Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Death by Metaphysics

Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1946) opens with the classic debate between a materialist, also named Frank, and his author and journalist friend Halpin Chalmers.  Chalmers is the visionary dreamer, impatient with modernism and dogmatic science.  He is more comfortable with a subjective and intuitive approach to understanding the nature of reality.   

The discussion closely resembles that between Randolph Carter and his “orthodox sun-dweller” friend Joel Manton in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Unnamable (1925).  The stories seem to be mirror images of each other.  It is interesting that in both the author—as first person narrator—argues from the opposite side of the debate that is more characteristic of his views. 

Thus Lovecraft, through his fictional representative Randolph Carter, argues in favor of supernatural explanations for what he and his friend Joel Manton are about to experience.  Long, as ‘Frank’ in The Hounds of Tindalos, urges his friend Chalmers to be cautious and trust in science rather than succumb to the hazards of occultism and subjective experience.  Ironically, Manton the materialist suffers the most harm from the supernatural horror in The Unnamable, while Chalmers the mystic has his head handed to him—literally—in The Hounds of Tindalos.

Long was a friend of H.P. Lovecraft’s.  They met as members of the United Amateur Press Association around 1920.  S.T. Joshi notes that the two were different in temperament and in world view.  Long, ten years younger, went through ‘phases’ where his intellectual passions included avant-garde literature, mediaeval Catholicism, and Bolshevism, among other subjects.  This served as a basis for good natured debate between the two.  Reading the repartee between Frank and Chalmers, one can imagine a similar spirited discussion between Long and Lovecraft.

The Hounds of Tindalos is told in five sections.  The first two contain the aforementioned philosophical debate as well as a description of Chalmers’ experiment and its aftermath.  The author takes a powerful drug called ‘Liao’ to expand his consciousness.  It allows him not only to travel back in time, but perceive the underlying nature of reality.  Chalmers persuades Frank to take notes on what he experiences while under the influence. 

In a hallucinatory passage Chalmers experiences all of human history and the evolution of life on primordial Earth.  Long borrows and modifies ideas from Chinese Taoism to describe a dark and threatening view of what lies beyond normal awareness in the fourth dimension, where the evil ‘Doels’ and ‘Hounds of Tindalos’ lie in wait.  A confusing section seems to suggest a role for these evil entities in the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall.  However, Chalmers states “They are beyond good and evil as we know it.  They are that which in the beginning fell away from cleanliness.”

After his experience, Chalmers begins to deteriorate.  Hysterically afraid, he has his friend help him plaster the corners of his room so that all the sharp angles are replaced by smooth curves—“Frank, they must be kept out...They can only reach us through angles.  We must eliminate all angles from this room.”   Frank doubts there is reality to Chalmers’ terrible anxiety.  He ascribes it a drug-induced psychosis.  (Perhaps the breakdown is also caused by too much metaphysics).

The remaining sections of The Hounds of Tindalos are fragments.  The narrator’s voice disappears and the story becomes less coherent—this may have been Long’s intent.  A newspaper reports an unusual tremor and subsequent fires in the city; there is also news of the grizzly death of the occult writer Halpin Chalmers.  In the fourth segment, a biologist describes the chemical contents of a strange blue slime that covered Chalmers’ remains—the slime is alive, yet lacks enzymes typical of familiar life forms. 

Finally, the story ends with a haunting passage from one of Chalmers’ writings, where he speculates—and explains to the reader—how life might thrive in another dimension.  “Some day I shall travel in time and meet it face to face.” The story can be read as a cautionary tale:  writers who eschew science and materialism for a solo journey into the underlying nature of reality risk insanity, sliming, and decapitation.      

Monday, December 30, 2013

How Many Extraterrestrials Are There?

Yesterday’s post discussed the highly advanced Saturnian gas creatures and their battle with interstellar foes in Donald Wandrei’s Something From Above (1930).  Both species wanted to control the supply of Seggglyn, an invisible metal with anti-gravity powers.  In a later story,Wandrei’s Raiders of the Universes, (1932), the evil Xlarbtians threaten to unleash the power of their ‘Dark Planet’—an enormous spherical warship—to destroy Earth unless they receive all the radium on the planet. 

Both stories exemplify the cosmicist view of earth as a puny, inconsequential world at the mercy of vast extraterrestrial empires.  Space aliens seem especially interested in natural resources and real estate.  They are always running out of these items.

Just how many space aliens are out there?  Should we be concerned?  Fortunately, there is a mathematic formula to calculate their probable numbers.  It is called the Drake Equation, after Frank Drake, who presented it at the very first SETI* meeting, back in 1961.  For future reference, here is a modified and simplified version of the equation:

N = R x P x E x L x I x C x T

N stands for the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy that may have developed communication via radio waves, (as opposed to telepathy, which is more typical in pulp science fiction).  R is the average rate at which stars form in our galaxy.  P is the number of those stars that have planets orbiting them.  (As of this writing, 1056 “exoplanets” have been discovered so far, circling 802 stars, and of these planetary systems, 175 have multiple planets.)

