Archive for February, 2017

TT: When Humans Fight Back

February 2, 2017

ALAN: Last week, after we finished our chat, I realized that alien invaders don’t have to be physically present in order to take over our world.

JANE: I suppose that’s true.  Has anyone written from that angle?

Put Up Your Hands!

Put Up Your Hands!

ALAN: The famous British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle wrote a number of first-class SF novels. One of them, A for Andromeda, was dramatised by the BBC in 1961. My family quickly became addicted – we watched every episode. It scared the willies out of eleven-year-old me.

JANE: Tell me about it…

ALAN: A new radio telescope receives a signal from the Andromeda Nebula. When decoded, it proves to be a set of instructions for building an advanced computer.

Once the advanced computer has been built, it turns out to be able to create and control living cells. Eventually, using genetic information obtained from a person (Julie Christe in her first major dramatic role!), the computer constructs a human clone which is known as Andromeda.

Initially, Andromeda seems benign. For example, she develops an enzyme that heals injured cells. But the enzyme proves to be a two edged sword – sometimes it makes people sicker.

It soon becomes clear that the computer and Andromeda are initiating a plot to take over humanity. The future looks grim

JANE:  Indeed it does…  And apparently the advent of computers looked grim to Sir Fred Hoyle – and, even though an astronomer, he had doubts about what might be “out there.”  Or maybe not…  This sounds more like what we’d term “horror” than an actual cautionary tale.

ALAN: That may be why it worked so well on television.

However the aliens don’t always win when they invade us. The idea of aliens defeating humanity was a concept that did not sit well with John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding (later Analog).

JANE: Campbell showed a preference in this direction even before he became an editor.  Many of his own works – these days people tend to forget that Campbell was a popular SF writer both under his own name and the pseudonym Don A. Stuart – were stories in which humanity beat back invasions.  “Who Goes There?”  — better known by its movie title The Thing – is only one of these.

ALAN: The Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of SF remarks that some of Don. A. Stuart stories (such as the 1939 story “Cloak of Aesir”, for example) are at odds with Campbell’s later editorial policy that humanity would always get the better of any aliens. And, in one of his many autobiographies, Isaac Asimov says that the reason why there are no aliens at all in his Foundation stories is that he felt uncomfortable with Campbell’s human chauvinism, and so he bypassed the problem by simply not having any aliens in the stories that he sold to Astounding.

As we mentioned when we were discussing psionic powers, Campbell really was one of the most influential SF editors of the twentieth century.   So because he insisted on publishing stories that clearly demonstrated humanity’s superiority to the aliens, that’s exactly what his authors provided him with…

JANE: It’s interesting to note that the time period in which Campbell-as-editor dominated the SF field was during WWII.  Stories in which “we” lost and “they” won would not have appealed to the mood of the time.  Even after WWII was over, the trend had been established.

ALAN: That’s probably very true. One of my favorite stories from this period, and one that works strictly to Campbell’s prejudices, is Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade in which an alien spaceship lands in Lincolnshire in the year 1345.  The story was originally published as a serial in the July–August–September 1960 issues of “Astounding” before appearing as a novel from Doubleday in 1960. It seems to have been almost continuously in print ever since. These days it is available from Baen Books.

It tells the tale of Sir Roger de Tourneville, who is recruiting a military force to assist King Edward III in the war against France. The aliens are caught off guard by his English army. They have no real experience of hand-to-hand combat and they are soon overwhelmed by the angry English forces. Once Sir Roger gains control of the spaceship, he manages to figure out how to drive it, and he and his army go adventuring among the stars…

JANE: I quite enjoyed The High Crusade.  Anderson – who was a, I believe, a founding member of the SCA – knew his historical material well, which made a great difference.  I’ve heard the same people, who roll their eyes about the likelihood of Ewoks defeating Imperial walkers and the like, go ecstatic over The High Crusade.

In fact, now that I think about it, The High Crusade is proof that editorial preferences can inspire, rather than stultify, creativity.

ALAN: The High Crusade might be said to have created its own lineage but, before I get to that, I’d like to mention a few more novels in the “humans defeat aliens” vein. In Harry Turtledove’s “Worldwar” novels (1994), the alien invasion takes place during World War II. The squabbling nations stop fighting each other (somewhat reluctantly) and join forces to fight the invader.

In Footfall (1985) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the government recruits a team of SF writers to advise the military on possible alien tactics and technologies! And, of course, the SF authors get it right every time. Take that, ratbag aliens!

