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.    

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