The number of planets that are likely to support life is represented by E.  These would lie in the habitable orbital zone of a star—defined as at a sufficient distance from the star to allow liquid water to exist on the planet.  To date, some scientists have identified at least nine exoplanets that meet this criterion, and possibly 30 planetary moons.

L is the number of planets that could actually evolve a form of life.  I is the proportion of these planets that could develop intelligent life.  The number of inhabited planets capable of inventing technology that can be detected from space is represented by C.  Finally, and perhaps most critically, T stands for the amount of time that an extraterrestrial civilization has been producing detectable radio signals.

The Drake Equation yields a ‘guestimate’ of the number of different alien civilizations in our galaxy.  It was intended to spur discussion and support for the SETI project, not provide a hard figure.  Obviously many of the variables themselves are completely unknown and involve considerable speculation.  In 1961, scientists estimated were that the Milky Way contained between 1000 to 100,000,000 extraterrestrial civilizations.  This was thought to be a conservative estimate.

The recent identification of over a thousand exo-planets circling other stars and the tantalizing findings of the Mars rover missions lends some credence to SETI’s grand project.  While we wait for that telltale radio signal from beyond, it may fall to us to discover life that we can bring with us to other planets, in particular, Mars. 

Robert Zubrin, among others, (see his excellent book The Case for Mars) advocates terra-forming the planet, first by creating a green house effect in the atmosphere, and then by introducing hardy microorganisms from Earth.  This would facilitate human colonization over a period of a few decades. Given that the gas creatures of Saturn and the evil Xlarbtians already have a head start on us, we should hurry to get this done.


*Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), see SETI Institute

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Aliēnus ex machina

In horror and science fiction it is not uncommon for an author to begin a story with a mysterious or puzzling phenomenon.  Often this can be an incomprehensible, shocking event—a gruesome death, a murder, or some disturbing violation of natural law.  The writer then allows the reader to piece together from strategically placed details a more complete understanding of the cause and its likely consequence for the characters. 

If the story takes place on earth, and without supernatural forces involved, it can be rendered plausible through the author’s skill with logic and realism.  Well written detective stories and ‘who-done-its’ by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Agathie Christie exemplify this  talent.  The challenge for authors of weird or speculative fiction is to maintain some degree of believability despite outrageous explanations for the strange events in their stories.

Question:  What would account for the foul smelling red snow that falls on Lars Loberg’s farm near Norton, Minnesota in Donald Wandrei’s Something From Above (1930)?

Answer:  It is the residue of an invading alien spaceship that has been vaporized overhead by a Saturnian ‘red annihilation ray’.

Question:  What happened to the farmer’s wife Helga when she walked out front to greet the mail man the following afternoon?

Answer:  Both were accidentally snatched up by the green tractor beam of a Saturnian warship, flash frozen at a high altitude, and then allowed to drop back to earth.  Lars, insane with grief and fear, burns her remains on a funeral pyre, accidentally setting fire to his house!

Question:  What did captured airplane pilot Larry Greene learn from Relelpa, a super intelligent Saturnian gas creature and commander of the Saturnian expedition to Earth?

Answer:  Saturn is at war over Earth’s skies with invaders from outside the solar system.  The invaders want to seize all of the precious ‘Seggglyn’.  This will allow them to escape en masse from their dying planet and save their civilization.  (This information is relayed through telepathy, a frequently used device in pulp science fiction to circumvent language barriers.)

Question:  What is Seggglyn?

Answer:  A strong, durable, invisible metal with amazing anti-gravity powers—both the Saturnians and the invaders from beyond the solar system build their spaceships out of the material.  (For Rocky and Bullwinkle fans, this is an early version of ‘Upsadasium’.)

Question:  How do you pronounce ‘Seggglyn’?

Answer:  I have no idea.

Something From Above is an interesting attempt to use some degree of realistic description to help readers suspend disbelief in what amounts to a preposterous, bizarre report of extraterrestrial contact.  The story is most effective when it focuses on describing the strange phenomena, but falters in its explanation of them due to logic that is pretty half-baked.  Why would a technologically advanced race need to capture a single pilot flying over Minnesota in order to notify the world of their possible defeat in an interstellar war?  Perhaps it was so that readers would understand the origin of the red snow on Lars Loberg’s farm.   

The Wandrei stories I have read so far, (see Wandrei, One of Lovecraft’s Associates  and An ‘Astounding Story’ by Wandrei) seem oddly depopulated, with only a handful of characters who rarely speak to each other.  He tends to rely heavily on deus ex machina, or perhaps aliēnus ex machina as ways to explain aspects of the plot.  In Wandrei’s Something From Above, the text is dense with adjectives, adverbs and lengthy, grammatically complex sentences, imitating the verbosity of H.P. Lovecraft.  This is especially the case when he presents the pilot’s handwritten account of his experiences in part 5 of the story, “A Riddle of the Stars”.    

Wandrei is also a master at creating unpronounceable alien names by violating the rules governing English consonant use.  For example, in Raiders of the Universes, (1932), Phobar the astronomer faces off with “Garboreggg, ruler of Xlarbti, the Lord of the Universes.”  The names have the effect of typographical errors and reduce the readability of the text.   

