Monday, July 6, 2015

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" and "The Miracle of the Lily" by Clare Winger Harris

Via twitter, internet science fiction gadfly Joachim Boaz pointed out to me the recent reprint of Clare Winger Harris's 1947 collection Away From the Here and Now and urged me to sample her work.  Being an inveterate cheapo I googled around and found two stories by Harris that are available as free e-texts, both from issues of Amazing Stories that hit newsstands in the late 1920s, and I read them this recent holiday weekend in those periods when I wasn't watching small town parades and fireworks displays, or making a pilgrimage to a statue of Godzilla.

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" (1927)

Clare Winger Harris had a story in Weird Tales in 1926, but "The Fate of the Poseidonia" is celebrated for being the first story published by a woman under her own name in a "real" science fiction magazine (I guess Weird Tales is considered more of a fantasy or horror magazine.)  Besides getting diversity points, "The Fate of the Poseidonia" has a cool origin story: editor Hugo Gernsback ran a contest for the best story based on the pretty insane cover illustration of Amazing Stories' December 1926 issue, and Harris won third place.  Her story was included in the following June issue, along with the first and second place winners.

December '26 on the left, June '27 on the right; click to get a closer look at these beauties

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" was reprinted not only in Away From the Here and Now in 1947 and 2011, but in The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2000 and Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century in 2006.  My fellow tightwads will be happy to know they can read a scan of the original 1926 magazine version (including the original R. Frank Paul illustration) of the story at the Internet Archive, and a somewhat easier to read version at the Amazing Stories website, which includes a new (CGI?) illustration as well as a charming 1929 hand drawn portrait of Harris that first appeared in Science Wonder Quarterly, another Gernsback publication.

At a lecture about Mars our first-person narrator, George Gregory, meets a man named Martell, to whom he takes an immediate and irrational dislike.  Martell has an unusual physique, as well as skin of a strange hue and texture (Gregory notices when they shake hands.)  During the slide show (about how Mars is running out of water and so if people live there they are in a hell of a lot of trouble) our narrator notices that Martell's eyes glow in the dark!

Things gets curiouser and curiouser when Martell moves into the apartment next to the narrator's, and then starts dating Margaret Landon, Gregory's girlfriend!  Our hero sneaks into Martell's flat and discovers a device sort of like a two-way holographic TV.  Gregory's experiments with the communications device leave no doubt that Martell is a Martian spy, one of a group of alien agents here on Earth!

I liked the first half of the story; big emotions make for powerful drama, and I had hopes that Gregory's hatred of the alien and jealousy over Landon would lead to some dramatic scenes.  Unfortunately, in the second half of "The Fate of the Poseidonia," Gregory is more of a spectator to the plot than the driver of the action, and his hatred and jealousy have no role in the story.  Harris spends lots of time describing what Gregory views on Martel's communications device.  Gregory is captured by the cops for trespassing and put in a mental hospital.

Of course nobody believes his story of Martian spies until it is too late.  In the funny farm he reads newspapers that describe how mysterious space ships steal water from Earth (sea level drops "by several feet"!) and attack the ocean liner Posiedonia, on which Martell and Landon are passengers.  Martell (I think, though maybe Landon contrived to do it) has the communications device mailed to the narrator at the booby hatch.  Gregory fires it up, and receives a final message from his lost love Landon, now a captive on Mars, where the Martians have taken the Posiedonia as a sort of trophy.  I guess Landon is also a sort of trophy; the Martians let the rest of the Earthlings on the cruise liner perish in the cold of interplanetary space.  So ends the story--Mars has gotten away with grand theft, kidnapping and mass murder, and only one Earthman knows the truth!

As an early SF story, appearing a decade before the first publications of such giants of the Golden Age as Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt, "The Fate of the Poseidonia" deserves some examination. One thing that Harris does that is interesting, and fits very much into the SF mold, is try to depict a future, hi-tech, high science society in which people have private aircraft, ocean liners travel 100 mph, and our calendar has been replaced by an allegedly more rational system with 13 months of 28 days each.

I mentioned above that Harris had a story in Weird Tales before getting this one into Amazing, and I think in many ways "The Fate of the Poseidonia" resembles weird fiction (exemplified by somebody like H. P. Lovecraft) more than a traditional SF story of the adventure variety (say by Edgar Rice Burroughs) or of the sciency/engineering type (by somebody like the aforementioned Heinlein or Asimov.)  The protagonist does not drive the plot and determine its outcome by using bravery, martial prowess or intelligence to defeat the enemy and/or solve a problem; instead, like in so many Lovecraftian stories, our hero learns something horrible is going on, is powerless to stop it, and ends up in an asylum.  At one point Gregory actually uses the phrase "weird tale;" perhaps Harris winking at the audience?

Making Margaret Langdon a viewpoint character in addition to, or instead of, Gregory would have improved the story, as we could have witnessed the Martian attack and the trip to Mars firsthand, and Harris could have written about Langdon's evolving feelings about Gregory and Martell.  Maybe Harris and/or Gernsback doubted the readers of Amazing would like a female lead or care about the kind of relationship drama I would be interested in.  