JANE: The Footfall concept actually has a real life counterpart in Sigma, “The Science Fiction Think Tank,” founded by frequent Analog contributor, Arlan Andrews.  I’m not sure if they’ve advised the government regarding aliens, but they do brainstorm creative solutions to problems.

ALAN: I’d never heard of Sigma until you mentioned it. I’ve just gone and looked it up and yes, we definitely have a case here of life imitating art.

JANE: As we said earlier and will certainly say again, once a variation on the Alien Invasions trope is developed, it isn’t simply replaced by new developments.  Instead, it continues to attract new adherents, who give it their own spin.

One of the more recent takes on this I’ve read is War of the Planet Burners by Dennis Herrick.  Aliens invade, cut off electricity (and thus everything dependent on it, which is just about everything), and set about terraforming Earth to suit their particular needs.  But humanity – in this case in the person of combat veteran Joel Birchard – is determined to fight back.

Herrick is a huge fan of Alien Invasion and First Contact stories.  He even brought out his own reprint of “Farewell to the Master,” the short story by Harry Bates that was the source for the film The Day the Earth Stood Still.  As a bonus, he provided a diverse list of Alien Invasion/First Contact stories at the end.

ALAN: Harry Bates was not very prolific. In many ways he was a one-shot wonder. None of his other twenty or so short stories came anywhere near approaching the quality of “Farewell to the Master”. Pity…

JANE: You mentioned that High Crusade has its own progeny.  How about we start with that next time?

Brain Stretching

February 1, 2017

This last week was all about brain stretching.  I immersed myself in volumes on illustration, fonts, and related areas of book design.  I stared at letters and pictures until I could see them as shapes, not as information symbols.

Lucky Canister!

Lucky Canister!

Did I enjoy myself?  Get back to me on that.  I feel like someone who has just run a marathon and hasn’t stopped panting.  My mental muscles are still aching.  Oh, and someone just walked over and told me that the race is far from over, it’s only starting.

When my mind was saturated with information, I took a sideways turn into using my hands so my head could recover.  I’ve been wanting to try decoupage.  I’d even bought a jar of ModPodge several months ago, but it had just sat in my closet, waiting for the right time.  When I found a book specifically about using ModPodge (as opposed to several I’d looked on about decoupage, all of which seemed to assume you wanted to reproduce Victorian effects or things you could achieve far more easily with a  cheap decal), I knew the time had come.

Because I’m a practical person, and because Jim and I have just about no available wall space, I decided to decorate a canister that, at some future date, I could use to store something.   Then I went and stared at various types of paper, looking for what would appeal.

I was about to give up until I could make a trip to the craft store when, stuck up on a high shelf, I glimpsed the remnants of a craft project I’d tried – and failed to complete – some years before.

My sister, Ann, had given me a kit which promised to show you how to make a hanging globe from the scarlet and gold envelopes the Chinese use to hold New Year’s “lucky money.”  I’d not done very well with it – although whether the fault was mine or the kit’s is anyone’s guess.  But I’d loved the paper and couldn’t make myself throw away the envelopes.  Thus, there sat the partially completed project, a mute reminder of failure, for several years.

Now I grinned, pulled down the partially formed globe, and, before I could think my way out of it, started cutting up the envelopes.  Where possible, I preserved the diamond shapes that had been part of the original project but, when I couldn’t, I allowed myself to just keep pieces and trust they’d come in useful.  Then I started putting on the ModPodge.

I was about half-way through when I realized that what I was doing was actually related to the research I’d been doing.  As with fonts and illustrations, I was making myself look at the envelopes not as envelopes, or as carefully folded diamonds meant to be fit together, but as paper.  The image printed on the envelopes had a distinct orientation which I preserved, but when I needed a small piece to patch a gap or create a border, I looked not at the picture, but at the underlying pattern until I found what I needed.

The process was extremely satisfying.  Three coats of sealant gave gloss that, if possible, brightened the original scarlet and gold, as well as protecting the paper.  As a final touch, I slid the tassel that had been intended to hang from the bottom of the original folded paper globe over the knob on the lid.

And there my new canister shines.  I’m not sure what I’ll put into it.  Maybe some of the guinea pigs’ treats.  Maybe tea bags.  Maybe…  Who knows?

As if doing this one project opened up a storehouse in my mind, I have ideas for related projects.  The same book contained instructions for making votive candle holders.  I’d liked the tops, but found the bottoms boring.  However, I’ve thought of some very interesting alternatives involving polymer clay, wire, beads, even gravel from my landscaping.

More brain stretching…  As I have written elsewhere (see “Walking Away from It” in my Wanderings on Writing), sometimes the best way to solve a creative project is to think about something else for a while.  You may be surprised at what comes forth.