This said, some strengths of Donald Wandrei’s stories appear to be his vivid, visual descriptions and wildly imaginative ideas.  He was an important member of Lovecraft’s circle of writers in the 1920s and 1930s and later went on to co-found Arkham House with August Derleth in 1939.  It was through his efforts that H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time was published in Astounding Stories in 1936.    

Saturday, December 28, 2013

2. But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting

The last post provided an overview of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most important stories, The Mound.  The work was a collaboration with Zealia Bishop, who provided the germ of the idea.  However, scholarship has determined that Lovecraft, through his extensive revision and rewriting, really made the story his own.  The Mound is one of Lovecraft’s most significant creations because it is a consolidation and culmination of many themes in his work—there are numerous connections with much of what Lovecraft wrote earlier and later on in his career.

Briefly, The Mound tells the story of an American Indian ethnographer who goes to a remote area of Oklahoma to investigate an ancient artificial hill that superficially resembles an Indian mound.  There have been strange reports and legends from both the nearby townsfolk and the local Native Americans.  The researcher discovers a four hundred year old parchment buried at the top of the mound. 

The manuscript is in Spanish, written by one Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez, a member of Coronado’s expedition to the southwest in the 1540s.  Zamacona tells a harrowing tale of his adventures in a subterranean realm he calls K’n-yan.  Later on the investigator has his own terrifying encounter that confirms the Spaniard’s strange tale.  But there is much, much more to this story.

The modern day investigator dutifully interviews the locals and pores over scattered reports of disappearances and insanity covering a period from 1892 to 1928.  But it is Zamacona’s exhaustive and detailed manuscript, preserved a strangely marked metal tube, which forms the core of the story.  Much of Zamocona’s record amounts to what we might call a speculative anthropology.   S.T. Joshi notes that The Mound is an example of Lovecraft’s use of an alien society as a metaphor and a criticism of his own.

To Zamacona, K’n-yan and its capitol city of Tsath appear to be a utopia. The citizens rarely die, there is no poverty or illness, and an elaborate system of eugenics ensures the vitality of the ruling class while supplying industry with biogenetically engineered slaves.  The government “was a kind of communistic or semi-anarchical state; habit rather than law determining the daily order of things.”

Relationships among men, women and children are egalitarian, loose and flexible inside of “affection-groups”.  The Mound contains several pages of descriptive material that outlines the features of this society and its place in pre-history.  K’n-yan appears to be extremely stable and advanced relative to the human societies on Earth’s surface, but is also decadent.  

And this is the source of the horror in the story.  Zamacona notes that the population has declined and no longer fills the vast underground cities.  The energy, creativity and religious sentiment of the Tsathians is subordinated to the quest for entertainment and sensual pleasures, to aesthetic experiences and re-enactments of their grand history.   Ever the materialist, Lovecraft accounts for the ghostly appearances on the mound in terms of the Tsathian’s highly developed mental talents, which include telepathy and the ability to dematerialize and re-materialize at will—an ability that requires focused training.  Nothing spiritual here. 

Yet for those of us who are comfortable with some supernatural explanations of phenomena, there is an interesting comment later in the story. The author describes how the Tsathian’s entertain themselves by re-enacting ancient battles on the surface in their semi-dematerialized forms.  He comments:  “Some philosophers thought that in such cases they actually coalesced with immaterial forces left behind by these warlike ancestors themselves.”  What could these ‘immaterial forces’ be but a survival of something outside the physical body?

More disturbingly, the Tsathians turn to their amphitheaters for gruesome entertainment, just as the Romans did—“where curious sports and sensations were provided for the weary people of K’n-yan.”  The ‘sports and sensations’ involve the psychokinetic surgical mutilation of members of the underclass.  As is demonstrated later in the story, such mutilations are also an aspect of the remarkably cruel and brutal system of justice.

At the end of the story, the narrator discovers the shocking fate of Zamacona after the explorer had attempted an escape from K’n-yan.  Without going into much detail, Zamacona’s terrible punishment involves placement of his identity inside the body of another—a device that occurs in several Lovecraft stories and interesting because of its recurrence.  The Shadow Out of Time (1936) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941) are probably the best known stories where this device is used.  Typically, the identity of one character—who is ‘good’ or of superior character—is trapped inside that of another, who is either alien or degenerate.  What is this about?  Here are some other examples:

A highly intelligent being from outer space is trapped inside the body of a mental patient in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919).  Edward Derby is repeatedly transferred into the body of his evil wife Asenath in The Thing on the Doorstep (1937)—even after she has been murdered.  In The Challenge from Beyond (1937) George Campbell’s mind is transferred into the body of an extra-terrestrial that resembles a centipede.  Finally, a narrator discovers he has been transferred into the body of an Anglican priest in The Evil Clergyman, (1939) possibly one of the most horrifying ideas Lovecraft could have conceived.

A couple of posts cannot do justice to the depth and ambition of Lovecraft’s The Mound.  The speculative anthropology is thought provoking, while the ending is quite powerful and haunting.  This story is recommended to all who would seek a deeper understanding of what was on Lovecraft’s mind at the height of his career.