"The Fate of the Poseidonia" isn't a particularly poor story, if you can accept the fact that the hero doesn't do much besides listen to lectures, read newspapers, and watch TV.  Unfortunately, it has some problems that should have been fixed (or were perhaps introduced) during the editing phase by Gernsback or one of his employees.  For example, it is unclear when the story takes place.  At one point we are told it is 1945, but at another that it is "the winter of 1894-1895."  Presumably the latter is just a typo for "1944-1945," but a character later states that there has been no war for "many generations."  How many generations passed from 1918 to 1945?  Could "many" be a typo for "a" or "two?"  (There is also a sentence in which the word "insignificant" appears, when I think "significant" is probably what Harris intended.)

Another problem that stuck out for me was how Harris includes in the text a transcription of a radio message from the doomed Poseidonia, but makes no effort to make the message sound like it came from a professional sailor calling for aid--it is wordy and emotional (like the last page of a Lovecraftian narrative) instead of concisely informative, and the sailor reports speed in "miles per hour" instead of "knots."
An interesting document in the history of SF, but as a story "The Fate of the Poseidonia" is merely acceptable.

"The Miracle of the Lily" (1928)

This one appeared in Amazing Stories' April 1928 edition.  Besides Away From the Here and Now it has been published in anthology books and magazines like 1968's Science Fiction Classics and 1980's Bug-Eyed Monsters, as well as female-centric 21st century books like Womanthology and The Dreaming Sex: Early Tales of Scientific Imagination by Women.  I read a free e-text; you can check out a scan of the original magazine, which includes a full-page illustration that spoils "The Miracle of the Lily"'s twist ending, at the Internet Archive.

(There are also fun ads: "Play the Hawaiian Guitar Just Like the Natives Do...You'll never be lonesome with this beautiful Hawaiian Guitar," page 88.)  

"The Miracle of the Lily" is a sort of history of the future in which a guy, Nathano, in the period 3928-3938, goes through the archives, reading old documents relating Earth history since the 20th century, and then describes to us his role in a revolutionary change.  The story doesn't have much emotional impact or characterization, and there are no human relationships, though it has some good ideas.

A main theme of the story is the idea that, just as the reptiles once ruled the Earth and were then overthrown by the mammals, that mankind's rule of the world will come to be threatened by the insects!  In the 30th century insects and the human race battle to the death!  Humankind triumphs by burning all of the world's vegetation and abandoning agriculture for good (food is produced by factories, while oxygen-producing machinery maintains a breathable atmosphere.)  With no plants to eat, the insects follow the plants into extinction.  

Another theme of the story is the boredom of life in the technocratic utopia run on scientific lines for maximum efficiency that reigns after the extermination of the insects.  In what we would now call a post-scarcity economy, with no enemies to fight or goals to achieve, human life lacks excitement or satisfaction, and people stop reproducing, leading to a population decline.  Sensitive people like our narrator Nathano lament that a world whose landmass is covered 100% in concrete lacks beauty.

In the year 3928 new avenues of excitement appear, however.  For one thing, Nathano finds some seeds put into storage by an ancestor and grows a lily.  The flower is so beautiful that romantic types across the world begin planting gardens of their own for pleasure, and are soon followed by foodies who insist that natural food tastes better than factory food.  For another thing, the Earth is in radio communication with people on Venus. The Venerians ask for help in a dreadful war to the death with insects, a war that apparently mirrors the conflict won by humans on Earth a thousand years ago!

Then comes the Twilight-Zone-style twist ending.  In 3938 somebody finally invents interplanetary TV, and it is discovered that the Venerians are giant beetles and ants while the pests they want to exterminate are little humanoids!  And Nathano discovers a beetle in his garden!  The war between mammals and insects is back on, and going interplanetary!

I don't have to tell you that this story's science is crazy and the plot is full of holes (the Earthlings and Venerians learn each other's languages and exchange technical information for years without revealing fundamental physical characteristics like how many limbs their people have?)  I don't let these kinds of things distract me very much from a good drama, but there really isn't much drama in the story.

"The Miracle of the Lily" is a little more sciency than "The Fate of the Poseidonia," with all the ecosystem/evolution stuff, but I think it still has a lot in common with weird fiction: people investigate the past and other planets, and in the final pages of the story discover mind-shattering horrors that are likely ineluctable.  On the good side, I like anti-utopian stories, and how Harris looks at the psychological and sociological effects on people of living on a planet wholly covered by man-made structures.  Harris also includes in the story pocket radios that the characters use as we use cell phones.

Like "The Fate of the Poseidonia," "The Miracle of the Lily" is interesting as a historical document, but mediocre as a piece of entertainment or literature.


These stories are worth reading, but they aren't great.  I'm toying with the idea of reading more stories from the April 1928 issue of Amazing; this will provide context for the Harris stories I just read as well as insight into a world in which a Hawaiian guitar is considered a surefire cure for loneliness.

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