later tales.

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“The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts.”  So begins one of Clark Ashton Smith’s early works, “The Abominations of Yondo.”  Already from the description of the dark sands, washed up from other worlds by the tides of the cosmos, the story draws me in.  I find the images of “the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns” particular evocative, for I have a particular hatred of black, volcanic ash.  I have trekked long miles and ascended mountains, and of all the surfaces a hiker may walk upon, I like that coarse lava dust the least.  My feet sink into it as I set down every step; then it trickles into my shoes and sucks at my heels as I try to lift my leg for another stride.  By midday, the ash is baking hot, and if I should stumble and fall, tiny hot shards scrape at my exposed skin.

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To Sarnath

July 9, 2011

I am establishing this blog as a place to record and disseminate my thoughts about the science fiction and fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed over the years.  This gives me a venue to detail the reactions, ideas, complaints, and analyses that have run through my head over the years.  From what undoubtedly very limited readership I shall have, I hope to get some comments and feedback in response.

My brother (who is actually a fantasy writer) says my taste in science fiction and fantasy is “anachronistic.”  I suppose this is, to a significant extent, true.  A lot of the things that I like are not recent.  But why should they be?  There is a long history of fantasy, science fiction, and horror literature; most of what’s good out of that is unlikely to have been composed in the last few years.

So I have chosen the first short story I’m going to write about to be emblematic of my retrograde preferences.  And it’s my personal preferences that will determine the subject matter of this blog.  Many of the tales I will be commenting on will be old.  (I plan, for example, to discuss the greatest exemplar of the Victorian epistolary novel at some point.)  But not everything will be so backward looking.  Since my interests are not limited to written narratives, my blogging will not be either; I plan to post about films and other media, not just novels and short stories.

The inaugural story is “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” by Howard Philips Lovecraft, and for it the blog is named.  (I considered shortening it to “doomcame” in the Web address, but my wife said that sounded like a superhero comic book villain.)  I don’t want any readers complaining about spoilers, so I suggest they read the short story now.

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