Thursday, February 13, 2014

Three tales from The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Wells, Kipling, and Williamson

Cover of the edition I borrowed
I wanted to read “Problems of Creativeness,” an earlier version of “The Death of Socrates,” the first chapter of Thomas M. Disch’s fixup 334, and so checked out a copy of 1992’s The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. The collection, edited by Tom Shippey, seemed to have a number of interesting stories in it, so I put off Disch for a space and read several of them, today stories by H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and Jack Williamson.

“The Land Ironclads” by H. G. Wells

Published in 1903, in this story an unnamed hardy frontier nation of hunters, cowpunchers and “negro-whackers” (Shippey in his intro compares them to the Boers or the Australians) has been invaded by the army of a similarly anonymous urban, sophisticated nation of clerks and factory hands, presumably Europeans.  The skinny city boys easily defeat the rugged country boys by using what we would today call tanks, as well as bicycles.  Wells thinks bicycles are more suited to warfare than horses.

There isn't much by way of character or plot in this one, though the descriptions of the fighting are good.  Wells spends quite a bit of time describing the complex mechanisms of the land ironclads, and those that make their rifles so accurate; there are compensators that take into account the movement of the vehicle, for example, and a device that measures range to target and raises or lowers the gun barrel accordingly.  While Wells condemns war, he celebrates the triumph of science and the brain over spunk and brawn--the city boys in the tanks are described as doing their fighting in a rational, methodical, business-like way, which Wells heartily approves, and they share Wells's contempt for emotionalism, including patriotism.

"Land Ironclads" is more effective as an essay than as a piece of fiction; while competently written, there is no feeling beyond a facile "Gee Whiz!" response to the technological stuff and a smug confidence in the superiority of the educated elite.

“As Easy as ABC” by Rudyard Kipling

In the future (2065) there is what amounts to a world government, the Aerial Board of Control.  With a fleet of highly maneuverable aircraft armed with nonlethal weapons (blinding lights and deafening sound projectors), the ABC's multinational staff is an irresistible force able to maintain order anywhere in the world. 

(The ABC reminded me of the Space Patrol in Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet, which prevents international war by being ready at any moment to nuke aggressors.)

Kipling describes a post-democratic world in which the average person finds a crowd a disgusting source of physical and mental disease and voting to be an absurdity.  People lack any curiosity and are obsessed with privacy; there are no newspapers and everybody plants around their homes dense stands of quick grow trees to block line of sight.

A bunch of democracy activists has amassed in Chicago, however, and are demonstrating.  The local authorities are shocked at the sight of people standing so close that they brush against each other.  These demonstrations have inspired angry counter-demonstrations, and the ABC has to rush air ships to Illinois before the democracy activists are murdered by the anti-democracy crowd.  The members of the democrat crowd (and their families and friends who aren't even there!) are whisked away without any sort of trial to London, where their bizarre antics of taking votes and gathering in crowds will amuse the theater-going public.  Meanwhile the people of Chicago beg the ABC to take direct control of the town.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this story.  Is Kipling so worried about mob violence and so hostile to meddlesome elected politicians that he is advocating rule by an invincible and unaccountable elite that can carry you off without any kind of due process?  Or is he satirizing such fears?  Maybe he is just speculating that, if those of us in democratic countries don't show restraint and exercise responsibility when enjoying such freedoms as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, and when voting for our representatives, that some kind of tyranny or other will arise.

All the clues point to Kipling believing that ABC rule is benevolent, however, that this story is a utopian attack on democracy and popular government.  The crew of the lead airship (an Englishman, an Italian, a Japanese, and a Russian) are depicted in a positive way, and it is suggested that all people in the world are rich because the population is low.  Maybe the ABC airship using force to keep the two Chicago crowds from fighting is analogous to a 19th century British imperial force taking up the white man's burden and maintaining order in some unruly Indian or African village.
            
On the "Gee Whiz!" front Kipling is as good as Wells.  Besides the aircraft and the fast growing trees, Kipling has automatic maps that act like a GPS computer, electric paralysis rays, and advanced medicine (people normally live to be 100.)  

An interesting, challenging story.

“The Metal Man” by Jack Williamson

It is perhaps not fair to compare Jack Williamson to major literary and cultural figures like H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling, but where "The Land Ironclads" and "Easy as ABC" try to make some point about society and human nature, "The Metal Man," published in 1928, is just a conventional piece of entertainment.

A scientist is searching the South American wilderness for radium.  For some reason he doesn't have any local guides or grad students with him.  He finds a ten mile wide crater full of a weird green heavier-than-air gas.  He blunders into the crater, and discovers that the gas in the crater turns organic matter into metal.  He finds lots of dead metal birds and even a metal prehistoric reptile.  He encounters a bizarre life form, intelligent crystals that have the power to defy gravity.  The crystals help him get out of the crater, but he is doomed to turn to metal.  He writes a letter to his best friend, and pays a guy to deliver his dead metal body to his friend with the letter.  When the friend accepts delivery he puts the metallic corpse in the museum of the college where the scientist taught.  The End.

A barely acceptable trifle.

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These three stories were more interesting than fun.  I have read more entertaining work by each of these writers in the past: Wells - Kipling - Williamson.  Still, the Wells and Kipling perhaps provide some kind of insight into the thinking of two important British writers. 

This weekend I will read some more tales from The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

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